by George Philipas
For a handful of Greeks now left in a country that once boasted some three or four thousand back in the 1970s, 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 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 decade of lost 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 this film ends!” he jokes.
However, Mandalios finally left 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.”
With a suitcase packed
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 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 always carry my passport on me. 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 have 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 continued: “There is a huge lack of infrastructure. It is difficult to build institutions, let alone to talk about organized programs and so on. So you are essentially starting from scratch.”
———————————————————————————————————————————————–The full article of George Philipas is published in the September/October issue of Greek Business File, available here.