Northern Africa

Capital City:

total: 1,759,540 sq km
land: 1,759,540 sq km
water: 0 sq km

Land boundaries:
Total: 4,339 km

border countries (6):
Algeria 989 km,
Chad 1,050 km,
Egypt 1,115 km,
Niger 342 km,
Sudan 382 km,
Tunisia 461 km
Coastline: 1,770 km
Total: 6109 km



libya flag
libya landscape 3

The Mediterranean along the coast;
dry, extreme desert interior

mostly barren, flat to undulating plains, plateaus, depressions

mean elevation: 423 m
elevation extremes: lowest point: Sabkhat Ghuzayyil -47 m
highest point: Bikku Bitti 2,267 m

Natural resources:
petroleum, natural gas, gypsum

Land use:
agricultural land: 8.8%
arable land 1%; permanent crops 0.2%; permanent pasture 7.6%
forest: 0.1%
other: 91.1% (2011 est.)

Irrigated land:
4,700 sq km (2012)

Population – distribution:
well over 90% of the population lives along the Mediterranean coast in and between Tripoli to the west and Al Bayda to the east; the interior remains vastly underpopulated due to the Sahara and lack of surface water.

Natural hazards:
hot, dry, dust-laden ghibli is a southern wind lasting one to four days in spring and fall; dust storms, sandstorms



libya ethnic

People and Society

Libya is a large country with a relatively small population, and the population is concentrated very narrowly along the coast. Population density is about 50 persons per km² (130/sq. mi.) in the two northern regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica but falls to less than one person per km² (2.6/sq. mi.) elsewhere. Ninety percent of the people live in less than 10% of the area, primarily along the coast. About 88% of the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the three largest cities, Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata.

Despite continuing unrest, Libya remains a destination country for economic migrants. It is also a hub for transit migration to Europe because of its proximity to southern Europe and its lax border controls. Labor migrants have been drawn to Libya since the development of its oil sector in the 1960s. Until the latter part of the 1990s, most migrants to Libya were Arab (primarily Egyptians and Sudanese). However, international isolation stemming from Libya’s involvement in international terrorism and a perceived lack of support from Arab countries led QADHAFI in 1998 to adopt a decade-long pan-African policy that enabled large numbers of sub-Saharan migrants to enter Libya without visas to work in the construction and agricultural industries. Although sub-Saharan Africans provided a cheap labor source, they were poorly treated and were subjected to periodic mass expulsions.

By the mid-2000s, domestic animosity toward African migrants and a desire to reintegrate into the international community motivated QADHAFI to impose entry visas on Arab and African immigrants and to agree to joint maritime patrols and migrant repatriations with Italy, the main recipient of illegal migrants departing Libya. As his regime neared collapse in 2011, QADHAFI reversed his policy of cooperating with Italy to curb illegal migration and sent boats loaded with migrants and asylum seekers to strain European resources. Libya’s 2011 revolution decreased immigration drastically and prompted nearly 800,000 migrants to flee to third countries, mainly Tunisia and Egypt, or to their countries of origin. The inflow of migrants declined in 2012 but returned to normal levels by 2013, despite continued hostility toward sub-Saharan Africans and a less-inviting job market.

While Libya is not an appealing destination for migrants, since 2014, transiting migrants – primarily from East and West Africa – continue to exploit its political instability and weak border controls and use it as a primary departure area to migrate across the central Mediterranean to Europe in growing numbers. In addition, more than 200,000 people were displaced internally as of August 2017 by fighting between armed groups in eastern and western Libya and, to a lesser extent, by inter-tribal clashes in the country’s south.

6,653,210 (July 2017 est.)


Ethnic groups:
Berber and Arab 97%, other 3% (includes Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians, and Tunisians)

Arabic (official), Italian, English (all widely understood in the major cities); Berber (Nafusi, Ghadamis, Suknah, Awjilah, Tamasheq).

Muslim (official; virtually all Sunni) 96.6%, Christian 2.7%, Buddhist 0.3%, Hindu <0.1, Jewish <0.1, folk religion <0.1, unafilliated 0.2%, other <0.1.


