The Libyan government attempted to force the Tripoli branch of retail chain Marks & Spencer to close using a "repugnant antisemitic" smear campaign and “pseudo-populist rhetoric against ‘the forces of Zionism’”, according to documents released by WikiLeaks.
US embassy cables reveal that in the aftermath of the opening of the store – the first Marks & Spencer branch in Africa – Libyan officials subjected the company to "persistent antisemitic rhetoric" and even warned that a businessman linked with the chain could be killed.
In a US embassy report from Tripoli, dated June 18 2008, two months after the store opened, the writer said: “In Libya, major business deals are both political and personal.”
Despite the fact that, according to the cable, by 2008 Marks & Spencer was no longer on the list of companies the Arab League sought to boycott, the report said: “Libyan officials at the highest levels,” were publicly attacking the retailer.
Notes classified by Chris Stevens of the US embassy in Tripoli showed: “The Libyan government's public narrative has taken the form of…alleging that the company is a ‘Zionist entity’ with Jewish origins that supports Israel and ‘the killing of Palestinians’.”
The report warned that the row was doing damage to Libya’s ties with the UK and that: “The ensuing test of wills reportedly has the potential to end in violence.”
The cable also showed that Baghdadi al-Mahmoud, Libyan prime minister since 2006, had “become directly involved in the matter.”
It said the store had already been closed twice by the Libyan authorities, that employees had “received close scrutiny by Libyan security officials” and been taken in for questioning on more than one occasion.
Marks & Spencer was co-founded by a Polish-born Jewish immigrant to Britain, who began his career selling at a Leeds market store in the 1880s.
The company now has more than 300 stores outside Britain, including in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The Libyan store remains open.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Marks & Spencer is a secular organisation embracing all cultures, nationalities, races and religions.
“We do not support or align ourselves to any countries, nations, states, governments, political parties or religious bodies."