Currency unit

Libyan Dinar






North Africa







Western Libya (Tripolitania) was part of the Carthaginian empire from the 7th century BC; the eastern part (Cyrenaica) was under the influence of Egypt. There were also Greek colonies in the area. The Romans conquered it in the first century BC and called it "Africa". It was occupied by the Vandals in the 4th century AD. Reconquered by the Byzantines in the time of Justinian and then by the Muslims in 643.

During the Roman period Libya was a grain producing area. In Muslim times it was ruled by the Berber Almohades for 350 years and later by the Fatimites. All regions were conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century and again in 1835 from Egypt.

Libya is a transition zone between Egypt and the Maghrib. Until the exploitation of oil it was not an important power. Rather, the two towns of Benghazi and Tripoli were bases for the Turkish and later Italian administration. The rest of the country was open to the nomadic Arabs, who may well have entered the country before the Muslims (Glubb - The Great Arab Conquests).

Libya is the site of what may be classified as the world's first known example of cultural warfare when in the time of the Fatimite Caliphate one of the wildest tribes of Beduin was urged to enter the country. It is believed that they finished off the agricultural economy by destroying the forest with their goats. (But climate change had probably been doing this for some time).

It was an Italian colony from 1911 when the Italians invaded what was still Ottoman territory, though the Ottomans controlled it only weakly. 150,000 Italian peasants were settled on the land. There were massacres in the east during the conquest.

In the second world war battles the Italians and their allies the Germans were driven out and a British administration set up. Independence came in 1951 under the head of the Senussi Sufi order who took the title King Idriss.

The kingdom was a union of three areas - Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the Fezzan (the Saharan part).

Oil was found in 1959.

Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969 in a military coup against the king and created an unclassifiable regime which he claimed owed something to Beduin tradition and was strongly anti-colonialist. The remaining Italians were expelled. He was believed to give aid to various nationalist and terrorist groups in different parts of the world (including both the IRA and the Protestant terrorists in northern Ireland).

Libya was bombed by the United States in 1986 in reprisal for a terrorist attack in West Berlin (but some observers believe it had been caused by Syrians). Libyans have been accused of exploding two passenger airplanes, one Air France over Chad; the other Pan American over Lockerbie Scotland - possibly as an act of revenge. The regime could probably be classified as a rogue as it conformed to no other bloc of nations, especially after its good relations with eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were severed.

A Libyan secret police officer al Megrahi was tried in a special court with Scottish judges but no jury, in the Netherlands for the Lockerbie disaster. On 23 February 2011 the resigned former Justice Minister claimed he had direct evidence that Gaddafi had ordered the Lockerbie operation.

In 2004 Gaddafi seems to have decided to rejoin the world system. The former isolation of the regime ended when he paid a large indemnity for the Lockerbie crash and promised not to make weapons of mass destruction. He needed investment in the oil industry.

In February 2011 there were protests in the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities in Cyrenaica, met with the military using live ammunition causing several deaths. He may possibly have had genuine support in the western part, based on his tribal connections.

25 August 2011 saw the "rebels" enter Tripoli and occupy most of the main centres there.

The Gaddafi regime came to an end but the succeeding regime remains uncertain, even in April 2012.



Berber (Tamazight)







It is difficult to classify the political system as it was under Gaddafi. The leader, who came to power in a military coup in 1969, was the source of all power. He claimed that the government was conducted by people's assemblies and committees but observers believed that he took all the important decisions. The system of committees in practice seemed to amount to a one party state. A BBC reporter, Kate Adie, failed to find any evidence that the Committees actually existed. The leader claimed that it was an outgrowth of traditional Islamic government, or that he was propagating a Third Way between Socialism and Capitalism. His real inspiration was probably Italian fascism as led by Mussolini. It seems unlikely that the system would have worked without his guidance. He survived numerous attempts to overthrow him, organized from within and without the country.

He was in fact setting up a Family Dynasty as so many other brutal dictators have.

In August 1991 Gaddafi expressed support for the coup leaders in the Soviet Union. Following these events he had no foreign allies, other than North Korea.

In 2003, surprisingly, he said he was giving up all his weapons programs (including a very rudimentary nuclear program) and allowed international inspection.

By March 2004 he seemed to be welcomed back into the world system, with an official visit by UK Prime Minister Blair.

Many wondered whether he would survive the disturbances of February 2011. Following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt people lost their fear and rejected Gaddafi.

On 19 February 2011 and the following Sunday, Gaddafi was reported as sending in mercenary soldiers from Chad to fire at demonstrators in Benghazi and other cities in Cyrenaica - the eastern provinces of Libya. Many people are said to have been killed and injured. This suggested that he was not going to follow the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia who resigned and left the country, after very little bloodshed. After so many killings the opposition had no wish negotiate with him. The question then was whether the demonstrations would spread to the capital, Tripoli (Tarabulos). They did and were met with gunfire from mainly mercenary troops from Chad.

