Libya

GEOGRAPHY

Libya is located in North Africa, along the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Tunisia. The country has an area of approximately 1,759,540 sq km (679,362 sq miles), which equates to an area slightly larger than the state of Alaska. Libya has a mild Mediterranean climate along the coast, with occasional storms and rain from October to March. In the interior of the country, however, the climate is increasingly hot and dry. Temperatures in the Sahara desert typically reach into the 50s Celsius (120s Fahrenheit) during the summer months. Libya is a flat and mostly barren country with few mountains, plateaus, and deep valleys that interrupt long stretches of desert. The Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountains) is one of the only forested areas in Libya and is located in the northeastern region of the country.

The extreme heat, lack of precipitation and fresh water sourceslibya-map_20101112_1291712799re, and vast reach of the Sahara desert mean that only 1% of Libya’s land is arable. Because of this, Libya is forced to import nearly 75% of its food annually. Much of this cost is offset by the sale of Libya’s natural resources, which include reserves of natural gas, petroleum, and gypsum. The government buys raw sugar and grains, sells them to markets throughout the country, and subsidizes the cost to ensure prices remain stable. In the limited fertile regions along the coast, Libya has been somewhat successful in growing wheat, dates, olives, and citrus fruits.

Libya currently faces several serious environmental concerns including rapid desertification of its arable land and limited usable water reserves throughout the country. In an attempt to combat both of these problems, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi authorized the creation of the “Great Man-Made River Project” (GMRP) in 1983. The world’s largest irrigation project, GMRP was described by Gaddafi as the 8th wonder of the world. This project utilizes a system of underground pumps and pipelines to carry freshwater from massive underground aquifers in the southern end of the country to reservoirs near cities along the Mediterranean coast. The project supplies the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte, and others with 6.5 million cubic meters of water per day. Phase three of the project was completed in 2009, with two other phases planned to link the system into one large network. However, the Libyan revolution has stalled progress on the project, and a NATO bombing campaign in 2011 destroyed one of the two pipeline manufacturing sites in Libya as it was believed to be housing weapons used by Gaddafi.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

The Berber people (self-identified as Amizigh, or free people) were among the earliest inhabitants of the region known today as Libya. The earliest confirmed indigenous tribes are believed to be the Garamantes and the Lebu, which can be traced back to roughly the year 1000 BCE. The expansion of Phoenician sea-power in the Mediterranean from 1000 BCE to 500 BCE led to the establishment of the city of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia. From here, Carthaginian influence expanded into western Libya, founding settlements which would later become the capital city of Tripoli. By 630 BCE, the Greeks expanded their influence into the eastern side of Libya and founded the city of Cyrene. Several other cities were also founded in the area of Cyrenaica including Balagrae, Apollonia, and Berenice (present-day Benghazi).

With the Roman defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE, the region around Tripoli fell under the control of local kings in northern Africa. The Romans annexed the eastern region of Cyrenaica in 74 BCE, and, after several more conquests in North Africa by the Roman emperor Augustus, most of the region fell under the control of the Roman Empire. For the next four hundred years, the region experienced prosperity under Roman influence, with forums, marketplaces, and public baths proliferating in major cities. As the Roman Empire began to collapse in the 4th century CE, a group of Germanic tribes, the Vandals, swept through North Africa, burning and sacking many cities along the way. The Byzantine Empire, which had emerged out of the eastern half of the former Roman Empire, ended Vandal control of the region in the 530s through a series of military attacks, and the Byzantine Empire then held tenuous control over the region.

Islamic control and conversion of the region began with the expansion of the Umayyads in the 640s. Libya and the rest of North Africa were absorbed by the Islamic Caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty and then the Abbasid dynasty in 750. This conquest began the process of “Arabization” in the region where many people began adopting the Arabic language as well as the new Islamic faith. The Arab Aghlabid emirs ruled on behalf of the Abbasids throughout the 9th century in the 960s and 970s. The Shia Fatimid dynasty under the leadership of the Caliph al-Mu’izz then conquered the region. The Fatimids found rule of Libya difficult to maintain as the predominantly Sunni people resented Shia governance. After two centuries of strained relations, the Berber Hafsid dynasty established control over the region around 1229. Named after Muhammad bin Abu Hafs, this dynasty of Berber rulers restored Sunni Islamic authority to the area and Tripoli thrived as a center for art, literature, and scholarship. This independent region, which stretched from Algeria to the western edge of Egypt, would remain under Hafsid control until 1574.

During the 16th century, the coastline along North Africa, and Libya especially, became a haven for pirates such as the infamous Barbarossa. Known for his large red beard, he commanded a corsair fleet in the Mediterranean under the direction of the Ottoman sultans and helped bring much of the North African coastline into the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans governed Libya, known then as the Vilayet (province) of Tripolitania, through a hereditary line of governors known as pashas. Their hold over the country was weak, however, and real power for the next several centuries would be vested in the elite corps of soldiers known as the janissaries, who reduced the role of the pasha to that of a figurehead. Although the area was technically part of the Ottoman Empire throughout this time, it often held virtual autonomy.