Ethnicity, Language, and Religion

The present population of Libya is composed of several distinct groups. By far the majority identify themselves as Arabs. Arab invaders brought Arabic language and culture to Libya between the seventh to the eleventh centuries, but intermarriage with Berbers and other indigenous peoples over the centuries has produced so mixed a strain that few Libyans can substantiate claims to pure or even predominantly Arab ancestry. These Arabic-speaking Muslims of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry make up 90 percent of the country’s population. Berbers, other indigenous minority peoples, and black Africans make up most of the remainder, although small scattered groups of Greeks, Muslim Cretans, Maltese, and Armenians make up long-established communities in urban areas.

All but a small minority of the Libyan people are native Arabic speakers and thus consider themselves to be Arabs. Arabic, a Semitic language, is the mother tongue of almost all peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. Three levels of the language are distinguishable: classical, the language of the Quran; modern standard, the form used in the present-day press; and the regional colloquial dialects. In Libya classical Arabic is used by religious leaders; modern standard Arabic appears in formal and written communication and sometimes in the schools. Many people learn Quranic quotations without being able to speak the classical language.

Under the constitution, Islam is Libya’s official religion and the government publicly supports a preference for a moderate practice of Islam. About 97% of the people are Sunni Muslim. In an effort to eliminate alternative political power bases, the government banned the once powerful Sanusiyya Islamic order. Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi then established the Islamic Call Society, which is the Islamic arm of the government’s foreign policy. The ICS’s main goal was to promote a moderate form of Islam, reflecting the views of the government.


libya demographics.


Education during Muammar Gadaffi’s rule in Libya was defined by his treatise on political philosophy, known as the Green Book and belief in an eventual decentralization of various government institutions. The book was a central part of the Libyan curriculum for primary and secondary education under his regime. Students from ages 9 to 18 were required to study Gadaffi’s government in classes referred to as “Jamahiriya studies”. Jamahiriya covered various aspects of Libya’s government, either taken directly from the Green Book or compiled from the Green Book into various companion texts. British author George Tremlett reported that students would study the Green Book for two hours each week in 1993. Other subjects also integrated these political philosophies, such as Geography texts denying current national borders to promote pan-Arabist beliefs. In order to enforce these views, all curriculum designers were required to be part of the lijan thawriya, local committees dedicated to the interpretation of the Green Book.

Following the 2011 civil war, the new education ministry began efforts to rewrite curricula. New curricula and texts began implementation in January 2012. Under the interim regime, efforts have been made to remove Gadaffi’s influence from all levels of education until it can be addressed appropriately. Acting education minister Suliman El-Sahli stated the ministry hopes “All historical eras will be presented objectively, without propaganda”.

Each year more than a million children in Libya benefit from the free education offered by thousands of public schools. Education is compulsory until the 9th grade and parents can be prosecuted if their children do not attend school. The first 9 years of school education in Libya are compulsory and free. This basic education program includes lessons in Arabic, Islamic languages, Jamahiriya society, mathematics, natural sciences, history, geography, art, music, and technical and physical education.The first 6 years of this take place at primary school. The final 3 years of basic education take place at middle school. Upon completion, a basic education certificate may be awarded, following which pupils have the choice of finding work or going on to secondary school.

A three-year secondary and advanced vocational level. There are also Qurʾānic schools, financed by the government. About four-fifths of the adult population is literate. In order to increase the literacy rate, the government also sponsored an adult education program. Higher education is offered by the state institutions of the University of Libya, subdivided in 1973 into Al-Fāteḥ University, located at Tripoli, and Garyounis (Qāryūnis) University, located at Banghāzī. Advanced religious training is obtained at a branch of the university at Al-Bayḍāʾ. Libyan students also study abroad.




Libya’s economy, almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, has struggled since 2014 given security and political instability, disruptions in oil production, and decline in global oil prices. The Libyan dinar has lost much of its value since 2014 and the resulting gap between official and black market exchange rates has spurred the growth of a shadow economy and contributed to inflation. The country suffers from widespread power outages, caused by shortages of fuel for power generation. Living conditions, including access to clean drinking water, medical services, and safe housing have all declined since 2011. Oil production in 2017 reached a five-year high, driving GDP growth, with daily average production rising to 879,000 barrels per day. However, oil production levels remain below the average pre-Revolution highs of 1.6 million barrels per day.