By Sunday evening (20 February) it looked as though the regime was effectively at an end, as his son Saif al Islam made a rambling speech on tv, while many wondered whether his father was already fleeing the country. Gaddafi himself appeared briefly on tv the following day. Meanwhile those of his forces who were still obeying him were bombing the cities and killing ordinary people, whom clearly he regarded as revolting peasants.

By 8 March Gaddafi's troops were re-occupying some towns held by the rebels, and bombing them with pilots alleged to be from Syria (dictators like to help each other).

18 March. Following a resolution by the UN Security Council to prevent flying by the Libyan government, Gaddafi declared a ceasefire, but fighting continued with air strikes on Benghazi.

On 19 March ships and aircraft of US, UK, Canada, France and Italy fired a number of cruise missiles at Libyan targets. Gaddafi's assault on Benghazi was halted and his forces retreated. By 29 March his airforce was out of action but he still seemed to have supporters. NATO forces continued to attack targets until the end.

By mid-May the civil war was still going on. The rebels held Benghazi and most of the east. Gaddafi continued to hold the west. This situation continued at the end of July.

End July 2011 The National Transition Council was "recognised" as the official government of Libya, although it does not fulfill the traditional criteria of the British Foreign Office - that such a government should control the territory. However, the recognition allows it to appoint ambassadors and to gain title to Libyan funds invested abroad. Thus the rebels could then buy weapons with these funds.

22 August 2011. Rebel forces entered Tripoli and the civil war seemed to have ended - except that several cities continued to be controlled by pro-Gaddafi forces, and he himself had not been seen.

The National Transition Council published a Draft Constitution which would set up a democratic state. They hoped for elections in April 2012 - already set back until 2013.

There are signs of factionalism in the TNC. Will the Islamists demand a position in the new government?

October 2011, only now are the TNC forces entering Gaddafi's home town of Sirte. His family have mostly fled to Algeria.

20 October 2011 Gaddafi was captured in Sirte, found hiding in a culvert under a road, and shortly after discovery shot, perhaps bringing the war to an end.

So far, March 2012, no government structure has emerged and each area seems to be under the control of its local militia forces. A separatist movement has emerged in Benghazi advocating a federal structure with Benghazi as the capital of a revived Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic). As this would have the bulk of the oil it might have the major power in a federal Libya.

Elections for a Constituent Assembly are supposed to occur in June 2012. Will they?

There is also a campaign for a Berber (Amazigh) autonomous area. See BBC report.

There has been fighting in the Sahara in Sebha between TNC forces and possible Tuareg secessionists.

Interesting reading

John Glubb - A Short History of the Arab Peoples

Alberto di Pirajno - A Cure for Serpents
Classic memoir from the Italian colonial period

A Cure for Serpents - An Italian Doctor in North Africa
Testamento del Signor Enrico Pirajno Barone Di Mandralisca
A Cure for Serpents
Testamento del Signor Enrico Pirajno
Patrizia Palumbo - A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present

Lindsey Hilsum - Sandstorm Libya in a time of revolution

Review by Chris McGreal
From the London Observer 10 June 2012
After Gaddafi, Libya splits into disparate militia zones The rebel strongholds of Benghazi, Misrata and Zintan have become increasingly independent of Tripoli's new regime
Observer report

Election results







Private business was forbidden for a long time and the economy has run down with a shortage of consumer goods. However, the foreign exchange from the oil production has masked the inefficiency of the rest of the economy and allowed grandiose capital projects such as the water schemes. The lower oil price in recent times reduced this ability to distribute largesse to the people but the current higher prices (2011) restored his ability to buy loyalty.

The UN ordered sanctions against Libya in order to persuade the government to hand over for trial two officials alleged to be responsible for placing a bomb on an airliner. Air flights to the country were forbidden until two Libyans were handed for trial over the Lockerbie air disaster.

Sanctions were lifted and the oil industry was expanding again.

Gaddafi had been planning a rail system along the coast to link the Tunisian border to the Egyptian border and to link the east and west of the country. Construction is said to have started. (2011). Will the new government continue with it? Probably not unless it can be part of a continuous system from Morocco to Egypt.

There was a great deal of destruction during the civil war. Huge sums will be needed for reconstruction, especially of the oil installations.







Since the country became wealthy from selling oil the government has been ordering the planting of trees on a large scale. This may have an effect on the rainfall.

However, the present policy - Gaddafi's Great Manmade River - is to pump ground water deposits on a large scale. These are from the Sahara - the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. As these accumulated during the last Ice Age when there was more rain the question arises of what the increased population would live on when the water is exhausted - the same problem found in the South Western United States and various parts of the Middle East. It is claimed the water could last 1000 years.

Libya would be suitable for a major solar energy site.






Human Rights

Justice was run by People's Courts and did not correspond to western rule of law. Will the new regime set up a justice system?

Amnesty International says 2010 executions were 18+ (but thousands of people have been killed by government forces since the rising began.

Climate effects

Rainfall is expected to decrease still further as the Sahara moves north.


Northern Africa


World Info


Return to the top

Since 18/02/11

eXTReMe Tracker