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As Ottoman power began to decline throughout the 19th century, Russia and the European nations began to compete for control of the Ottoman territories and most of the African continent. This process, known as the “Scramble for Africa,” resulted in the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, and Italians establishing colonies throughout Africa. The Italians invaded Libya in 1911 which sparked a year-long war with the Ottoman Turks over control of the country. Following their victory in 1912, the Italians established Italian North Africa, which eventually became two separate colonies known as Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania. In the years between 1912 and 1943, nearly 150,000 Italians settled in the area. Italian rule over the country was not universally accepted, and the Libyan resistance movement suffered, by some estimates, upwards of 50,000 casualties throughout its attempts to end the Italian colonization. The Italians lost their stronghold in North Africa upon the outbreak of World War II as the Allied powers landed invasion forces along the coastline. The British and French then administered Libya as a protectorate from 1943 until its official declaration of independence on December 24, 1951.

Libya became a constitutional monarchy at the end of 1951, headed by the self-proclaimed King Idris. Under his rule, the first Libyan constitution was introduced along with a large spike in government spending brought on by the discovery of substantial oil reserves in 1959. However, these revenues became a point of contention with the government as much of this new wealth stayed firmly in the hands of the king. The Libyan military became increasingly influenced by Egyptian President Nasser’s Arab nationalist ideology, and a group of military officials led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi overthrew King Idris in 1969 while he was seeking medical treatment in Turkey. Following the overthrow, Gaddafi repressed any political opposition to his rule through public executions and assassinations abroad. Though he claimed to have established democratic institutions such as the General People’s Committee, all real power remained firmly in the hands of Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s regime utilized the country’s oil revenues to greatly increase the standard of living for the country. Life expectancy increased by over 20 years to the age of 77 and the literacy rate rose to around 90% by the late 1970s. In 1977, Gaddafi changed the country’s official name from the Libyan Arab Republic to the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and steered the country into closer relations with the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gaddafi funded terrorist and paramilitary groups throughout the world and briefly attempted to buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan and India. These actions, in addition to the repression of dissent and brief military engagements with the United States over the status of the Gulf of Sidra, damaged Libyan relations with the United States and many European countries.

The Arab Spring uprisings began in Libya in February 2011. On February 27, the National Transitional Council (NTC) was established to consolidate the protesting groups into a single political voice and administer the regions which rose up in rebellion against Gaddafi. Large contingents of his army began defecting to the rebel side, and the establishment of a United Nations “no-fly zone” greatly aided the rebel cause. On October 20, 2011, rebel militias killed Gaddafi outside his hometown of Sirte, and announced victory over the previous regime three days later. The NTC facilitated the election of the Islamist transitional General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012, to which it transferred power and tasked with drafting a new constitution. Upon completion of the constitution in 2014, however, parliamentary elections were held, and the Islamists faired poorly. The GNC then reconvened in August 2014 and refused to recognize the newly-elected parliament (known as the Council of Deputies); GNC supporters seized Tripoli and forced the Council of Deputies into near-exile in Tobruk, a city near the Egyptian border. In November 2014, the Libyan Supreme Court, which is located in Tripoli, declared the Council illegal and voided the 2014 election results. Nonetheless, most countries recognize the Council as Libya‘s rightful government. In addition to this power struggle, in 2015, the Islamic State, Ansar-al-Sharia, and other groups took the opportunity to seize various cities and areas in Libya. Many experts believe the Libyan state is on the verge of failure. Attempts to reconcile the Tobruk and Tripoli factions have been unsuccessful as recently as February 2016 despite international efforts to facilitate peace talks.

History & Government Resources

PEOPLE & LANGUAGE

As of a July 2015 estimate from the CIA World FactBook, the population of Libya is about 6.4 million. The country’s population continues to grow at a rate of about 2.23% per year, while the life expectancy of a Libyan citizen is roughly 76 years. 79% of the population lives in urban areas of the country, typically in Tripoli and Benghazi, and along the coast of the Mediterranean. Most Libyans are of Berber (Amazigh) and Arab descent (97%), but 3% of the population is made up of several national and ethnic groups including Tunisians, Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, Turks, Pakistanis and Indians. While Arabic is the official language of Libya, Italian, English, and some Berber dialects are often understood in major cities and metropolitan areas.

Population of Libya

Indigenous Amazigh (Berber) and Arab 97%
Other 3%

Life Expectancy of a Libyan Citizen

The quality of education in Libya is one of the highest in the African continent. As of 2015, 91% of the population was literate, compared with 80% in Algeria and Egypt and rates as low as 27% in Mali and South Sudan. This is due in large part to government support for free and compulsory education at the primary level. Children attend primary education from ages 6-15, and have the option upon completion of primary school to continue for three more years at the secondary level. At the collegiate level, also known as tertiary education, students have access to several prominent universities in Libya. Among these are the University of Libya, Al-Fatah University, and the Gar Yunis University. The University of Libya was established by royal decree in 1955, and offers degrees in fields such as managing, marketing, and computer programming.