The cost of the political conflict has taken a severe toll on the Libyan economy, which has remained in recession for the third consecutive year in 2015. Political strife, weak security conditions, and blockaded oil infrastructures continue to constrain the supply side of the economy. Production of crude oil fell to around 0.4 million barrels per day or the fourth of potential. The non-hydrocarbon output remained weak due to disruptions in the supply chains of both domestic and foreign inputs, as well as lack of financing. In this context, GDP is estimated to have declined by 10 percent and per capita income has fallen to less than US$ 4,500 compared to almost US$ 13,000 in 2012. Inflation strongly accelerated last year driven by high food prices. Lack of funding to finance imports, especially subsidized food, generated chronic shortages in basic commodities and the expansion of black markets activities. This situation was exacerbated by households attempting to stockpile food. Inflation averaged 9.2 percent in 2015, mainly driven by a 13.7 percent rise in food prices. Prices of flour and bread quintupled.

Improvement of the economic outlook depends crucially on the endorsement by the House of Representatives of the Government of National Accord (GNA) formed under the auspices of the UN. The economic and social outlook assumes that the GNA is eventually empowered to restore security and launch a comprehensive program to rebuild the economic and social infrastructures. In this context, GDP is projected to increase strongly in 2016. However, the twin deficits will prevail as oil revenues will not be sufficient to cover the high budget expenditures and consumption-driven imports. Over the medium term, as oil production returns to full capacity, growth is projected to rebound at two-digit growth rates in 2017 and 2018, before stabilizing thereafter between 5 and 6 percent.

Although several budgets have been presented by the Tripoli Administration and the HOR (Tobruk, Eastern Administration), the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) did not acknowledge any budget as being the legal, legitimate Libyan budget for FY2015. In effect, neither the budget submitted by rival Parliaments in Tripoli and in the Eastern city of Tobruk have been recognized. The Central Bank of Libya (CBL) has only disbursed funds regarding wages and salaries; student scholarships abroad; oil/gas sector development; electricity; and, essential subsides items.

Immediate challenges are to manage fiscal spending pressures while restoring and improving basic public services. A longer-term goal is to help develop the framework and institutions for a more diversified market-based economy, broadening the economic base beyond the oil and gas sector. Although the Bank’s post-conflict engagement was initially expected to accompany only Libya’s short-term economic recovery efforts, the transition program will lay the foundation for longer-term goals. This includes creating a more vibrant and competitive economy with a level playing field for the private sector to create sustainable jobs and wealth. It also includes transforming the management of oil revenues to ensure they are used in the best interests of the country and to the benefit of all citizens equally. This will also ensure that citizens have a role in defining and voicing their communities’ best interests.

The Central Bank of Libya continued to pay government salaries to a majority of the Libyan workforce and to fund subsidies for fuel and food, resulting in an estimated budget deficit of about 17% of GDP in 2017. Low consumer confidence in the banking sector and the economy as a whole has driven a severe liquidity shortage.


GDP (purchasing power parity):
$63.14 billion (2017 est.)
$40.72 billion (2016 est.)
$41.96 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars

GDP (official exchange rate):
$33.31 billion (2017 est.)

GDP – real growth rate:
55.1% (2017 est.)
-3% (2016 est.)
-10.3% (2015 est.)

GDP – per capita (PPP):
$9,800 (2017 est.)
$6,400 (2016 est.)
$6,600 (2015 est.)

Gross national saving:
1.9% of GDP (2017 est.)
-11% of GDP (2016 est.)
-8% of GDP (2015 est.)

GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
agriculture: 1.3%
industry: 63.8%
services: 34.9% (2017 est.)

Agriculture – products:
wheat, barley, olives, dates, citrus, vegetables, peanuts, soybeans; cattle

petroleum, petrochemicals, aluminum, iron and steel, food processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement

Population below poverty line:

revenues: $16.33 billion
expenditures: $22.32 billion (2017 est.)




Although agriculture is the second-largest sector in the economy, Libya depends on imports in most foods. Climatic conditions and poor soils limit farm output, and domestic food production meets about 25% of demand. Domestic conditions limit output, while income and population growth have increased food consumption. Because of low rainfall, agricultural projects like the Kufra Oasis rely on underground water sources. Libya’s primary agricultural water source remains the Great Manmade River (GMMR), but significant resources are being invested in desalinization research to meet growing demand. Libyan agricultural projects and policies are overseen by a General Inspector; there is no Ministry of Agriculture.

The country has sought to expand its agriculture since the early 1970s. Its success in this regard has been limited despite heavy investments that equaled 30 percent of government expenditures in the 1970s. For example, production of cereals met only 15 percent of the country’s needs. Therefore, Libya has remained dependent on large agricultural imports, estimated at about 75 percent of its annual needs.

