An edited version of this article appeared in my regular column in the Sept/Oct 2021 ed of Greek Business File Magazine – https://www.economia.gr/en/first-hand-accounts-from-the-greek-community-in-libya/
In November 2019, Greece was spurred into its biggest foreign policy shift in a generation. Borne out of the signing of the now-infamous Memorandum of Understanding between Libya and Turkey on delimiting maritime jurisdictions that encroached on Greece’s internationally-recognised maritime boundaries, Greece quickly scrambled to re-discover diplomatic and economic ties that had been allowed to decaypretty much since Greece turned its focus towards Europe in the 80s. Now after two years, it’s hyperactive foreign policy drive casts a wide net that encompasses vaccine diplomacy in countries as far afield as Rwanda, Kenya and Iran to joining the French-led peacekeeping mission in the Sahel. But the epicentre of this renewed push is still very much where it all began in Libya.
But for a handful of Greeks now left in a country that once boasted some three or four thousand back in the 70s, the re-opening of the embassy in Tripoli in April 2021 and the Consulate in Benghazi in July was a seemingly subdued affair. It delivered the intended message of intent but one that could barely mask the mountain that Greece would have to climb to re-discover historically close ties that it had last enjoyed in the heyday of Gadaffi’s regime. There had certainly been a lost decade of opportunity that followed Gadaffi’s fall in 2011 and more significantly, the outbreak of civil war in the summer of 2014.
For Kanakis Mandalios though, President of what is left of the Benghazi Greek community and Director of a Greek construction company, Sikelis International, the opening of the embassy came at a great moment. Originally born in Benghazi, he managed to endure right up to July 2015. Even after losing warehouses and machinery following the revolution in 2011, he remained. “I stayed because I wanted to see how the film ends!” He was able to joke.
Mandalios finally left though in 2015 with no intention of returning but was coaxed back with business opportunities and the chance to rebuild the city of his birth in 2017. “I was pressured to get involved in urban planning again,” he recounted. “I did it more out of the desire to help the city I grew up in and so I got involved again.”
For Antonis Karathanasis, sales and marketing manager for the Cypriot-owned African Bottling Operations, the official bottler for PepsiCo in Libya, his experience from Tripoli represents the new wave of Greek migration now trickling back into Libya. One of between 20 to 50 left in the city, he came a year and a half before civil war broke out in 2014 but was evacuated on the Greek Navy frigate, Salamis, along with 100 other Europeans and 150 other mainly nationalities during the heaviest of fighting in July 2014. He returned though not three months later in October. “I’m used to live this kind of life,” he reflected, “I take preventative measures, I have always with me my passport. I have always with me a small suitcase with two, three bits of clothes if needed and one pair of shoes.”
For both Mandalios and Karathanasis, the re-opening of the embassy in Tripoli and consulate in Benghazi was greeted with ecstatic relief. “It is a tremendous hope,” Mandalios stated almost jubilantly, “The actions taken in recent months has essentially covered decades of gaps.”
Both spoke optimistically of Greece’s chances to gain a foothold in Libya. They both saw an opening for the country to use soft, intelligent power to push for stronger economic and diplomatic ties and in so doing, reverse the MoU on maritime boundaries between Libya and Turkey. Mandalios especially thought the opportunity was ripe and was not so concerned by the advantage held by others at the current moment. “The development funds that came from other countries that have spent tens of millions – that is the Italians and Turkish – with the aim to carry influence, are discovering that they have nothing to show for it.” He noted, “There is a huge lack of infrastructure. It is difficult to build institutions let alone to talk about organised programs and so on. So you are essentially starting from scratch.”
Mandalios went on to speak specifically about opportunities in Eastern Libya and how Greece can make an immediate impact by mediating between the two sides of the conflict. “I believe we are on the right track and helping. With the Turkish supporting western Libya and the wariness that Libya has towards Egypt, I think the situation is very good with a little targeted and methodical work, I think many good things can happen.Greece can try to communicate very eloquently and in a convincing and effective manner, the point of view of Eastern Libya, which may not have a voice and has no communication channels to the West that say Western Libya has.”
With a Greek business delegation scheduled for later in the year, both Karathanasisand Mandalios spoke almost in unison about the need for more connectivity between the two nations outside of political and diplomatic contacts. “The air connection needs to be restored, there should be visas and there needs to be more banking connections,” stated Mandalios. Both spoke of relaying their concerns and thoughts to the Ambassador, Mr Ioannis Stamatekos and even the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on his visitin April at the Embassy opening and it seems such voices have been heeded with the recent announcement late last month that Greece would start to grant visas to Libyans in the near future.
With divisions simmering below the surface that could easily erupt, especially following badly-conceived elections later this year in December, the future is ominous again for Libya. But where some fear the worst, certainly amongst the few Greeks left in Libya, the presence of the Greek missions again in the country and renewed urgency in building relations, any lingering pessimism has been put to one side for now. And certainly after the darkness they have experienced in the last decade, it is hard to see how things could ever get any worse.