Libyan History


Libya (lĬb´ēə), republic (2015 est. pop. 6,235,000), 679,358 sq mi (1,759,540 sq km), N Africa. It borders on Algeria in the west, on Tunisia in the northwest, on the Mediterranean Sea in the north, on Egypt in the east, on Sudan in the southeast, and on Chad and Niger in the south. Tripoli is the capital of Libya and its largest city. Other cities include Ajdabiyah, Al Bayda, Al Marj, Benghazi, Darnah, Misratah, and Tobruk.

Land and People

Libya falls into three main geographical regions—Tripolitania in the west, Fazzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east. Tripolitania in turn can be divided into three zones. In the north is a low-lying coastal plain called the Jifarah, which, although mainly arid, has several irrigated areas. It also includes the city of Tripoli. South of the Jifarah is a mountainous zone (highest altitude: c.2,500 ft/760 m) known as the Jabal; it is mostly arid and barren but has scattered areas of cultivation. South of the Jabal is an upland plateau, largely desert, but crossed by a string of oases in the south. South of Tripolitania is the Fazzan region, which is largely made up of sandy desert but has a number of scattered oases.

Cyrenaica is Libya's largest region. In the N along the Mediterranean is a narrow upland plateau (highest altitude: c.2,000 ft/610 m) called the Jabal al Akhdar, which includes the cities of Benghazi and Darnah. In the west the Jabal al Akhdar drops abruptly to the shore of the Gulf of Sidra, which deeply indents Libya's Mediterranean coastline, and in the east it falls gradually toward the Egyptian border, where there is another upland region. South of the Jabal al Akhdar is a vast region of sandy desert, which in the east includes part of the Libyan Desert. Cyrenaica is fringed in the southwest by the Tibesti Massif (located mostly in Chad), which includes Libya's loftiest point, Bikku Bitti, or Bette Peak (c.7,500 ft/2,290 m).

Berbers once constituted the chief ethnic group in Libya but have been largely assimilated into Arab culture, with those of Arab-Berber descent making up over 95% of the population. There are scattered traditional Berber communities, and in Fazzan many persons are of mixed Berber and black African descent. Tribal influences remain relatively strong among Libyan natives. There are also smaller groups of Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, South Asians, and others. Labor shortages in the agriculture and petroleum industries have attracted many foreign workers, mostly from Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. Some 5% of the people live as pastoral nomads, mostly in Cyrenaica. Arabic is the official language; Italian and English are also widely understood. The Berber language was banned under Qaddafi's rule. The great majority of the population is Sunni Muslim.


Libya was a very poor agricultural country with bleak economic prospects until 1958, when petroleum was discovered 200–300 mi (320–480 km) S and SE of the Gulf of Sidra; crude petroleum was exported on an increasingly significant scale between 1961 and 1981. Oil income increased markedly in 1972–73, when the government nationalized (with compensation) 51% ownership in subsidiaries of foreign petroleum firms operating in the country. The remaining subsidiaries were completely nationalized. At the same time, the price of petroleum rose dramatically, further increasing Libya's receipts. Since then, the economy has been almost inextricably linked to world oil prices.

Much of the income from petroleum was used to improve the cities, to modernize transportation, and to build up the military. The resulting migration of Libyans to urban areas created a growth in unemployment, spurring the government to invest in agricultural development in order to make farming more attractive. Although petroleum production has dropped since the 1970s, oil exports continue to generate about 95% of export earnings and 25% of the country's GDP. Libya is also a major exporter of natural gas and has several large gas liquefication plants. In addition, gypsum, salt, and limestone are produced in significant quantities. Libya has increased industrial production in recent years. The principal manufactures are refined petroleum, liquefied natural gas, petrochemicals, iron and steel, aluminum, textiles, handicrafts, and construction materials. Food processing is also important.