Libyan agriculture is a small contributor to the work-force (about 17 percent), and to GDP. Major barriers to its growth are limited arable land (1.7 percent of Libya’s area) and water resources, over-use of arable land and fertilizers, and a shortage of labor. Apart from a limited production of barley and wheat, major agricultural products are mostly fruits and vegetables such as dates, almonds, grapes, citrus fruits, watermelon, olives, and tomatoes, which constitute about 80 percent of annual agricultural production. Agricultural activities take place mainly along the coastline. Inland farming is very limited because of water shortages. Rapid urbanization has resulted in a severe shortage of agricultural workers, forcing Libya to rely on foreign farm laborers.

Libya’s animal husbandry has suffered from the sanctions, limiting imports of animal feed on which it depends heavily. The low annual catch (34,500 metric tons) demonstrates the underdeveloped nature of Libya’s fisheries, despite the richness of its waters in exportable fish (e.g., tuna and sardines). Low investments in fishing boats, ports, and processing facilities are major obstacles to its growth. The country has 1 major fishing port (Zlitan), 1 tuna plant, and 2 sardine factories with small processing capacities (1,000 metric tons per year each). Libya is planning to build 24 fishing ports in addition to the one under construction at Marsa Zuaga.

Electricity access:
population without electricity: 13,083
electrification – total population: 99.8%
electrification – urban areas: 100%
electrification – rural areas: 99.1% (2013)
Electricity – production:
35.45 billion kWh
Electricity – consumption:
8.131 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – exports:
0 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – imports:
0 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – installed generating capacity:
9.46 million kW (2015 est.)
Electricity – from fossil fuels:
99.9% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)

Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 1,374,408
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 21 (July 2016 est.)
Telephones – mobile cellular:
total: 7,660,068
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 115 (July 2016 est.)

Internet country code:
total: 1,326,194
percent of population: 20.3% (July 2016 est.)

Industry and Mining

Since the early 1960s, the petroleum industry has increasingly dominated the whole economy, although it provided direct employment for thousands. The development of the oil industry was remarkable, both in terms of its rapidity and its proliferation. An exceptional combination of circumstances contributed to the development of the petroleum sector. Like Algerian oil, Libyan crude oil, while having a rather high wax content, is lighter and easier to handle than crudes from most other petroleum areas. It also has a low sulfur content, which makes it easier on internal combustion engines and less of a pollution contribution than other crudes. For this reason, Libyan crudes had a receptive market in Europe from the start; furthermore, Libya is one-third closer to European markets than the oil ports of the eastern.

The petrochemicals industry is centered at the Marsá al-Burayqah plant, which produces methanol, ammonia, and urea. Despite the fact that the plant operates at only 35% of capacity, its production of urea and ammonia far exceeds domestic demand. A major plant producing ethylene, propylene, and butene was opened at Ras Lanuf in 1987. A second phase of the Ras Lanuf complex was to produce benzene, butadiene, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), and butane-1, but as of 2000, it was not complete. The Abu Kammash petrochemical complex produces ethylene dichloride (EDC), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). The iron and steel complex at Mişratāh began operations in 1990. Large natural gas reserves were underdeveloped in 2002; a pipeline network was expected to be planned by 2006.

Libya’s other manufacturing industries are small, lightly capitalized, and devoted primarily to the processing of local agricultural products (tanning, canning fruits and vegetables, milling flour, and processing olive oil), and to textiles, building materials, and basic consumer items. Handicraft products include carpets and rugs, silver jewelry, textiles, glassware, and leather goods. Industry accounted for 49.9% of economic output in 2005, followed by services with a 42.5% share. Agriculture continued to be the weakest economic sector, with just a 7.6% share in the GDP. Oil and gas carry the lion share of industrial output, accounting for around 33% of the GDP. The non-oil manufacturing and construction sectors had expanded and by the early 2000s, they included the production of petrochemicals, iron, steel, and aluminum.

libya central bank.

Banking and Finance

Following the revolution and the fall of the Gadhafi government in 2011 the economy contracted by almost 60 percent. Projected GDP growth rates for 2012 and 2013 are high but the high degree of dependency on volatile hydrocarbon earnings makes economic performance vulnerable to oil shocks and complicates macroeconomic management.

