On a day intended to showcase Libya's new democratic order with the election of an interim prime minister, the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff shows just how vulnerable that new order is, and challenges a major tenet of U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy during the homestretch of an election.
The Americans were killed – on the anniversary of the 2001 9/11 attacks – when a mob of heavily armed men descended on the U.S. consulate in Libya's second city, Benghazi. It was the very place where Mr. Stevens was based last year as he helped co-ordinate U.S. assistance for the country's struggling rebels then fighting the regime of the late Moammar Gadhafi.
But, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the limp body of the 52-year-old U.S. representative was borne by Libyan civilians through the Benghazi streets to a medical centre. A hospital spokesman said they had no idea who the patient was before doctors pronounced him dead of asphyxiation.
Now, President Obama, who invested so much of his credibility in supporting the uprisings in both Egypt and Libya, must breathe new life into his policy. His siding with moderate Islamists such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood over autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak is seen by some as leaving American interests hostage to radical Islamist groups.
In a terse statement Wednesday, Mr. Obama recalled the killing of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, and vowed a muscular response to these latest American deaths: "Make no mistake, justice will be done," he declared.
The Pentagon is moving two warships to the Libyan coast in the aftermath of the Benghazi deaths, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The ships, which carry Tomahawk missiles, do not have a specific mission. But they give commanders flexibility to respond to any mission ordered by the President.
The brutal Benghazi attack was the culmination of an anti-American protest against a crude, privately produced U.S. film that denigrated the Prophet Mohammed.
It appeared to be no innocent protest, but a carefully planned operation.
The film, The Innocence of Muslims, was produced several months ago, but only this week was a 13-minute trailer of the amateurish production shown – dubbed into Arabic – by an Islamic cable-television station viewed in both Egypt and Libya.
In Cairo, the reaction against the film, which depicts the founder of Islam as a womanizer who relishes murderous attacks against Christians and other non-believers, led thousands to storm the U.S. embassy compound and to tear down an American flag. No one was hurt.
In Benghazi, however, the protest Tuesday night went much further, as men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers confronted the U.S. representatives.
"This was not at all surprising," said Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 operative in Afghanistan, now living in Beirut. "The most extreme end of the Islamist spectrum is serving notice it is a force to be reckoned with," he said.
"That's what they did in Afghanistan 25 years ago and we saw the result – the Taliban," Mr. Crooke said.
"This is the direction in which the whole region is heading," he added, noting that sectarian violence has peaked again in Iraq as well as in Syria. "Unfortunately, moderate Sunni governments seem unwilling to confront [these extremists]."
Security will be a primary focus of Libya's interim prime minister elected Wednesday night. Mustafa Abushagur, the current deputy prime minister, narrowly edged out the wartime rebel premier, Mahmoud Jibril, in a ballot cast by the 200 elected members of the national assembly.
If history is any guide, Libya and countries throughout the Arab world are in for a period of great instability that will challenge the new democratic order in the region.
The 1950s, too, enjoyed a period of popular participation and democratic fervour as several Arab states rose up and overthrew monarchs and dictators. But the glorious fifties gave way to the autocratic 1960s and '70s, notes American political scientist Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East.
That was when the new democratic order was replaced by even more menacing despots – men such as Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Gamal Abdel Nasser. While, in a Nasser prison in the 1960s, a new form of radical Islam was conceived in the influential writings of Sayyid Qutb. Islam's day would come, he vowed.
In just the past two months in Libya, attacks by religious extremists on former officials and on Sufi Muslim shrines reached a new high, and the U.S. State Department issued a cautionary report late last month.
"Political violence, including car bombings in Tripoli and assassinations of military officers and alleged former regime officials in Benghazi, has increased," the report said. "Inter-militia conflict can erupt at any time or any place in the country."
Just who exactly was behind the Benghazi attack has yet to be determined, though a popular suspect is a Salafi jihadist group known as Ansar al Sharia. Others point to possible Egyptian groups since the protest on the U.S. embassy in Cairo preceded the Libyan assault.
"I don't see the Muslim Brotherhood behind all this," said Mr. Crooke, referring to the body that now controls Egypt's parliament and the presidency. "But I don't see them trying to stop it either."
Indeed, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had yet to condemn the attack on the U.S. embassy by the end of the day Wednesday, and his Muslim Brotherhood movement has called for a public rally against the now-infamous U.S. film this Friday.
Elsewhere in the region, Iranian authorities have called for public protests against the film to be held Thursday, while protesters Wednesday in Casablanca and in Tunis were met by strict police force that kept violence to a minimum.
But it is Libya that suddenly is in danger of collapsing into chaos.
A recent report by the Small Arms Survey based in Geneva indicated that weapons in Libya are widespread, especially among several Islamist groups.