Farming is severely limited by the small amount of fertile soil and the lack of rainfall, and Libya must import about 75% of its food. The chief agricultural products are wheat, barley, olives, dates, citrus fruit, vegetables, peanuts, and soybeans. Large numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats are raised. Most of the arable land is located in Tripolitania. To increase the amount of cultivatable land, a massive water development project, called "The Great Manmade River," was begun in 1984. It is designed to carry water from underground aquifers in the Sahara through a 2,400 mi (3,862 km) pipeline system to irrigate 313 sq mi (811 sq km) in the coastal region. By 1997, the system was connected to the cities of Tripoli, Surt (Sirte), and Benghazi and also provided thousands of acres of farmland with irrigation water.

Libya's annual earnings from exports are usually much higher than the cost of its imports, and in the 1990s it had the highest per capita GDP in Africa. Crude petroleum and natural gas are by far the leading exports; the main imports are machinery, transportation equipment, foodstuffs, and manufactured consumer goods. The principal trading partners are Italy, Germany, Turkey, France, and Spain.


Through the Nineteenth Century

Throughout most of its history the territory that constitutes modern Libya has been held by foreign powers. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica had divergent histories for most of the period up to their conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16th cent. Fazzan was captured by the Ottomans only in 1842. The Ottomans gained control of most of N Africa in the 16th cent., dividing it into three regencies—Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli (which also included Cyrenaica). The Janissaries, professional soldiers of slave origins, became a military caste, wielding considerable influence over the Ottoman governor. From the early 1600s the Janissaries chose a leader, called the dey, who at times had as much power as the Ottoman governor sent from Constantinople. Numerous pirates who preyed on the shipping of Christian nations in the Mediterranean were based at Tripoli's ports.

In 1711 Ahmad Karamanli, a Janissary, became dey, killed the Ottoman governor, and prevailed upon the Ottomans to name him governor. The post of governor remained hereditary in the Karamanli family until 1835. In the 18th cent. and during the Napoleonic Wars, the dey took in great revenues from the pirates and also extended the central government's control to much of the interior.

During 1801–5 the United States and Tripoli fought a war precipitated by disagreements over the amount of tribute to be paid to the dey in order to gain immunity from raids by pirates (see Tripolitan War). After 1815, England, France, and the kingdom of the Two Sicilies undertook a successful campaign against the pirates, which undermined the finances of the dey and thus facilitated the reestablishment of direct Ottoman rule in Tripoli in 1835. During the rest of the 19th cent., the Ottomans contributed little toward the political stability or the economic development of Tripoli. Beginning in the 1840s the Sanusi brotherhood gained many adherents, primarily in Cyrenaica but also in S Tripolitania and Fazzan.

Italian Rule, Independence, and the Discovery of Oil

During the Turko-Italian War of 1911–12, Italy conquered N Tripoli, but by the Treaty of Ouchy, which ended the war, Turkey granted Tripoli and N Libya autonomy. The Libyans continued to fight the Italians, but by 1914 Italy had occupied much of the country. However, Italy was forced to undertake a long series of wars of pacification against the Sanusi and their allies.

Under Italo Balbo, who was governor-general during the 1930s, the country's infrastucture was developed as roads, civic buildings, schools, and hospitals were constructed. In 1934, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were formally united to form the colony of Libya; Fazzan was administered as part of Tripolitania. About 40,000 colonists were sent from Italy to the plateau regions of Libya at the end of the 1930s. Libya was made an integral part of Italy in 1939, and the Muslim population was granted a limited form of citizenship.

Libya became one of the main battlegrounds of North Africa after Italy entered World War II in June, 1940 (for military details, see North Africa, campaigns in). After the Allied victory over the Axis in N Africa (1943), Libya was placed under an Anglo-French military government. The Big Four (Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR) failed to reach agreement on the future of Libya as stipulated in the 1947 peace treaty with Italy. The United Nations was given (1949) jurisdiction and decided that Libya should become independent, which it did on Dec. 24, 1951, as the United Kingdom of Libya. It was ruled by King Idris I, head of the Sanusi brotherhood. Libya joined the Arab League, and in 1955 it was admitted into the United Nations.