Libya’s financial system has been strongly affected by the conflict. The financial sector, characterized by low financial depth, is highly centralized and dominated by the public sector which, according to the latest available figures, accounted for more than 90 percent of the activity. The government, which nationalized all banks in 1970, has however recently engaged in several structural reforms of the financial sector and initiated several steps towards financial liberalization, with several banks recently privatized. As part of the government’s restructuring and privatization efforts, an asset management company has been established to deal with bad loans, and smaller banks have been encouraged to seek well-established foreign strategic partners.

The country’s banking system, as of 2009, was comprised of 15 commercial banks, the Central Bank of Libya, one offshore institution, the Libyan Foreign Bank, three specialized credit institutions (SCIs) which included the Libyan Development Bank, one economic development and micro-credit bank, and one real estate development bank, as well as numerous small regional banks. According to the last reliable observations, commercial banks are well capitalized and profitable, although nonperforming loans represented about 20 percent of total loans for the same year. The banking system is also characterized by excess liquidity as low-cost credit and on-lending provided by SCIs has crowded out commercial bank credit and contributed to liquidity overhang.


The fascination of Libya is the contrast between its incredibly ancient beginnings as a settlement in prehistoric times to its present-day efforts to overcome the Gaddafi years – perhaps one of the most devastating periods in the last 2,500 years of history. Most of the remaining ancient attractions date back to the Ottoman period or magnificent Greek and Roman remains, and the Sahara desert, once a green and fertile land, is now one of the most forbiddingly spectacular regions on earth. Tourism in Libya is an industry heavily hit by the Libyan Civil War. Before the war tourism was developing, with 149,000 tourists visiting Libya in 2004, rising to 180,000 in 2007, although this still only contributed less than 1% of the country’s GDP. There were 1,000,000 visitors in the same year. The country is best known for its ancient Greek and Roman ruins and Sahara desert landscapes.

Place of Attraction

The city of Tripoli is the biggest city of Libya, it is also the country’s capital. The city is located in the northwestern region of Libya on the edge of the great Libyan Desert. The city is a hub of trading and manufacturing activities of the country and is Libya’s main seaport. The city has many high-class hotels for tourists. The city is making concrete efforts to increase tourism and is one of the top 10 most beautiful places in Libya.

The Jamhahiriya Museum is Libya’s national exhibition hall. Its 47 galleries are home to numerous curios of Libya’s verifiable past incorporating those from the Roman and Greek time of the nation’s history, fortunes recuperated from their World Heritage Sites and the memorabilia of their later political past.

This palace is otherwise called the Red Castle. It has a wide yard where different wellsprings and statues starting from the Ottoman period. The royal residence reflects the nation’s rich verifiable past as indicated in their design style of structures. Aside from the aforementioned spots to visit, there are still numerous visitor ends of the line around the city. After a tiring tour, it is fitting to visit the Bazaar where conventional items could be acquired.

Benghazi is Libya’s second largest city. In past times, Benghazi used to be the capital of Libya along with Tripoli; this has brought about real head-ways in the progress of the city. Benghazi is presently the capital of the area of Cyrenaica and contends with Tripoli in a considerable measure of business viewpoints.

Leptis Magna was the biggest city of old Rome in Libya. Magna was established in the tenth century BC by Phoenicians and later turned into a Punic city. By 23 BC, it fit in with a Roman region in Africa. A standout amongst the most conspicuous structures left in the destroyed city is the theatre.


  • Prehistory

    Archaeological evidence indicates that from at least the eighth millennium B.C. Libya’s coastal plain shared in a Neolithic culture, skilled in the domestication of cattle and cultivation of crops, that was common to the whole Mediterranean littoral. To the south, in what is now the Sahara Desert, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a vast, well-watered savanna that abounded in game and provided pastures for their stock. Their culture flourished until the region began to desiccate after 2000 B.C. Scattering before the encroaching desert and invading horsemen, the savanna people migrated into Sudan or were absorbed by the Berbers.

    The origin of the Berbers is a mystery, the investigation of which has produced an abundance of educated speculation but no solution. Archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly suggests southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers may have begun their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium B.C. Over the succeeding centuries they extended their range from Egypt to the Niger Basin. Caucasians of predominantly Mediterranean stock, the Berbers present a broad range of physical types and speak a variety of mutually unintelligible dialects that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They never developed a sense of nationhood and have historically identified themselves in terms of their tribe, clan, and family. Collectively, Berbers refer to themselves simply as Imazighen, to which has been attributed the meaning “free men.”

