History of Libya

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UNTIL LIBYA ACHIEVED independence in 1951, its history was essentially that of tribes, regions, and cities, and of the empires of which it was a part. Derived from the name by which a single Berber tribe was known to the ancient Egyptians, the name Libya was subsequently applied by the Greeks to most of North Africa and the term Libyan to all of its Berber inhabitants. Although ancient in origin, these names were not used to designate the specific territory of modern Libya and its people until the twentieth century, nor indeed was the whole area formed into a coherent political unit until then. Hence, despite the long and distinct histories of its regions, modern Libya must be viewed as a new country still developing national consciousness and institutions.

Geography was the principal determinant in the separate historical development of Libya's three traditional regions-- Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Cut off from each other by formidable deserts, each retained its separate identity into the 1960s. At the heart of Tripolitania was its metropolis, Tripoli, for centuries a terminal for caravans plying the Saharan trade routes and a port sheltering pirates and slave traders. Tripolitania's cultural ties were with the Maghrib, of which it was a part geographically and culturally and with which it shared a common history. Tripolitanians developed their political consciousness in reaction to foreign domination, and it was from Tripolitania that the strongest impulses came for the unification of modern Libya.

In contrast to Tripolitania, Cyrenaica historically was oriented toward Egypt and the Mashriq. With the exception of some of its coastal towns, Cyrenaica was left relatively untouched by the political influence of the regimes that claimed it but were unable to assert their authority in the hinterland. An element of internal unity was brought to the region's tribal society in the nineteenth century by a Muslim religious order, the Sanusi, and many Cyrenaicans demonstrated a determination to retain their regional autonomy even after Libyan independence and unification.

Fezzan was less involved with either the Maghrib or the Mashriq. Its nomads traditionally looked for leadership to tribal dynasties that controlled the oases astride the desert trade routes. Throughout its history, Fezzan maintained close relations with sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the coast.

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 only two or three decades earlier.

LIBYA'S INTERNATIONAL PROMINENCE in the mid- and latter l980s was disproportionate to its geographic size or population. The domestic and international activities of its revolutionary leader Muammar al Qadhafi, combined with the financial and economic power resulting from Libya's discovery and exploitation of its significant petroleum resources, were primarily responsible for propelling Libya onto the world stage. By the 1980s, Qadhafi's grip on power was so strong that press commentaries and academic reports routinely used his name and that of his government interchangeably. Until the Libyan Revolution in 1969, few Westerners had any knowledge of Libya beyond an awareness of it as the site of desert campaigns in World War II, such as Al Alamein, and the ruins of ancient Carthage and Tripoli. Early Libyan history was influenced by numerous foreign conquerors, including the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and, most significantly, the Arabs, who established Islam in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. The Arab conquest of North Africa left a lasting mark on the Berber tribes that inhabited the area. North African Islam under various caliphates took on a distinctive form that incorporated indigenous religious practices, such as the veneration of holy men.

Under Ottoman Turkish rule in the nineteenth century, the Sanusi Islamic religious order became a powerful force with political overtones, as the Sanusi lodges helped weld together the rival beduin tribes of Cyrenaica. In the twentieth century, when Italy sought to conquer Cyrenaica and adjoining Tripolitania, the Sanusi movement constituted the major source of opposition to colonial rule. More advanced Italian weaponry prevailed, however, and Italy gained control of the area following World War I, setting up a new administrative system joining the two regions, together with the southern region of Fezzan.

The Italians improved the infrastructure of the area, creating roads, railroads, port facilities, and irrigation projects, but did little to train the inhabitants in administrative, technical, or agricultural skills. During World War II, a number of Cyrenaicans determined that the best route for gaining independence would be to support the Allied side; accordingly, they fought with the British in the desert war. This action, coupled with Italy's defeat, led to a brief period of British administration of the former Italian-controlled area after the war. Thereafter, under United Nations auspices, King Idris of the Sanusi family proclaimed the United Kingdom of Libya in 1951.

