Libya is Africa’s fourth largest country, possessing over 1,000 miles of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Located in the North African region known as the Maghreb, Libya shares borders with Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Egypt. Libya’s population is predominantly Arab or of mixed Arab-Berber heritage and concentrated in cities along the northern coast, including the capital, Tripoli. Modern Libya consists of three provinces: Tripolitania, in the northwest; Fezzan, in the southwest; and Cyrenaica, in the east. The vast majority of the country is desert land, including some of the most arid sections of the Sahara. The Libyan government created the Great Manmade River, the world’s largest irrigation project, to transport water from aquifers deep under the Sahara to northern cities and agricultural developments. Libya is one of Africa’s largest oil-producing states, and according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), petroleum contributed more than 95 percent of the nation’s export earnings in 2015.
Libya in World History
Archaeological evidence has indicated human settlement, cultivation of crops, and domestication of animals in Libya as far back as the eighth millennium BCE. The early natives were ancestors of what came to be called the Berber peoples. Over a period of centuries, the region was subject to rule by the Greek, Phoenician, Roman, and Byzantine empires. Ultimately, Libya fell to the Arab conquerors in the middle of the seventh century.
For most of the next thousand years, a series of Islamic dynasties controlled Libya, save for occasional European invasions. In the early sixteenth century, the area that Europeans called the Barbary Coast, including Tripoli, was a base for pirates who operated in the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Turks took over Tripoli in 1551 and held authority over the region until the early twentieth century. By that time, the Ottoman Empire was rapidly declining and European powers were involved in the scramble for African colonies. The Kingdom of Italy declared war on the Ottomans in September 1911 and immediately invaded Libya. A treaty signed one year later awarded the colony to the Italians, but an armed resistance movement continued, led by a Muslim order called the Sanusi. After World War I broke out in 1914, Italy lost much of its colonial territory, but it regained control in the 1920s, when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered a brutal campaign to pacify the opposition. In 1934, the Italians brought Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan together formally to create Italian Libya.
Libya became an active front during the North African campaign of World War II. After a series of battles in the Libyan and Egyptian desert, the Axis powers were driven out in 1943, and Libya was held by British and Free French forces. Italy surrendered its claim to Libya in its 1947 peace treaty with the Allies after World War II. A 1949 resolution of the United Nations General Assembly declared that Libya would be granted independence by the end of 1951. Representatives from the three regions agreed to unite as an independent kingdom, and the leader of the Sanusi, Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi as-Sanusi, accepted the crown.
Libya Under Gaddafi
Independent Libya faced dire poverty. The nation’s economic situation changed abruptly once oil deposits were discovered in the late 1950s. Much of the new wealth flowed to a small elite. In a political climate of growing Arab nationalism, Libya’s emerging middle class criticized the king for granting Great Britain and the United States military bases on Libyan land. On September 1, 1969, a group of dissident military officers staged a coup d’état while the king was out of the country receiving medical treatment. The military officers, led by Muammar Gaddafi, created the Revolutionary Command Council as a governing body and renamed the nation the Libyan Arab Republic. The new government pledged to follow the tenets of socialism, Arab nationalism, and anti-colonialism.
With the revolutionary government in charge, the British and Americans soon closed their military bases in Libya. Colonel Gaddafi and his allies also expelled all Italian settlers from the country. In a 1973 speech, Gaddafi declared that Libya would carry out a “cultural revolution” to build an Islamic, democratic socialist state, meaning that the political system is a democracy, but all means of production are owned by the government. In 1977, Gaddafi renamed the state again as the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or state of the masses. Libya created a system of hundreds of popular committees overseen by a General People’s Congress (GPC). In reality, close friends and relatives of Gaddafi assumed many key posts in government, and the colonel himself controlled the army and security forces. Gaddafi surrendered his official position as head of government, Secretary General of the GPC, in 1979, but retained the title of Leader of the Revolution and de facto dictatorial power.
The Decline of the Gaddafi Regime
Libya was among the leaders of the October 1973 OPEC oil embargo against several nations, including Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, in retaliation for the United States’ and allies’ support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Gaddafi’s government took advantage of the crisis to increase its control over Libya’s oil fields. Gaddafi took an active approach to foreign policy, supporting foreign leaders such as Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin as well as Palestinian militants and other rebel groups. In the 1980s, US president Ronald Reagan and other Western leaders accused Gaddafi of supporting international terrorism. The United States bombed Tripoli and other Libyan targets in 1986 following the terrorist bombing of a Berlin dance hall and cut all economic ties to the country. Gaddafi’s government was also accused of involvement in the December 1988 explosion of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, leading to economic sanctions approved by the United Nations (UN). Ultimately, the UN sanctions were suspended in 1999 after Libya allowed the two Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing to be transferred to the Netherlands for trial.