    Inscriptions found in Egypt dating from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 B.C.) are the earliest known recorded testimony of the Berber migration and also the earliest written documentation of Libyan history. At least as early as this period, troublesome Berber tribes, one of which was identified in Egyptian records as the Levu (or “Libyans”), were raiding eastward as far as the Nile Delta and attempting to settle there. During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2200- 1700 B.C.) the Egyptian pharaohs succeeded in imposing their overlordship on these eastern Berbers and exacted tribute from them. Many Berbers served in the army of the pharaohs, and some rose to positions of importance in the Egyptian state. One such Berber officer seized control of Egypt in about 950 B.C. and, as Shishonk I ruled as pharaoh. His successors of the twenty-second and twenty-third dynasties the so-called Libyan dynasties (ca. 945-730 B.C.) are also believed to have been Berbers.

  • Libya under the Roman Empires

    For more than 400 years, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were prosperous Roman provinces and part of a cosmopolitan state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity. Roman ruins like those of Leptis Magna, extant in present-day Libya, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even smaller towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life the forum, markets, public entertainments, and baths found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek. Tripolitania was a major exporter of olive oil, as well as being the entrepot for the gold and slaves conveyed to the coast by the Garamantes, while Cyrenaica remained an important source of wines, drugs, and horses. The bulk of the population in the countryside.

    As part of his reorganization of the empire in 300, Emperor Diocletian separated the administration of Crete from Cyrenaica and in the latter formed the new provinces of Upper Libya and Lower Libya, using the term Libya for the first time as an administrative designation. By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community, and it soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Rome’s African provinces were thoroughly Christianized by the end of the fourth century, and inroads had been made as well among the Berber tribes in the hinterland. From an early date, however, the churches in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica developed distinct characteristics that reflected their differing cultural orientations. The former came under the jurisdiction of the Latin patriarch, the bishop of Rome, and the latter under that of the Coptic (Egyptian) patriarch of Alexandria. In both areas, religious dissent became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression.

    Effective Byzantine control in Tripolitania was restricted to the coast, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature. The region’s prosperity had shrunk under Vandal domination, and the old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted re assimilation into the imperial system. Cyrenaica, which had remained an outpost of the Byzantine Empire during the Vandal period, also took on the characteristics of an armed camp. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation to meet military costs, but towns and public services including the water system were left to decay. Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half, however, and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region.

  • Islam in Libya

    By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam (literally, “submission”), which was conceived of as uniting the individual believer and society under the omnipotent will of Allah (God). Islamic rulers, therefore, exercised both temporal and religious authority. Arab rule was easily imposed in the coastal farming areas and on the towns, which prospered again under Arab patronage. Townsmen valued the security that permitted them to practice their commerce and trade in peace, while the Punicized farmers recognized their affinity with the Semitic Arabs to whom they looked to protect their lands; in Cyrenaica, Monophysite adherents of the Coptic Church had welcomed the Muslim Arabs as liberators from Byzantine oppression.

    The Arabs formed an urban elite in North Africa, where they had come as conquerors and missionaries, not as colonists. Their armies had traveled without women and married among the indigenous population, transmitting Arab culture and Islamic religion over a period of time to the townspeople and farmers. Although the nomadic tribes of the hinterland had stoutly resisted Arab political domination, they rapidly accepted Islam. Once established as Muslims, however, the Berbers, with their characteristic love of independence and impassioned religious temperament, shaped Islam in their own image, enthusiastically embracing schismatic Muslim sects —often traditional folk religion barely distinguished as Islam as a way of breaking from Arab control.

    After the Arab conquest, North Africa was governed by a succession of amirs (commanders) who were subordinate to the caliph in Damascus and, after 750, in Baghdad. At the top of the political and social hierarchy were the bureaucracy, the military caste, and an Arab urban elite that included merchants, scholars, and government officials who had come to Kairouan, Tunis, and Tripoli from many parts of the Islamic world. Members of the large Jewish communities that also resided in those cities held office under the amirs and engaged in commerce and the crafts. Converts to Islam often retained the positions of authority held traditionally by their families or class in Roman Africa, but a dwindling, Latin-speaking, Christian community lingered on in the towns until the eleventh century. The Aghlabids contested control of the central Mediterranean with the Byzantine Empire and, after conquering Sicily, played an active role in the internal politics of Italy.

