- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2012

To most Libyans, J. Christopher Stevens was one of them.

The U.S. ambassador had stood by them, as they rose up and toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s regime last year. What they cherished most was his unwavering optimism about their future.

Mr. Stevens, 52, died from severe asphyxiation caused by smoke inhalation on Tuesday night after heavily armed men attacked the U.S. Consulate in Libya’s eastern port city of Benghazi.

The attackers, who claimed they were enraged by an American film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, also killed Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information management officer, and two other Americans, who were not identified as their families had yet to be informed of their deaths.

Benghazi residents on Wednesday recalled Mr. Stevens as an affable and accessible diplomat. Many had spotted him stepping out of the confines of the diplomatic mission compound to buy a sandwich and meet ordinary Libyans.

Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur described Mr. Stevens as a dear friend who played a key role in helping the revolution, which first erupted in Benghazi in February 2011.

Envoy to the rebels

The Obama administration sent Mr. Stevens to Benghazi as its envoy to the rebels. In this capacity, Mr. Stevens coordinated the U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Libya.

“He was in Benghazi throughout the revolution and was very instrumental in its support,” said Mr. Abushagur, who was elected prime minister by the Libyan legislature Wednesday.

Libya’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, worked closely for many years with Mr. Stevens.

He recalled Mr. Stevens‘ “calm demeanor and strong determination” as he carried out his duties during the height of the revolution.

After the fall of the Gadhafi regime, Mr. Stevens was appointed U.S. ambassador to Libya. He assumed the post in May.

Libyans were overjoyed with the news of Mr. Stevens‘ appointment, Mr. Aujali said.

Speaking at the opening of the consular section at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on Aug. 26, Mr. Stevens said, “Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding.”

Mr. Stevens shared a warm relationship with the Libyan people.

Dr. Esam Omeish, the U.S.-based director of the Libyan Emergency Task Force that was set up during the revolution, briefed Mr. Stevens before he commenced his diplomatic duties in Tripoli and met him again on a visit to Libya less than two weeks ago.

The two discussed the nature of democracy in Libya, and Mr. Stevens proudly showed his visitor the new consular section he had inaugurated just days earlier.

“I enjoyed his zeal and enthusiasm for what was happening in Libya,” Dr. Omeish said.

Dr. Omeish, chief of general surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital since 2006, added that with Mr. Stevens‘ death he had lost a friend.

“To me his death is shocking on so many levels,” he added.

The Bush administration appointed Mr. Stevens as the deputy chief of mission in Libya in 2007, a position he held until 2009 when he returned to Washington on other assignments.

Passionate about Libya

It was his role as the U.S. envoy to the rebels, from March to November of last year, that Mr. Stevens seemed to relish the most.

He recalled that assignment with passion in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing in March.

“It was a time of great excitement as the Libyan people first experienced freedom,” he said. “But it was also a time of significant trepidation for what might come next.”

He cited the need to consolidate control over militias as one of the many challenges the new government in Tripoli had to deal with.

“It is clearly in the U.S. interest to see Libya become a stable and prosperous democracy. … It would also serve as a powerful example to others in the region who are struggling to achieve their own democratic aspirations,” he added.

He also noted the “tremendous goodwill” for the United States in Libya.

“Libyans recognize the key role the United States played in building international support for their uprising against Gadhafi. I saw this gratitude frequently over the months I served in Benghazi — from our engagements with the revolution’s leadership to our early work with civil society and new media organizations,” he added.

Remorse and sorrow

On Wednesday, Libyan officials and ordinary citizens were united in their condemnation of the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate.

Malik Sahad, a musician and Benghazi resident who lives close to the consulate, said the attack was not a reflection of Libyans’ feelings toward the United States.

Mr. Sahad spent the morning walking around his neighborhood talking with other residents.

“The mood is one of remorse and sorrow,” he said in a phone interview. “People are ashamed and angry. They are no longer talking about the film that provoked these protests, they are talking about the shameful incident that happened last night.”

The film was produced by a Jewish California businessman who has denounced Islam as a “cancer.”

Mr. Sahad received a call from a friend who phoned to offer her condolences.

“She spoke as though someone from my family had died,” he said. “That’s how the people of Benghazi feel about Ambassador Stevens. He was one of us.”

Mr. Stevens served the United States for more than two decades on issues related to North Africa and the Middle East, starting with his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco where he taught English. As a Foreign Service officer, he served in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and eventually Libya.

Mr. Aujali, the Libyan ambassador, said Libyans owe Mr. Stevens gratitude for his years of service in support of Libya. Personally, he added, he will never forget the zeal and passion the American envoy brought to his work.

“He was a dedicated diplomat and a true gentleman,” Mr. Aujali said.