The 1950s in Libya were characterized by great poverty; minimal economic development was made possible only by the payments and loans received from various Western nations. In 1958, petroleum was discovered in the country, and by the early 1960s Libya was taking in growing revenues from the exploitation of that resource. A 1953 Anglo-Libyan treaty that had allowed Britain to establish military bases in Libya in return for economic subsidies was terminated by Libya in 1964; most British troops were withdrawn in early 1966.

The Qaddafi Regime

In Sept., 1969, a group of army officers led by 27-year-old Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi ousted King Idris in a coup. The 1951 constitution was abrogated, and government was placed in the hands of a 12-member Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) headed by Qaddafi, who became prime minister. In mid-1972, Qaddafi turned the post of prime minister over to Abdul Salam Jallud, but he remained the RCC's president, the country's most important political and military office.

The regime pursued a policy of Arab nationalism and strict adherence to Islamic law; though Qaddafi espoused socialist principles, he was strongly anti-Communist. He was particularly concerned with reducing Western influences; the British were forced (1970) to evacuate their remaining bases in Libya, and the United States was required to abandon Wheelus Field, a U.S. air force base located near Tripoli. Libya's foreign policy was generally reoriented away from N Africa and toward the heart of the Middle East. Close ties were established with Egypt, and in 1971 Libya joined with Egypt and Syria to form a loose alliance called the Federation of Arab Republics. A "cultural revolution" launched in 1973 sought to make life in the country more closely approximate Qaddafi's socialist and Muslim principles.

An implacable foe of Israel, Libya contributed some men and matériel (especially aircraft) to the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli war of Oct., 1973. After the war, Libya was a strong advocate of reducing sales of petroleum to nations that had supported Israel and was also a leading force in increasing the price of crude petroleum. Qaddafi was severely critical of Egypt for negotiating a cease-fire with Israel, and relations between the two countries declined steadily after 1973 when Qaddafi failed to push through a merger with Egypt.

Qaddafi survived numerous coup attempts and abortive uprisings through the 1990s; in 1980 he began ordering the assassination of Libyan dissidents who were living in exile in Europe. In 1981, two Libyan fighter planes attacked U.S. forces on maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra (which Libya claims as national waters) and were shot down. Libya's relations with the United States became even more hostile when it began to support international terrorist organizations. The United States placed a ban on Libyan oil imports in 1982. In 1986, in an apparent attempt to kill Qaddafi, U.S. President Reagan ordered air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack in West Berlin that had killed two American servicemen. Libya's attempts in the mid-1980s to form a union with Algeria and Tunisia, while not successful, resulted (1989) in the Arab Maghreb Union (see Maghreb).

In 1988, a bomb blew up on a Pan Am commercial airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. International warrants were issued for the arrest and extradition to Great Britain of two Libyan suspects in the case, but the government refused to surrender them. Libya was also implicated in the similar 1989 bombing of a French UTA DC-10 over Niger in which 170 people died. In 1989, it was discovered that a West German company was selling Libya equipment for the construction of a chemical weapons plant at Rabta. These actions, as well as the widespread belief in the United States and Europe that Qaddafi's regime was responsible for terrorist activities, led to American and UN sanctions against Libya in 1992. Libya pulled its troops out of the Aozou Strip, a mineral-rich region of N Chad, in 1994 after the World Court rejected its claim to that territory. In 1995 there were clashes between Libyan security forces and members of Islamic groups in E Libya. The United States charged (1996) that Libya was constructing a chemical weapons plant southeast of Tripoli and said Libya would be prevented from putting it into operation.

Beginning in the late 1990s Libya embarked on a series of moves designed to end its estrangement from Western nations. In Apr., 1999, Libya handed over the suspects in the Lockerbie crash to the United Nations; they were to be tried in the Netherlands under Scottish law. The UN sanctions were suspended, but those imposed by the United States remained in place. In Dec., 1999, Qaddafi pledged not to aid or protect terrorists. Libya agreed in 2003 to a $2.7 billion settlement with the families of the victims. and that and a revised settlement for viction of the UTA bombing led the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions imposed more than a decade earlier. In December, after negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, the government renounced the production and use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and agreed to submit to unannounced international inspections. Subsequently (Mar., 2004), Libya acknowledged that it had produced and had stockpiles of chemical weapons, and agreed to their destruction (completed 2014). As a result of these events, the United States lifted most sanctions and resumed diplomatic relations with Libya, although it continued to list Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism until mid-2006. The last of three payments due under the 2003 agreement, however, was not made until late 2008. In Sept., 2008, Italy and Libya signed a memorandum under which Italy agreed to pay $5 billion over 20 years as compensation for its three decades of colonial rule in Libya.