  • Fatimids

    By the seventh century, a conflict had developed between supporters of rival claimants to the caliphate that would split Islam into two branches—the orthodox Sunni and the Shia—which continued thereafter as the basic division among Muslims. The Shias (from Shiat Alt, or Party of Ali) supported the claims of the direct descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whereas the Sunnis favored that of Ali’s rival, the leader of a collateral branch of Muhammad’s tribe, and the principle of election of the fittest from the ranks of the surface. The Shias had their greatest appeal among non-Arab Muslims, who, like the Berbers, were scorned by the aristocratic desert Arabs.


    In Cairo the Fatimid caliph reacted by inviting the Bani Hilal and Bani Salim, Beduin tribes from Arabia known collectively as the Hilalians, to migrate to the Maghrib and punish his rebellious vassals, the Zirids. The Arab nomads spread across the region, in the words of the historian Ibn Khaldun, like a “swarm of locusts,” impoverishing it, destroying towns, and dramatically altering the face and culture of the countryside. The Hilalian impact on Cyrenaica and Tripolitania was devastating in both economic and demographic terms. Tripoli was sacked, and what little remained of urban life in once- great cities like Cyrene was snuffed out, leaving only ruins. Over a long period of time, Arabs displaced Berbers (many of whom joined the Hilalians) from their traditional lands and converted farmland to pasturage. The land was neglected, and the steppe was allowed to intrude into the coastal plain.


    The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the rise in Morocco of two rival Berber tribal dynasties—the Almoravids and the Almohads, both founded by religious reformers—that dominated the Maghrib and Muslim Spain for more than two hundred years. The founder of the Almohad (literally, “one who proclaims” the oneness of God) movement was a member of the Sunni ulama, Ibn Tumart (d. 1 130), who preached a doctrine of moral regeneration through reaffirmation of monotheism. As the judge and political leader as well as spiritual director, Ibn Tumart gave the Almohads a hierarchical and theocratic centralized government, respecting but transcending the old tribal structure. His successor, the sultan Abdal Mumin (reigned 1130-63), subdued Morocco, extended the Muslim frontier in Spain, and by 1160 had swept eastward across the Maghrib and forced the withdrawal of the Normans from their strongholds in Ifriqiya and Tripolitania, which were added to the Almohad empire.

  • The Ottoman Empire

    Throughout the sixteenth century, Hapsburg Spain and the Ottoman Turks were pitted in a struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Spanish forces had already occupied a number of other North African ports when in 1510 they captured Tripoli, destroyed the city, and constructed a fortified naval base from the rubble. Tripoli was of only marginal importance to Spain, however, and in 1524 the king-emperor Charles V entrusted its defense to the Knights of St. John of Malta. Piracy, which for both Christians and Muslims was a dimension of the conflict between the opposing powers, lured adventurers from around the Mediterranean to the Maghribi coastal towns and islands. Among them was Khair ad Din, called Barbarossa, who in 1510 seized Algiers on the pretext of defending it from the Spaniards.

    Barbarossa subsequently recognized the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan over the territory that he controlled and was, in turn, appointed the sultan’s regent in the Maghrib. Using Algiers as their base, Barbarossa and his successors consolidated Ottoman authority in the central Maghrib, extended it to Tunisia and Tripolitania, and threatened Morocco. In 1551 the knights were driven out of Tripoli by the Turkish admiral, Sinan Pasha. In the next year Draughut Pasha, a Turkish pirate captain named governor by the sultan, restored order in the coastal towns and undertook the pacification of the Arab nomads in Tripolitania, although he admitted the difficulty of subduing a people “who carry their cities with them.” Only in the 1580s did the rulers of Fezzan give their allegiance to the sultan, but the Turks refrained from trying to exercise any influence there. Ottoman authority was also absent in Cyrenaica, although a bey (commander) was stationed at Benghazi late in the next century to act as an agent of the government in Tripoli.

    The Ottoman Maghrib was formally divided into three regencies—at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. After 1565 authority as regent in Tripoli was vested in a pasha appointed by the sultan. The regency was provided a corps ofjanissaries, recruited from Turkish peasants who were committed to a lifetime of military service. The corps was organized into companies, each commanded by a junior officer with the rank of the day (literally, “maternal uncle”). It formed a self-governing military guild, subject to its own laws, whose interests were protected by the Divan, a council of senior officers that also advised the pasha. In time the pasha’s role was reduced to that of ceremonial head of state and figurehead representative of Ottoman suzerainty, as real power came to rest with the army.

