Libyan authorities adopted "repugnant anti-Semitic tactics" against the Marks & Spencer store in Tripoli in an attempt to force its closure and drive the British company out of the country, according to cables published by the WikiLeaks website on Tuesday.
The leaked memos, sent from the US Embassy in Tripoli, reveal that the anti-Semitic campaign became so violent that American officials were warned by Libyan government contacts that least one high-ranking businessman, the Marks & Spencer franchiser, may be involved in a "fatal car accident".
A source in the General Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry – which claims to represent all private and foreign businesses in Libya – told an American contact that M&S was "well-known among Libyans and other Arab and Muslim peoples for its strong support of Israeli occupation of Palestine and the huge funds it provides for killing of Palestinians and constructing of illegal settlements in occupied Palestine.
"The very mentioning of Marks and Spencer is considered by Libyans as an insult to their national feelings and an attack on their national feelings," the source clarified.
The US Embassy in Tripoli warned Washington in 2008 that attacks on the British retailer by Libyan officials "at the highest levels" risked causing irretrievable damage to bilateral ties with the United Kingdom.
British newspaper The Guardian quoted the memos, which described the "ongoing drama surrounding efforts by the UK government and investors to keep open the Marks & Spencer retail store in Tripoli, and a campaign by some Libyan government officials to close it."
Shortly after the store was launched, it was subjected to what the cable described as "persistent anti-Semitic rhetoric" by the Libyan government. There were accusations that M&S was a "Zionist entity" with Jewish origins and that it supported Israel and "the killing of Palestinians".
According to the memos, the store was temporarily closed by Libyan authorities at least twice, and employees were repeatedly taken in for official questioning and put under "close scrutiny" by security officials who, the ambassador warned, were used as a "strongarm adjunct in this political play".
The anti-Semitic campaign was "largely due to a personal grievance" between the Libyan prime minister and a prominent businessman, who was in "genuine threat" of personal harm.
The report cited a well-placed embassy commercial contact who had received a death threat directed at the businessman from state security officials.
One of the cables stated that the Libyan authorities told the embassy's commercial contact "that 'in the old days we would just arrest (the businessman)', they offered that they would instead 'clip him down to nothing' by dismantling his business empire piecemeal and undertaking a campaign to diminish his business influence. They then noted darkly that if those methods proved insufficient, they would see to it that (the businessman) was involved in a fatal car accident."
The memo warned that "the fate of the store and the businessman are closely intertwined, and the ensuing test of wills reportedly has the potential to end in violence. The UK embassy, which is closely involved, has flatly told us they view the ultimate outcome of the case as an important bellwether of the investment climate in Libya and will advise potential UK investors accordingly."
It should be noted that since international sanctions imposed on Libya have been lifted, the country has been drawing many foreign investments and has presented impressive growth figures.
The store in question was the first opened by the British chain in Africa in April 2008. Britain's efforts seem to have been successful, as the store is still active today.
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