Whether he died as a consequence of mob violence or an organised terrorist attack, the death of the United States ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, during a night of anarchy in Benghazi is a reminder that the new Arab world order combines both peril and promise. Those who have been sceptical of the so-called Arab Spring will argue that under the Muammar Gaddafi regime such anarchy would never have been possible. Those who believe the past year of popular revolts that swept the Arab world have been for the better will argue that building a stable and representative government is a long, tortuous but ultimately a rewarding process. And the former Libyan dictator, in any case, sponsored any number of terrorist acts that killed dozens of Americans and fellow Arabs during his reign.
Despite the shocking events that unfolded on Wednesday in Libya, the evidence so far is that the Arab spring is arguably doing better than expected. The first two countries to see their ruling dictatorships overthrown, Tunisia and Egypt, have held elections and produced reasonably stable regimes. The resulting governments are far from perfect, but the underlying system is evolving quite rapidly - the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sidelining of the senior military leadership being a case in point. In both countries, the government is dominated by conservative Islamicists who have, so far, focused on governance rather than Sharia implementation. Where the transition has been bloody or incomplete, notably Libya and Syria, is where the Arab Spring has made way for a long Arab winter. Syria remains in a state of war and Libya in a state of warlordism. If they are centres of Islamic militant activity it is because the more violent a political transition, the more space it will give to extremists.
The US and other western countries had concluded, post-9/11, that authoritarian secular regimes in the Arab world had resulted in organisations like al-Qaeda. This opened the door for democracy - and conservative mainstream Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power. The establishment of democracy, as scholars have shown, is initially often marked by considerable domestic unrest. And that unrest can be expected to provide the odd opportunity for terrorist groups. There are those in India who are nostalgic for the old-time Arab dictator. Their day is gone. The real struggle is planting stable representative regimes in barren West Asian soil. The Libyan debacle will probably be the first of many such tragedies, but should not be allowed to hinder the great Arab political experiment.