Could Greece become the Libya of Europe?

Recognising its similarities with Libya should be Greece’s first step towards avoiding a similar fate.

Britain, France and Russia teamed up at the sea-battle of Navarino in 1827 to defeat the Ottomans in a 19th century echo of NATO, writes Athanasiadis [Getty]

Despite being a few hundred kilometres north of Libya in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece limited its exposure to the North African country’s four-year slide into civil war to a financially stimulating influx of Libyan patients into hospitals, the reception of a few thousand migrants sent by Libyan smugglers across to Crete, and the bombing of a Greek tanker moored in a Libyan port.

Now, tens of thousands of Syrians have changed their Europe-bound itinerary from the Libya-to-Italy crossing, to accessing crisis-crippled Greece from Turkey.

This has caused nationwide panic and prompted the often sensationalist media to focus on the risk that militants might be hiding among the refugees or that Libya-based jihadis could try to reach Crete – a Greek island that contains a key NATO base, just 320km from eastern Libya’s Islamist militant hub in Derna.

Such fears prompted the European Union – amid heavy criticism – to plan a military campaign.

Intervention and homogenisation

Superficially, Libya and Greece share little in common: one is a strained but still recognisably European society, with developed infrastructure and a well-educated, ageing population.

The other is a hastily cobbled-together Saharan nation with a youthful demographic currently largely absorbed in a civil war involving several militias, among them the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

But a number of social and historical similarities have contributed to their present political cultures.

Religion, clannishness, and language played key roles in homogenising Greece and Libya’s historically non-contiguous populations.

Greek island struggles to cope with migrant crisis

Foreign interventions liberated them from authoritarian regimes but cultivated a “favoured child” status that stunted future development.

Neither country was exactly a nation-state waiting to happen.

Their contemporary and antique editions bear scant relation. By the time Greece solidified into an Orthodox Christian nation-state with Greek as its national language, it had assimilated or forced out diverse communities of Muslim Albanians and Turks, Jews, and Catholic Italians and Romanians.

In its own drive to become a homogeneously Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslim country, Libya has been turning its back on a splendid ethnic and religious tapestry of Jewish, Berber, Tuareg, Tebu, and Maltese populations ever since the first Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

In both cases, religiosity, powerful regionalisms and loyalty to often manufactured traditions created patterns that continue to obstruct participation in Western-style modernity.

Sliding doors

Back in 2011, as Greece tipped into economic crisis after an era of debt-enabled high-living, a force of ragtag rebel groups backed by NATO air-power earned Libya its freedom from a dictatorial regime.

Once the regime in Libya was banished, international expectations soared that this huge, resource-rich country with a population of just six million and untapped markets would become an economically liberalised, Western-style constitutional democracy.

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But what emerged over the next four years echoed ancient and modern Greece: dislocated city-states and fiscally irresponsible authorities wasting the national bounty on a constellation of militias and patronage schemes.

Instead of gaining stability through building institutions, the militias became a law unto themselves, plunging the country into chaos.

The looting of Libya’s extensive arms stores prompted a rebellion in Mali, operations against the Egyptian military in the Sinai, arms transfers to Syria, and terrorist operations in Algeria and Tunisia.

Sensing an opportunity, ISIL established a toehold in the country.

Historical similarities

Britain, France, and Russia teamed up at the sea-battle of Navarino in 1827 to defeat the Ottomans in a 19th century echo of NATO.

The Greek irregulars were the itinerant “kleftes” (brigands), whose ample facial hair, billowing dress, musket-brandishing cave-dwelling is not entirely unlike the 21st century jihadi medievalists of Benghazi, Sirte and Derna.

As part of the construction of the Greek national identity, they were taught at school to revere them as their nation’s founding fathers.

The wave of chaos and the refugee inflows sweeping across an ever more interconnected region threaten to overwhelm Greece.


Now, that same religiously infused liberationist rhetoric (they condemned the Ottomans as the infidel imperial colonials of their age) is finding a contemporary echo in today’s Islamist screeds.

Before Greece’s Western allies imposed a Bavarian-born king on the turbulent new country, there was a period when – like Libya – it was roiled by chaos, porous borders, brigand demands for political representation consistent with their perceived revolutionary sacrifices, and two rival governments based in different parts of the country.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with post-revolutionary Libya will be experiencing a feeling of deja-vu about now.

Following Greek independence, the brigand class intermarried with the wealthy Hellenic diaspora arriving to the new nation-state to form an urban business and political class that shaped today’s clannish political scene.

Politicians still appoint childhood friends to top civil service positions and favour their regions through the budgets they control.

The tribalism is replicated down the chain by ordinary Greeks who, rather than insisting that their own politicians be prosecuted for knowingly cultivating unsustainable debt, prefer to lash out at European politicians who argue that one country’s democratic choice cannot abrogate the consensus of 18 other democracies.

Malaise of identity politics

The two world wars resulted in a never-again moment whereby the EU instrumentalised prosperity to mute identity politics.

Now, with economic growth flagging, cultural tensions are back with a vengeance, whether in the form of a Europe-wide surge towards nationalist parties, the conflict in Ukraine, or simmering Balkan tensions.

Greece’s referendum brought to the fore ruptures not witnessed since the restitution of democracy in 1974.

European Council President Donald Tusk recently confessed he was “really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis”.


“I can feel … something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.”

The wave of chaos and the refugee inflows sweeping across an ever more interconnected region threaten to overwhelm Greece.

Libya’s reality risks bleeding into a more destabilised region, whether through the floods of humanity arriving daily on Greek shores, or the possibility that the civil strife recently unleashed in Turkey by years of Ankara’s meddling in neighbouring Syria might ripple across the Aegean.

Libya is just one piece of the broader puzzle of regional destabilisation, but the formation and collapse of what was once touted as a success story should act as a cautionary tale for its northern neighbour, lest it become the first European failed state.

Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.