Until now, Libya’s struggles had largely faded from the national headlines. Americans were shocked by Wednesday’s news that heavily armed Libyans assaulted the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, setting fire to the buildings and killing four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.”
It also reflects just how uneasy these transitions have been in Arab Spring countries, even after they overthrew their longtime leaders. The Obama administration has long touted the military operation in Libya as a success: Muammar el-Qaddafi is gone, the people were free to hold their first democratic elections, and no Americans were killed. But now, it could be tougher to gloss over the challenges that still persist in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the region.
Libya’s newly-elected rulers are still struggling to control the disparate armed groups that are competing for power almost a year after Qaddafi was killed. In August, ultraconservative Islamists bulldozed a Sufi Muslim mosque, razed shrines with bombs, and set fire to a mosque library.
“The central government does not have full control over Libya’s territory,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “There are rogue areas and rogue militias that haven’t been tamed, so to speak. That’s going to take time, and in a place like Libya it’s probably not going to be resolved anytime soon.”
The U.S. is still involved in an effort to help round up and secure the loose weapons in Libya after the NATO bombing campaign and unrest left Qaddafi’s storage sites unsecured. Once those weapons have infiltrated into villages, people are often reluctant to give them up—and there have been reports of weapons trickling over the borders.
In Egypt, street protests have slowed but the country is still on edge, as seen on Tuesday when Egyptians breached the walls of the American Embassy in Cairo after the release of an anti-Muslim film. New President Mohamed Morsi may have beaten back the powerful Egyptian military’s push this summer to strip him of his powers, but the political transition isn’t done yet. The country will vote in a new parliamentary election sometime between December and March.
Even Tunisia, seen as a success story, is still dealing with violence. Tunisia elected moderate Islamist leaders—but hard-line Islamists have continued attacking sites they consider offensive, including art galleries and bars. They have reportedly grown more confident since the uprising pushed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011, as seen when some 200 Islamists armed with swords and sticks attacked a cultural festival this summer.
Yemen's government is embroiled in military operations in the southern part of the country to remove militants who gained ground during the protests that eventually led to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down in February. Just this week, the country’s defense minister survived a car-bomb attack on his convoy in the capital. There’s also the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, where activists say the death toll has risen to 19,000 people. The opposition remains fragmented and disorganized 17 months after protests began there, and tens of thousands of refugees have spilled across the border to Jordan and Turkey. And in Bahrain, thousands of mostly Shi'ite protesters are still demanding political and social freedoms from the Sunni monarchy, a U.S. strategic ally and host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
With countries like Libya and Egypt likely years away from achieving stability and installing functioning governments, experts like Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies are urging patience. “The United States can only serve its interests if it understands that it may well face a decade of diplomacy and aid efforts in which it must constantly seek to help the nations caught up in these political upheavals deal with these problems, create functioning democracies, improve their governance, and make economic reform,” Cordesman wrote on Wednesday.
Clinton made sure to stress that the Libya attack was carried out by a "small and savage group"—not the people or government of Libya—and promised the friendship between the two countries would not become “another casualty” of this attack. But there’s no way to predict how many violent events will take place in countries across the region before it settles into the democratic stability that the Obama administration had hoped for. For now, though, Libya and Egypt are back in the headlines.