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Will Libya’s first female foreign minister be forced out of her job?

June 3, 2021 at 10:20 am

Foreign Minister in Libya’s transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) Najla Mangoush poses for a picture in the capital Tripoli, on March 17, 2021 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]

Could Libya’s first female foreign minister be forced out of her job, or will she survive the barrage of verbal abuse, criticism, incitement and political attacks? Although the attacks have subsided over the past couple of weeks, Najla Al-Mangoush must be preoccupied with the issue, particularly after a group of armed militiamen stormed the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli looking for her. In video footage on social media, someone can be heard asking the whereabouts of Al-Mangoush, who was not in the building at the time.

In fact, she was not the main target of the militiamen; Mohamed Al-Menafi, the chair of the presidency council, was. Council spokeswoman Najwa Wheba, in a tweet on 8 May, played down the incident by saying, “Nobody was harmed in the attack since it is Friday [weekend] and nobody was there.” Al-Menafi’s chief of staff, Mohamed Al-Mabrouk, explained away the incident by saying that a group of “field commanders came to discuss with the president certain issues but he [the president] was not available.”

Even before this incident, though, attacks on the foreign minister were ongoing since her appointment by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in March. These intensified after she repeatedly called on Turkey to withdraw its troops and Syrian mercenaries from Libya. One of her earlier critics was Khaled Al-Mishri, the head of the consultative Higher Council of State, who said it is not “the foreign ministry’s job” to amend or cancel any previously signed deals between Libya and other countries. Al-Mishri is known for his close ties to Ankara and is a member of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.

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The most dangerous incitement against the foreign minister, that could endanger the life of the single mother of two, came from Libya’s former Mufti, Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who lives in Turkey. The radical preacher owns Al-Tansuh TV station and was dismissed as a mufti in November 2014. He sent a televised message calling on “all residents of Tripoli and Al-Bunyan Marsous forces to come out, in force” to reject and stop this kind of “nonsense”. He was referring to Al-Mangoush’s calls for the departure of foreign troops from Libya. Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous is a coalition of militias that was, initially, formed to fight Daesh when it was controlling Sirte in Libya’s central region. Some of the coalition’s commanders were among those who stormed the hotel. After the extremists were defeated, most of the militias aligned themselves with the former Tripoli government, which sought help from Ankara to repel the renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s April 2019 offensive to take control of Tripoli. The offensive ended in defeat a year ago.

While political criticism and questions about Al-Mangoush’s credentials for such a high profile job are legitimate, personal attacks are certainly not. Some of the criticism of her is politically motivated, but many of the slurs stem from the fact that she is a woman holding a major ministerial position in a male-dominated society.

Senior US State Department official Joey Hood and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush give a press conference in Tripoli on 18 May 2021 during a visit by the US envoy to Libya in a show of support for the country's transitional government. [AFP via Getty Images]

Senior US State Department official Joey Hood and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush give a press conference in Tripoli on 18 May 2021 during a visit by the US envoy to Libya in a show of support for the country’s transitional government. [AFP via Getty Images]

Strangely enough, Dbeibeh has so far kept quiet about the attacks on his minister. Furthermore, he appeared to be helping her critics and making her job more difficult by his recent appointment of three new foreign ministry undersecretaries. The three appointees are from outside the foreign service, which is a source of great concern for career diplomats. Worse still, at least one of them, Mohamed Issa, is a top militia commander. One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that, “Issa lacks experience and credentials and appointing him in such a high ranking position is likely to drive Al-Mangoush nuts.”

Another current Libyan ambassador, who does not want his name published, said “Dbeibeh is making her [Al-Mangoush’s] life difficult by such appointment… If she does not resign then her work is likely to be interrupted.”

In a patriarchal society like Libya’s, women in general have a difficult time. Their difficulties are aggravated when they are appointed to higher government positions, simply because they are women.

Some of critics of the former lawyer from Benghazi point out that Al-Mangoush has never worked in the public sector before. She spent some time teaching in the United States after finishing her degree there on a scholarship. Her connection to the US, in particular, has been highlighted, with many critics questioning its nature. Although there is no evidence, some went as far as accusing her of being a US agent. This kind of criticism was exacerbated by comments from the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, who tweeted his support for Foreign Minister Al-Mangoush. Her opponents seized on the tweet as “proof” that she is being helped by the US in return for advancing Washington’s agenda in Libya, whatever that might be. This kind of criticism, even when unsubstantiated, is both damaging and very serious in a country where foreign interventions are a big political issue.

Al-Mangoush’s 7 May visit to Al-Qatrun, the last Libyan village before the borders of Niger and Chad, was also criticised for being a political show. She responded by saying that as a Libyan official, “I cannot speak about the south without ever visiting it to see for myself.” Illegal migration is a fixed agenda item on the foreign ministry’s list of priorities, and the country’s southern borders are where it is happening the most.

So far, Libya’s first female foreign minister appears to be surviving the attacks against her simply by ignoring them. She and the rest of the cabinet are supposed to step down after the election scheduled for December. Whatever happens next, one thing seems certain: women in Libyan politics will always be easy targets for criticism and abuse.

READ: We’ve been here before with foreign troops in Libya 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.