In Feb., 2011, antigovernment protests in Libya quickly became a full-scale uprising, as the government lost control of Benghazi and NE Libya as well as a number of cities in NW Libya. By the end of the month, however, the government had brutally suppressed protesters in the capital, and in early March it recaptured many cities it had lost to the rebellion. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners fled the country. The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants in June for Qaddafi and other government members in connection with the killing of protesters.

As Qaddafi's forces advanced on Benghazi, the UN Security Council approved (March) a no-fly zone over Libya; it was enforced by aircraft from a mix of NATO and Arab nations, which at times also attacked government ground forces. The Benghazi-based rebels, who established a governing council, fought a seesawing contest for central N Libya. Misratah and the Nafusa Mtns. became the most signifcant battlegrounds in the west, and after repulsing government forces there, the rebels made some advances by midyear. The rebels benefited from aid from some Western and other nations, and their National Transitional Council (NTC) was recognized by some nations. In August, increasing rebel successes culminated in the fall of Tripoli; in September, the NTC was recognized by the United Nations as Libya's legitimate government.

Rebel forces captured Surt (Sirte) and Bani Walid, two remaining Qaddafi strongholds, in Oct., 2011; Qaddafi was killed while trying to flee Surt. At the end of the month, Abdurrahim el-Keib was appointed prime minister by the NTC, and a new cabinet was named in November. The situation remained unsettled, however, with occasional fighting erupting between rival militias and tribes, and in Feb., 2012, leaders in E Libya called for the establishment of the autonomous region of Cyrenaica there, a move that was denounced in W Libya.

In July, the 200-members of the national congress were elected, with no group clearly dominating the result. In September, Mustafa Abu Shagur, who had served as a deputy to el-Keib, was chosen as prime minister, but he proved unable to form an acceptable government. Ali Zeidan, a former diplomat and exile, was chosen to replace him in October, and formed a government. Also in September the U.S. ambassador was killed in an attack by Islamic militants on the Benghazi embassy. The attack led to a crackdown on Libyan militias, but they remained a significant force and problem in the country, and in subsequent years were a factor in a number of deadly clashes including a July, 2014, fight for control of the Tripoli airport. In Jan., 2013, the president of the national congress survived an attempted assassination; attacks against other prominent leaders also occurred.

The congress in May passed a law banning senior officials in the Qaddafi regime from the government; its enactment was forced by armed groups that surrounded government offices. In December the congress voted to make Islamic law the basis of Libyan law, and also voted to extend its mandate by a year, adopting a plan that called for a new constitution to be drafted by Aug., 2014, and a parliament to be elected by Dec., 2014. Meanwhile, groups favoring a federal state sought to establish a government in Cyrenaica and seized control (until mid-2014) of the region's oil resources; Berbers also interrupted oil and gas shipments in an attempt to win political recognition. Such political, and significant religious, regional, and tribal, divisions have thwarted the establishment of a unified national government, and stoked violence and insecurity. In Mar., 2014, after an oil tanker eluded the Libyan navy and left from the port of Sidra in Cyrenaica, Zeidan was dismissed.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni became prime minister in April but then announced his resignation following an attack on his family. In May Ahmed Maiteg was elected to succeed al-Thinni under chaotic circumstances, and al-Thinni refused to cede power; ultimately Maiteg's election was ruled invalid. Also in May, forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar began attacks against the government (which Haftar accused of supporting terrorism) and against Islamists. An election for a House of Representatives was held in June, but turnout was low; candidates were required to run as individuals instead of on party slates, and in the resulting body the influence of Islamists was greatly diminished. Prior to the election the cabinet called for the new legislature to be based in Benghazi.

