The September 11 killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans during an attack by an angry mob on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has concentrated the world's attention on the problems of post-Qaddafi Libya. The riots showcased both the power of radical Islamist militias and the inability of the government in Tripoli to provide security and maintain order across the country. Lawlessness and corruption are pervasive, and fundamental questions about the structure and operation of Libyan political and economic institutions remain unanswered. None of this, however, should obscure the fact that the larger story about the new Libya is surprisingly positive. The worst-case scenarios commonly predicted a year ago have not emerged, and there are actually grounds for guarded optimism about the future.
A year and a half ago, Libya seemed as though it would be the country where the Arab Spring came to an end. After popular uprisings peacefully unseated dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan revolution turned into a protracted, bloody civil war. Even when the rebels, with Western assistance, finally toppled the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi in August 2011, many obstacles lay ahead. Libyans had little sense of national identity and no experience with democracy. The country was led by a transitional government that did not have a monopoly on the use of force. To build a functional state, Libya would have to overcome the legacy of over four decades of dictatorial rule, during which Qaddafi had prevented the development of real national institutions.