The new country faced severe economic problems as well as political difficulties resulting from its lack of national cohesion. Economically, Libya was handicapped by its largely desert terrain and its sparse and unskilled population. To gain a major source of revenue as well as of military assistance, King Idris granted base rights to Britain and the United States in 1953 and 1954, respectively. The discovery of oil in commercial quantities by Esso (later Exxon) in 1959 brought about a substantial increase in national income as well as growing Western influence. Meanwhile, in 1963, King Idris sought to change Libya's unwieldy federal system by creating a unitary state. The latter move encountered obstacles because the three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan had little in common, and the majority of Libyans did not identify with the monarchy or have nationalist feelings.

Both the discovery of oil and the rise in Western influence proved to be divisive elements for the Libyan state. Revenues from the oil industry benefited relatively few in Libyan society and led to greater stratification between the small wealthy group and the large poor one. Furthermore, King Idris's pro-Western constitutional monarchy had minimal associations with the Arab states. These two factors contributed to a rising dissatisfaction with the monarchy. The discontent ultimately led to the seizure of power by the Free Officers' Movement in 1969 while King Idris was abroad for medical treatment.

The movement established a Revolutionary Command Council of twelve members, which formed a new government. Among the members was Qadhafi, who served both as prime minister and defense minister. Qadhafi was strongly influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser and persuaded his officer colleagues to adopt a program that reflected a number of Nasser's concepts.

The new government proclaimed as its watchwords "Freedom, Socialism, and Unity." Freedom was to be achieved through a program that had a populist framework to allow maximum direct citizen participation at the bottom, through "popular committees," whereas the structure was controlled at the top by handpicked military officers. Socialism was pursued through various domestic programs designed to develop Libya's infrastructure and promote industrialization. Unity entailed Libya's announced intent to pursue an Arab and Islamic policy as well as attempts by Qadhafi at various times to achieve union with several Arab states. In line with its intended populist and socialist character, in 1977 the official name of the country was changed to "The Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya."

Qadhafi coined the term jamahiriya to mean "power to the masses," his interpretation of freedom. In theory, the power of the masses was to be exercised by the popular committees established at various levels and in different segments of the population--in localities, government ministries, businesses, and universities. In practice, elections to such committees and the exercise of authority were "guided" by the General People's Committee, which replaced the Council of Ministers. Although technically appointed by the General Popular Congress at its annual meeting, the General People's Committee was in effect selected by Qadhafi himself. Thus, the power to implement or initiate measures was strictly limited and popular participation in government declined during the 1980s, leading Qadhafi to advocate the creation of a new political party to energize the socialist system.

To develop this political structure in the early period and to allow himself more time to serve as theoretician for the new Libyan experiment in revolutionary socialism, Qadhafi resigned in 1974 from any official government post, while remaining de facto head of state. In this capacity Qadhafi was referred to as "the leader," and he produced three slim parts known as The Green Book, setting forth his program and its justification. These came to assume a position for the Libyans comparable to that of the "Little red book" of Chairman Mao Zedong for the Chinese. Qadhafi's pursuit of socialism as set in The Green Book entailed the development of Libya's infrastructure in transportation and communications, utilities, and basic services. To accomplish this development, revenues and manpower were necessary. Substantial domestic revenues resulted from oil production in the years following the Revolution and transformed Libya from a leading have-not state into a major oil exporter. Because of Libya's severe shortage of manpower, particularly skilled labor, thousands of foreign workers were required. These workers came mainly from other North African and from sub-Saharan states. When oil revenues began to decline in the early 1980s, and in view of the internal security threat the laborers represented, Qadhafi terminated the services of thousands of them in 1982-83, exacerbating Libya's relations with neighboring states.

Another part of Qadhafi's socialist scheme was the establishment of industries and the improvement of agriculture through irrigation projects. A keystone of the latter was the Great Man- Made River project, underway in 1987, to bring water from oases in the south and southeast to the cities on the Mediterranean. The total estimated cost for the two stages of the 1,900 kilometer-long pipeline was US$5 billion.