The political situation subsequently deteriorated as Islamist and regional militias and government forces fought for control of Tripoli and Benghazi. In August and September, Islamists from Misrata established control over Tripoli and reestablished the national congress, in which Islamists had been dominant. Other Islamists fought government forces for Benghazi, seizing control for a time. In October the army regained much of the city, but control subsequently seesawed as fighting there continued. The newly elected House meanwhile established itself in Tobruk, and by August Libya had rival legislatures and prime ministers, with al-Thinni again holding that post in Tobruk; his government was generally recognized internationally. In November, the Libyan supreme court, which had remained the Tripoli, declared the election of the House of Representatives unconstitutional; the House denounced the verdict, saying it was influenced by Islamists militias.

Forces aligned with the rival governments subsequently fought for control of the country's oilfields and oil terminals, and in 2015 militants aligned with the Islamic State (IS) became a significant third force, based primarily in Surt (Sirte), which it largely controlled. In early 2015 the Tobruk government overturned the ban on the participation of former Qaddafi officials in the government, and subsequently Khalifa Haftar was appointed to lead its military forces. Some members of the rival parliaments signed a political agreement in Dec., 2015, that called for both bodies to participate in a government of national accord, but the heads of the legislatures did not participate.

Despite divisions in Tripoli and Tobruk over whether to support the new unity government, steps toward its establishment continued. In Mar., 2016, the unity government began setting up offices in Tripoli, and it subsequently appeared to win the acceptance of many in the Tripoli government, but it did not gain support in Tobruk. Tobruk's forces, led by Haftar, gained control of most of Benghazi by mid-2016. Forces aligned with the new government mounted an offensive against IS forces in Surt and recaptured the city in December; IS forces then established camps in the desert. In September, Haftar's forces seized control of three oil ports on central coast; they lost control of them to Benghazi Islamic militias for several days in Mar., 2017.


See W. C. Askew, Europe and Italy's Acquisition of Libya, 1911–1912 (1942); M. Khadduri, Modern Libya (1963); J. L. Wright, Libya (1969); A. Pelt, Libyan Independence and the United Nations: A Case of Planned Decolonization (1970); M. O. Ansell and I. M. al-Arif, The Libyan Revolution (1972); L. Hahn, Historical Dictionary of Libya (1981); L. C. Harris, Libya (1986); J. Davis, Libyan Politics (1988); J. M. Burr, Africa's Thirty Years' War: Chad, Libya, and the Sudan, 1963–1993 (1999); L. Hilsum, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution (2012); D. Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (rev. ed. 2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Libyan History: Selected full-text books and articles

Libya's Post-Qaddafi Transition: The Nation-Building Challenge By Christopher S. Chivvis; Keith Crane; Peter Mandaville; Jeffrey Martini Rand, 2012
Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife By Ronald Bruce St John University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002
Global Security Watch -- The Maghreb: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia By Yahia H. Zoubir; Louisa Dris-Aït-Hamadouche Praeger, 2013
The Lessons of Libya By Etzioni, Amitai Military Review, Vol. 92, No. 1, January-February 2012
The Rule-Breaking Conduct of Qaddafi's Libya * By Geldenhuys, Deon Strategic Review for Southern Africa, Vol. 25, No. 2, November 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Libya's Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction By Mansour O. El-Kikhia University Press of Florida, 1997
Culture and Customs of Libya By Toyin Falola; Jason Morgan; Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi Greenwood, 2012
Transatlantic Tensions: The United States, Europe, and Problem Countries By Richard N. Haass Brookings Institution, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "The United States and Libya"
North Africa in Transition: State, Society, and Economic Transformation in the 1990s By Yahia H. Zoubir University Press of Florida, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Political and Economic Developments in Libya in the 1990s"
Africa's Thirty Years War: Libya, Chad, and the Sudan, 1963-1993 By J. Millard Burr; Robert O. Collins Westview Press, 1999
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