  • Colonial Italy

    Italy, which became a unified state only in 1860, was a late starter in the race for colonies. For the Italians, the marginal Turkish provinces in Libya seemed to offer an obvious compensation for their humiliating acquiescence to the establishment of a French protectorate in Tunisia, a country coveted by Italy as a potential colony. Italy intensified its long-standing commercial interests in Libya and, in a series of diplomatic maneuvers, won from the major powers their recognition of an Italian sphere of influence there. In September 1911 Italy engineered a crisis with Turkey charging that the Turks had committed a “hostile act” by arming Arab tribesmen in Libya. When Turkey refused to respond to an ultimatum calling for Italian military occupation to protect Italian interests in the region, Italy declared war. After a preliminary naval bombardment, Italian troops landed and captured Tripoli on October 3, encountering only slight resistance. Italian forces also occupied Tobruk, Al Khums, Darnah, and Benghazi.

    In the ensuing months, the Italian expeditionary force, numbering 35,000, barely penetrated beyond its several beachheads. The 5,000 Turkish troops defending the provinces at the time of the invasion withdrew inland a few kilometers, where officers such as Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) organized the Arab tribes in a resistance to the Italians that took on the aspects of a holy war. But with war threatening in the Balkans, Turkey was compelled to sue for peace with Italy. In accordance with the treaty signed at Lausanne in October 1912, the sultan issued a decree granting independence to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica while Italy simultaneously announced its formal annexation of those territories. The sultan, in his role as caliph (leader of Islam), was to retain his religious jurisdiction there and was permitted to appoint the qadi of Tripoli, who supervised the sharia courts. But the Italians were unable to appreciate that no distinction was made between civil and religious jurisdiction in Islamic law.

    Turkey’s surrender in Libya was a betrayal of Muslim interests to the infidels. The 1912 Treaty of Lausanne was meaningless to the Beduin tribesmen who continued their war against the Italians, in some areas with the aid of Turkish troops left behind in the withdrawal. Lacking the unity imposed by the Sanusis, resistance 24 Historical Setting in northern Tripolitania was isolated, and tribal rivalries made it less effective. Urban nationalists in Tripoli theorized about the possibility of establishing a Tripolitanian republic, perhaps associated with Italy, while Suleiman Baruni, a Berber and a former member of the Turkish parliament, proclaimed an independent but short-lived Berber state in the Gharyan region. For the Beduins, however, unencumbered by any sense of nationhood, the purpose of the struggle against the colonial power was defending Islam and the free life they had always enjoyed in their tribal territory.

  • Independent Libya

    On December 24, 1951, King Idris I proclaimed the independence of the United Kingdom of Libya as a sovereign state. Under the constitution of October 1951, the federal monarchy of Libya was headed by King Idris as chief of state, with succession to his designated heirs. Substantial political power resided with the king. The executive arm of the government consisted of a prime minister and Council of Ministers designated by the king but also responsible to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of a bicameral legislature. The Senate, or upper house, consisted of eight representatives from each of the three provinces. Half of the senators were nominated by the king, who also had the right to veto legislation and to dissolve the lower house. Local autonomy in the provinces was exercised through provincial governments and legislatures. Benghazi and Tripoli served alternately as the national capital.

    October 1951. Mohamed Abulas’ad El-Alem, President of the National Assembly and the two Vice-Presidents of the National Assembly, Omar Faiek Shennib and Abu Baker Ahmed Abu Baker executed and submitted the Constitution to King Idris following which it was published in the Official Gazette of Libya. On 1 September 1969, a small group of military officers led by 27-year-old army officer Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’état against King Idris, launching the Libyan Revolution. Gaddafi was referred to as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” in government statements and the official Libyan press.

    On 27 February 2011, the National Transitional Council was established under the stewardship of Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former justice minister, to administer the areas of Libya under rebel control. This marked the first serious effort to organize the broad-based opposition to the Gaddafi regime. While the council was based in Benghazi, it claimed Tripoli as its capital. In June 2014, elections were held to the Council of Deputies, a new legislative body intended to take over from the General National Congress. The elections were marred by violence and low turnout, with voting stations, closed in some areas. Secularists and liberals did well in the elections, to the consternation of Islamist lawmakers in the GNC, who reconvened and declared a continuing mandate for the GNC, refusing to recognize the new Council of Deputies. Armed supporters of the General National Congress occupied Tripoli, forcing the newly elected parliament to flee to Tobruk.