The third element of Libya's program was support for Arab unity. In pursuit of this goal, Qadhafi capitalized on opportunities for union with various Arab states. At different times such unification attempts included unions with Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Morocco. These efforts were designed to strengthen Qadhafi's personal leadership role in as well as Libya's position in African and Middle Eastern politics, and to act as a counterbalance to neighboring states perceived as hostile. For example, when Egypt was viewed as a threat, Qadhafi initiated a 1984 union with Morocco, the only one of his unions that as of early 1988 had achieved a semblance of implementation (1984-86).

Qadhafi also saw himself both as a leader of the Nonaligned Movement and as a key instrument in furthering the spread of Islam, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. To these ends he sought unsuccessfully several times in the early l980s to be elected chairman of the Organization for African Unity and proposed a Sahelian empire to include Libya and other African states whose populations contained significant percentages of Muslims. Qadhafi used Libya's oil revenues both to spread Islam and to extend Libyan influence in developing countries, especially in Africa, seeing this two-pronged campaign as a means of countering colonialism and Western influences. This policy resulted from Qadhafi's advocacy in The Green Book of a stance that supported "neither East nor West," indicating that the Jamahiriya rejected both communism, with its atheistic ideology, and Western capitalism, with its association with colonialism and "imperialism." This stance led to a strong opposition to the Western powers, particularly the United States, because of the latter's identification with Israel.

Qadhafi's stand against colonialism led him to support dissident or revolutionary movements, particularly Muslim ones, that were fighting against established regimes viewed as reactionary, e.g., the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. In so doing, he provided weapons, funds, and training as deemed appropriate. Qadhafi has also been charged with training and equipping terrorist groups of various kinds, including Palestinians and the Irish Republican Army, who have launched attacks against Westerners, including Americans. In retaliation for such incidents, specifically the bombing of a Berlin club in which Americans were killed or wounded and in which Libya was implicated, the United States launched air strikes in March 1987 against targets in several Libyan cities. This retaliation appeared to have served as a deterrent to Libyan terrorist activity in that as of early 1988 Libyan-sponsored terrorist incidents had decreased markedly.

Qadhafi's avowed anticommunist stance was pragmatic, however. Although he refused to grant bases to the Soviet Union, he viewed the latter as an excellent source of sophisticated weaponry. He also relied upon the countries of Eastern Europe for military and technical advisers and especially for assistance in the field of internal security. He used severe measures, however, in suppressing domestic communism.

The major source of support for Qadhafi's domestic and foreign programs has always been the army. Recognizing this, Qadhafi took pains to see that military salaries and perquisites were generous and that the armed forces were equipped with the latest military arms and technology. His purchases of weaponry, particularly from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, were of such magnitude that Libya was unable to deploy all its equipment. Qadhafi also took precautions against potential coups directed at him that might originate in the military by using East European security personnel to protect himself and by frequently rotating individuals in key military positions.

In 1988 Qadhafi had had one of the longest tenures of office of any African leader. But, in the course of his rule, opposition elements within and outside Libya had increased. Internal opposition resulted partly from Qadhafi's socialist measures, which had confiscated property belonging to wealthy citizens, partly from his increasingly authoritarian style of rule, such as his imperious suppression of opposition among university students, and partly from Qadhafi's military ventures abroad. In the mid- and latter l980s, Qadhafi's campaign against internal opposition elements had become increasingly harsh, leading to the assassination of various individuals in exile abroad as well as actual or potential dissidents within Libya. Qadhafi's involvement in the ongoing war with Chad and his support of rebel forces in Sudan also contributed to reported rising discontent within the army.

In the realm of external opposition, Qadhafi's relations with the moderate Arab states, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states, were strained at best. He was also frequently at odds with his North African neighbors, whom he had antagonized by supporting opposition elements or by direct military action. Despite these sources of domestic and foreign opposition, foreign observers doubted that Qadhafi would be ousted from his pivotal position in the Libyan Jamahiriya, short of a successful military coup.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Libya > Map Economy History