History of Libya

Published on 27th September 2005

The people of Libya have been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control.  The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines ruled almost all parts of Libya.  Although the Greeks and Romans left impressive ruins at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha, little remained to testify to the presence of these ancient cultures.

The coast of what is now Libya was settled by Greeks and Phoenicians starting from 1000 BC. Since 517 BC most of the Phoenician cities are part of Carthago. The area became part of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century BC. The Vandals conquered Libya in 431, followed by the East Roman Empire in 533 and the Caliphate in 643. The west coast came as Tripolitania in 1510 under Spanish and later Maltese rule, but was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1551.

The Arabs conquered Libya in the seventh century A.D.  In the following centuries, most of the indigenous people adopted Islam and the Arabic language and culture. The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in the mid-16th century.  Libya remained part of their empire--although at times virtually autonomous--until Italy invaded in 1911 and, in the face of years of resistance, made Libya a colony.

In 1934, Italy adopted the name \"Libya\" (used by the Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony, which consisted of the Provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.  King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, led Libyan resistance to Italian occupation between the two World Wars.  From 1943 to 1951, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were under British administration, while the French controlled Fezzan.  In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal of some aspects of foreign control in 1947.  Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.

On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952.  King Idris I represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations.  When Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951, it was the first country to achieve independence through the United Nations and one of the first former European posessions in Africa to gain independence.  Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris.

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled what had been one of the world\'s poorest countries to become extremely wealthy, as measured by per capita GDP. Although oil drastically improved Libya’s finances, popular resentment grew as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. This discontent continued to mount with the rise throughout the Arab world of Nasserism and the idea of Arab unity. 

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 28-year-old army officer Mu’ammar  Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi staged a coup d’etat against King Idris, who was exiled to Egypt. The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic.  Qadhafi emerged as leader of the RCC and eventually as de facto chief of state, a political role he still plays.  The Libyan Government asserts that Qadhafi currently holds no official position, although he is referred to in government statements and the official press as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.”

 The new RCC\'s motto became \"freedom, socialism, and unity.\"  It ed itself to remedy “backwardness,” take an active role in the Palestinian Arab cause, promote Arab unity, and encourage domestic policies based on social justice, non-exploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.

An early objective of the new government was withdrawal of all foreign military installations from Libya.  Following negotiations, British military installations at Tobruk and nearby El Adem were closed in March 1970, and U.S. facilities at Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli were closed in June 1970.  That July, the Libyan Government ordered the expulsion of several thousand Italian residents.  By 1971, libraries and cultural centers operated by foreign governments were ordered closed.

In the 1970’s, Libya claimed leadership of Arab and African revolutionary forces and sought active roles in international organizations.  Late in the 1970s, Libyan embassies were redesignated as \"people\'s bureaus,\" as Qadhafi sought to portray Libyan foreign policy as an expression of the popular will.  The people\'s bureaus, aided by Libyan religious, political, educational, and business institutions overseas, exported Qadhafi\'s revolutionary philosophy abroad. 

Qadhafi’s confrontational foreign policies and use of terrorism, as well as Libya’s growing friendship with the U.S.S.R., led to increased tensions with the West in the 1980’s. Following a terrorist bombing at a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American military personnel, in 1986 the U.S. retaliated militarily against targets in Libya, and imposed broad unilateral economic sanctions. 

After Libya was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, UN sanctions were imposed in 1992. UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) passed in 1992 and 1993 obliged Libya to fulfill requirements related to the Pan Am 103 bombing before sanctions could be lifted. Qadhafi initially refused to comply with these requirements, leading to Libya’s political and economic isolation for most of the 1990s. 

In 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the UNSCR requirements by surrendering two Libyans suspected in connection with the bombing for trial before a Scottish court in the Netherlands. One of these suspects, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was found guilty; the other was acquitted. Al-Megrahi’s conviction was upheld on appeal in 2002. In August 2003, Libya fulfilled the remaining UNSCR requirements, including acceptance of responsibility for the actions of its officials and payment of appropriate compensation to the victims’ families. UN sanctions were lifted on September 12, 2003. U.S. sanctions against Libya remain in place. 

The most significant milestones in Libya\'s history were the introduction of Islam and the Arabization of the country in the Middle Ages, and, within the last two generations, national independence, the discovery of petroleum, and the September 1969 revolution that brought Muammar al Qadhafi to power. The era since 1969 has brought many important changes. The Qadhafi regime has made the first real attempt to unify Libya\'s diverse peoples and to create a distinct Libyan state and identity. It has created new political structures and made a determined effort at diversified economic development financed by oil revenues. The regime has also aspired to leadership in Arab and world affairs. As a consequence of these developments, Libyan society has been subjected to a significant degree of government direction and supervision, much of it at the behest of Qadhafi himself. Although the merits of the regime and its policies were much debated by Libyans and foreigners alike, there was no question that Libya in the 1980s was a significantly different country from the one it had been two or three decades earlier.

Below is an analysis of Libya according to The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal:

Rank: 153

Score: 4.40

Category: Repressed

Population: 5,448,000

Total area: 1,759,540 sq. km

GDP: $24.9billion

GDP growth rate: -0.2 %

GDP per capita: $4,579

Major exports: refined petroleum products, crude oil

Exports of goods and services: $10.7 billion (2001)

Major export trading partners: Italy 42.5%, Germany 13.5%, Turkey 8.0%

Major imports: manufactured goods, food, machinery and transport equipment

Imports of goods and services (fob): $ 3.6 billion (2001)

Major import trading partners: Italy 26.1%, Germany 9.8%, South Korea 6.7%, UK 6.7%

Foreign direct investment (net): n/a






The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal

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