Libya’s anti-Israel protests fueled by rage at unelected leaders clinging to power

The angry reaction of some on the Libyan street to news of last week’s meeting between Israel and Libya’s foreign ministers has more to do with anger at the country’s political leaders than it does with hatred for Israel.

“It’s a response to the frustration of Libyans being kept in the dark, to this kind of shadow politics, secret meetings.” said Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Sadeq Institute in Tripoli. “It’s: ‘Will you back another government that is not elected and would block elections in exchange for Libya recognizing Israel or normalizing ties to Israel?’”

Presidential elections in Libya were initially slated for 2018, and later for 2021, but have since been postponed indefinitely. The country’s rival legislatures in Tobruk and Tripoli have been unable to come to a lasting agreement on elections, and interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh seems determined to stay in power regardless.

The last elections were held in 2014, and results were disputed.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced that he had met with Libya’s foreign minister Najla Mangoush in Italy last week, the first-ever official meeting of the two countries’ top diplomats.

Hours later, Dbeibeh suspended Mangoush, who then fled to Turkey. Violent, albeit limited, protests broke out, with demonstrators attacking government buildings and burning Israeli flags.

“I think this is a much more of a domestic issue; it has very little to do with Israel and Palestinians,” said El Gomati.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush speaks during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart at Turkey’s foreign ministry in Ankara, February 13, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

In July 2022, protesters burned part of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives to show their anger at power cuts and political deadlock.

“There is a consistent behavior when it comes to the way in which they’re being treated by Libya’s political elites,” El Gomati explained. “They’re not popular.”

“This is a government which doesn’t have a whole lot of international legitimacy,” concurred Joshua Krasna, director of the Center for Emerging Energy Politics in the Middle East, “which half the country at least doesn’t like, and the other half doesn’t trust.”

“It is a government that has not really been elected. It’s a government that is not really representative.”

Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, third left, leaves after an International Conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France on May 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

At the same time, El Gomati said, there was a connection to the Abraham Accords that Israel signed with Arab partners.

The idea of normalization “is being used now by Tripoli in the hope that [the Dbeibeh leadership] will be propped up,” explained El Gomati. “And I think that’s the same reason that Saddam Haftar made the offer that he made in November, because it blocks elections in Libya. And Libyans are fed up.”

El Gomati was referring to the son of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who reportedly visited Israel in November 2021 for a secret meeting with Israeli officials in which he offered to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries in return for Israeli support, according to the Haaretz daily.

According to that report, Haftar carried a message from his father requesting Israeli “military and diplomatic assistance” in return for a pledge to establish a normalization process between Libya and Israel akin to the Abraham Accords establishing relations between the Jewish state and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

El Gomati argued that both Dbeibeh and the elder Haftar believe that gaining international support was key to remaining in power. Italy, which hosted last week’s Cohen-Mangoush meeting, is key to support within the EU, and Washington seems to be conditioning its support on progress toward normalization with Israel.

One of Libya’s rival prime ministers, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, attends a celebration for youth in the city of Zawiya, 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Tripoli, Libya, on October 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)

But Libyans want their leaders to focus on providing basic services and arranging democratic elections, said El Gomati.

“Why would anyone in Libya care about the Abraham Accords right now when they haven’t had elections in a decade?” he asked. “They get some running services, but they don’t get all the running services. The middle class is going through massive economic hardship, being decimated because of the Libyan dinar being devalued. It’s hardly in the hearts or minds or the priority list of Libyans.”

The fact that the leadership is pursuing potential ties with Israel “shows a massive dissonance between what the public priority and discourse should be versus what Libya’s politicians are actually doing.”

Krasna said that the dynamic of normalization in fractured states like Libya is markedly different from that in coherent countries in the Gulf.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani, speaks to journalists in Manama on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“In the UAE and Bahrain — and, if it happens, in Saudi Arabia — these are authoritarian countries with a very complete and strong government structure where when the leaders make a decision, it happens. But with Libya, as with Sudan by the way, it’s not like that,” he said.

“So when the public hears that a government that they don’t necessarily think is a popular government, they don’t necessarily think is a representative government, is doing things like that, and is doing them secretly, it looks bad.”

Longstanding ties

Though Libya’s political leadership in both camps has used Mangoush as the scapegoat, they have been talking to Israel for years.

In January of last year, Dbeibeh met in Jordan with Mossad director David Barnea, according to Saudi and Libyan media reports.

In June 2020, a senior Libyan official with the eastern-based Haftar government gave an interview to the Makor Rishon newspaper calling on Israel for support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad chief David Barnea at a pre-Passover toast April 4, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“We never were and never will be enemies, and we hope you will support us. It is only circumstance which has separated us up until this point,” Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Badri told Makor Rishon.

Six months earlier, Haftar’s foreign minister Abd al-Hadi al-Hweij told the Hebrew Maariv daily that Libya could recognize Israel if the Palestinian issue were resolved.

“We are a member state of the Arab League and are committed to its decisions and those of the United Nations,” he said. “We support the rights of the nations, including the rights of the Palestinian people. But we support regional peace, oppose terrorism and fight it in Libya as well.”

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. UN-backed efforts are underway to create a lasting unity government.

Forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) gesture on April 18, 2019, after taking control of the area of al-Aziziyah, located some 40 kilometers south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, following fierce clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar (Mahmud TURKIA / AFP)

According to reports, Israel is among the backers of the Haftar regime, but to a lesser extent than its regional partners Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

The New Arab reported in 2020 that the UAE had sent five Israeli rocket launchers to Haftar’s forces. According to the London-based outlet, the UAE had previously sent Israeli drones, rifles, and night vision equipment to the Libyan National Army.

Israel allegedly also trained Haftar’s forces in urban fighting.

During his time in power, Gaddafi called for the destruction of Israel and funded various Palestinian terror groups, including the Black September Organization, which carried out the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Later in his life he pushed for the formation of a joint Israeli-Palestinian state, which he termed “Isratine” in a 2009 New York Times op-ed.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, greets Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, December 10 2007. (Francois Mori/AP)

But during the 2011 uprising that led to his downfall, Gaddafi reportedly asked for Israel’s help to stem Western coalition airstrikes on his country.

An envoy from an unidentified third state came to Jerusalem at the time to request diplomatic assistance on behalf of Gaddafi, according to Army Radio. The Libyan leader wanted Israel to use its diplomatic ties with the US and France to stop NATO’s military campaign that, acting on a UN Security Council decision, targeted regime forces as they battled against rebels, the report said.

Israeli officials carried out a quick assessment and decided not to act, the report said.

The long history of Libyan officials from across the spectrum seeking Israel’s help makes the fate of Mangoush even more frustrating, argued El Gomati: “All of them are putting this on Mangoush, that it’s a Mangoush-Cohen meeting, when the reality is that it’s part of a web of different meetings and relationships that have been taking place for several years.”

Despite the damage done this week, both sides have an interest in keeping channels open, he argued. But don’t expect normalization in the foreseeable future.

“The relationships are still there and they will continue to be there in the shadows,” said El Gomati. “And that’s not a good thing for the idea of normalization. It’s not normal to be talking in the shadows. It’s normal to be open, to be talking about these things.”

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