The Gaddafi government took responsibility for the bombing in 2003. Later that year, Gaddafi announced that Libya would terminate its weapons of mass destruction programs in cooperation with international arms inspectors. In 2006, Libya and the United States resumed diplomatic relations.
Libya was swept into the Arab Spring protests of early 2011, which toppled autocratic regimes in two neighboring countries, Tunisia and Egypt. Just days after Hosni Mubarak vacated the Egyptian presidency on February 11, protests escalated in Benghazi, the second largest Libyan city, and were met violently by Gaddafi’s forces. The demonstrators quickly organized an armed rebellion and took control of Benghazi and much of the surrounding region. The opposition named itself the Transitional National Council (TNC), a body led by former government minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Gaddafi announced his fierce determination to fight. The Libyan Air Force began attacking the regime’s foes in the area around Tripoli, and the army engaged rebel forces while closing in on Benghazi. By early March, with the numbers of casualties and refugees mounting, world powers considered intervening in the conflict. On March 17, in response to a request by the Arab League, the UN Security Council approved the installation of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace. The United Kingdom, France, and the United States began air operations aimed at protecting civilians while cooperating closely with the anti-Gaddafi forces, an interventionist tactic which raised considerable controversy. With this assistance, however, the rebels took control of Tripoli in August. Gaddafi was captured and executed by rebels on October 20, 2011.
In the months following the former leader’s death, Libya’s transitional government at times struggled to stabilize the nation. Leaders in the eastern province, Cyrenaica, demanded regional autonomy. In January 2012, an election law instituted a procedure for creating a new constituent assembly, which would be tasked with drafting a national constitution. That year, Mohamed al-Magariaf was elected head of the Libyan General National Congress (GNC) and head of state. Al-Magariaf had served as ambassador to India before he left Gaddafi’s government in 1980 to became the head of the Libyan National Salvation Front, an opposition group, and remained in exile for thirty-one years.
Attacks on the US Consulate
On September 11, 2012, the United States consulate in Benghazi was attacked by the Islamic fundamentalist militia group Ansar al-Sharia. The attackers invaded the facility and set the building on fire, killing Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. The Libyan government condemned the attack. Ansar al-Sharia was one of many self-organized militias that acted as military and police for Libya. The attacks, however, drew condemnation from Libyan citizens who favored the ambassador and were frustrated by the problems caused by the militias since Gaddafi’s death. Thousands of protestors swarmed into the headquarters of several militia groups, forcing them to scatter. Al-Magarief vowed to disband all illegal militias in the area. However, as of 2017 several militant groups remain within the country, including factions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In the United States, many expressed concern at a lack of security at the embassy and held the State Department responsible for the attacks. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was investigated. The lapse in security was blamed on a slow-moving bureaucratic process and a lack of resources. The two-year investigation, which ended in June 2016, condemned this lack of security enforcement but found no fault or evidence of wrongdoing by Secretary Clinton.
Libya since 2014
Political turmoil between rival regional and tribal factions continues to undermine attempts to form a cohesive national government in Libya. In 2012, Ali Zeidan was elected prime minister of Libya. Two years later, after struggling to unite the conflicting interests in Libya and surviving a kidnapping by militants, Zeidan fled the country on March 14, 2014. He was then voted out of office after he was unable to stop rebels from stealing a tanker of oil. Zeidan had also been facing charges of embezzling public funds. His defense minister, Abdullah al-Thani, then became interim prime minister. In May 2013, Mohamed al-Magariaf resigned as president of the GNC in anticipation of the passing of a law that banned anyone who worked for the Gaddafi government from holding office. (Al-Magariaf had previously served as ambassador to India under Gaddafi.) In 2014, Ahmed Maiteeq was elected by parliament as prime minister, but he resigned a few months later after the Libyan Supreme Court ruled the election was unconstitutional. Abdullah al-Thani kept his position as prime minister but resigned in August 2015.
By 2016, the GNC, led by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell, had become the Government of National Salvation. It had lost much of its governing authority but remained influential in Tripoli and was supported by some militias. In the city of Tobruk, in the eastern part of Libya, a new parliament was chosen, the House of Representatives (HoR), but the GNC challenged its authority. In 2015, the United Nations tried to reconcile the groups and negotiated the creation of a third “unity” government called the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, to be administered by the newly created Presidential Council and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, but the HoR refused to recognize the UN’s authority. In 2017, the UN-backed GNA remains in conflict with the HoR. In addition to internal strife, the country faces continued threats from ISIS.