The dynamic return of Greece to Libya

Libya's interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (R) and Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) hold a joint press conference in Libya's capital Tripoli on 6 April 2021. [Getty]
5 min read
19 July, 2021
Analysis: Once a close partner in North Africa, Greek-Libyan ties frayed during the civil war. Now, Athens is laying the foundations to become a key player in the country's future.

In a move that may have surprised many familiar with the work of the Arab League, Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit last week announced the signing of a protocol that will make Greece an observer member.

In practice, this will not translate into any significant steps, but in the language of politics it confirms that Athens is more open than ever to developing important relations with countries in the region, extending from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf.

As for the legal aspects, Athens signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Arab League, which was supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the absence of objections from the other member states.

"Athens views Libya as an important part of its foreign policy, with high expectations for future relations"

It seems that Greek-Egyptian relations are the priority of this declaration. From a military point of view, the two countries share many agreements in the light of ongoing joint exercises, while political convergence is evident given their geographical proximity.

In Libya, after the fall of the former regime led by dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Greece suffered a severe economic blow in the country and closed its embassy due to rapid and unpredictable developments during the civil war.

Today, Athens views the country as an important part of its foreign policy, with high expectations for future relations.

Despite being absent during the duration of the conflict, Greek-Libya relations returned to the spotlight after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of the National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Turkey at the end of 2019.

Analysis - Eva
Aguila Saleh Issa speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (right) and Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias (left), during their Athens meeting in July. [Getty]

The accord included an agreement on security and military cooperation that paved the way for Turkish military intervention and mapped out maritime borders between both countries as part of economic relations, which prompted Athens to expel the Libyan ambassador at the time.

However, the memorandum also served as a spark to revitalise Greek-Libyan diplomatic relations.

Over the past six months, the Greek foreign minister has visited various Libyan cities, including Tobruk, home to the Libyan parliament, Benghazi, the seat of General Khalifa Haftar, and Tripoli, the seat of the interim government.

Libyan officials have also visited Athens in response to repeated Greek invitations.

In April, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reopened his country’s embassy in Libya and urged a reset of relations soured by the Turkish MoU, saying, “It’s time to leave behind what has tested our relations in the past”.

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There are two main issues of concern for Greece regarding Libya. Firstly, Athens wants to see the MoU between Turkey and Libya cancelled. Secondly, Greece views Turkey’s presence in Libya as a threat to its interests in the Mediterranean as it serves as a means of pressure on any future Libyan leadership and gives Ankara leverage in future decision-making.

Greece’s positions, however, have received a lukewarm reaction from the Libyan interim government, which has emphasised the country’s interests in terms of its maritime borders, which many interpret as support for the Turkish MoU.

Athens, in turn, viewed this response as a motivation to turn to eastern Libya, where the parliament and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Haftar are based.

Earlier this month, Libyan Parliament President Aguila Saleh Issa arrived in Athens on an official visit that was extended for two days. The official statements of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs reflected the importance that Athens attaches to Saleh and his role in the future of Libya and Greek-Libyan relations.

"Economic cooperation has always been at the forefront of Greek-Libyan relations"

The visit was considered by many Greek politicians as particularly important in that it confirmed Greece's support for eastern Libya in light of the convergence of positions and hostility towards the Turkish presence on Libyan soil. This diplomatic approach was also accompanied by significant economic overtures.

During a visit by a senior official of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Libyan city of Tobruk a few months ago, it was agreed to promote various investment projects between the two sides, including renewable energy projects.

This is a project that had been agreed upon since 2017, however, the complexities of Libya’s security situation led to a delay in its implementation. What is certain is that Athens has recently emphasised its cooperation with eastern Libya and it is clear that this visit achieved its goal.

Economic cooperation has always been at the forefront of Greek-Libyan relations. Prior to the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the trade balance between the two countries stood at around two billion euros at times, making Libya the most important North African partner for Greece.

Libyan soldier with missiles in 2011 GETTY
Greece's relations with Libya deteriorated during the country's civil war, with Athens shuttering its embassy. [Getty]

Even with Egypt, the trade balance is estimated at less than one billion euros. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime and the country's entry into a phase of economic and security instability significantly affected the level of economic relations with Greece, and between 2014 and 2019 there was a dramatic decline in Greek exports. Things improved somewhat in 2020.

Libya is a very attractive place for Greek businessmen. The country's reconstruction pie is a top priority for Greek companies, who have begun to contact the Greek government to intensify bilateral relations to have a slice of the profits. Of course, the issues of immigration and terrorism are also on the table between the two sides, but at a less important level on the public stage.

In short, Athens is returning dynamically to Libya through different political relations between the east and west of the country and economic relations that can be developed.

As for Greek domestic politics, any progress made on the issue of maritime borders between the two countries will add an international negotiating victory for Greece against Turkey and the current government will be able to present it as a major victory to gather new right-wing nationalist electoral votes.

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In the shadow of the Greek economy’s downturn due to Covid-19, any Greek projects in Libya will be a step out of a dark tunnel as Athens repositions itself in an advantageous situation.

This optimism will be firmly linked to Libya's political future. That is why Greece sees a need to increase the level of cooperation with both the Libyan parliament and Haftar to maintain lines of communication, regardless of the dynamics of the local political scene.

Everything will become clearer as the presidential election scheduled for the end of the year approaches. Until then, Athens will continue to boost its credentials as a key player in Libya.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_