Healthcare in Libya is primarily accessed through the country’s Ministry of Health. Though much of the system is state-run, Libyans also have access to several private healthcare facilities. The government spends about 4% of its Gross Domestic Product on healthcare, ranking 162 out of 191 nations in which data was collected. The revolution that brought about the end of Gaddafi’s regime has had a negative impact on Libya’s healthcare system. Hospitals in cities like Tripoli and Benghazi were damaged during the fighting and many doctors fled the country during the worst of the violence. The World Health Organization has partnered with the Libyan Ministry of Health to help rebuild and re-staff healthcare facilities throughout the country.

People & Language Resources

RELIGION

Libya is a predominantly Muslim country, with the majority (97%) of its people following Sunni Islam. The country also has a significant minority of Christians with about 60,000 members of the Egyptian Coptic church and 40,000 Roman Catholics. Libya once held one of the largest populations of Jews in North Africa; however, persecution related to the creation of the State of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars combined with a rigorous immigration effort by Israel has diminished this population to nearly zero. Libya is also home to small Anglican protestant and Buddhist communities. Islam is the official religion of the state. Other religious groups are permitted to worship, but are prohibited from proselytizing or espousing political messages.

CULTURE

The culture of Libya is closely tied to that of the Arab and Berber people of North Africa. Islam is also heavily intertwined with Libyan culture but there are other religious influences stemming from its history with various empires. This is evident in Libyan cuisine which is heavily influenced by North African and Mediterranean traditions. Meals usually include a variety of Mediterranean spices such as cayenne pepper and saffron, and feature ingredients like lamb, chicken, onions, tomatoes, olives, figs and dates. Bazeen is a Libyan dish featuring wheat cakes served in a type of stew with meat, onions, turmeric, salt, tomato paste, and chili powder. Potatoes and hard-boiled eggs are then added just before serving. The traditional dessert, asida, also includes wheat flour dough, but is instead covered in honey or butter. A common breakfast dish is known as shakshouka. Shakshouka features poached eggs in tomato sauce with vegetables, cheese, and onions. The dish is typically seasoned with chili peppers and cumin and served with coffee or tea.

Clothing in Libya tends to reflect generational lines, as younger people wear more Western-style clothes, especially in major cities. However, among the older population, clothing is generally more modest and conservative in keeping with Islamic specifications for appropriate dress. The traditional male garment is a long white robe that covers most of the body, while women wear a brightly colored gown in addition to a headscarf, known as the hijab.

Culture Resources

Art

One of the earliest art forms in Libya can be found in the vast expanses of the southern desert in the form of rock art. Rock art typically takes the form of engravings or paintings on stones and rock formations found in the desert, and many of these works date back thousands of years. Engravings such as those found in the Karkur Tahl and Karkur Murr sites depict scenes of wild animals and ancient civilizations. In contrast, many types of modern artwork such as embroidery, weaving, and metalwork refrain from depicting humans or animals due to Islamic restrictions on representational art.

Other forms of art have only recently begun to generate interest, as the Gaddafi regime suppressed many mediums. In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, art forms such as poetry and painting are becoming common.  Libyan poets such as Khaled Mattawa, long active in exile, and Abderraouf Abdelmajid Bin Al-Amin have penned long poems expressing joy over the success of the revolution and apprehension about the future of the country. Bin Al-Amin’s work in particular highlights the attachment to homeland, faith, and the Arab connection experienced by many in the country. In painting, Ali Abani has created colorful portraits of Libya’s scenic landscapes and natural beauty. He has also begun to pioneer Libya’s expansion into the modern art world by working with computers and new forms of social media to spread his work.

Art Resources

Sites

Libya has several sites of significance to both its ancient history and Islamic heritage. Several ancient ruins still stand across Libya which offer reminders of its Greek and Roman history. One such monument is the ruins of the Temple of Zeus in the Cyrene region of Libya. Built in the 6th century BCE by the Greeks, this temple is now a UNESCO world heritage site and shows traces of Egyptian architectural designs. A more recent site is the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli. This structure was once a defensive castle built to protect Tripoli from seaborne invasions, and is believed to have been painted red following the brief occupation of the Spanish in 1510 CE. The Italians converted the castle into a museum in 1919, and it became Libya’s national museum in 1948. The museum holds artifacts spanning thousands of years of history including Roman statues from the 2nd century AD. The Red Castle is also home to jewels, pottery, gold coins, ornate mosaics, dinosaur bones, and several relics from Gaddafi’s rule. Access to Libya’s architectural, cultural, and natural wonders has been cut off due to the ongoing turmoil taking place in the country.

Sites Resources

Music

The musical styles popular in Libya are also common throughout much of North Africa. Among these styles are ma’louf and chaabi. Ma’louf is most common in Tunisia, but is also well-known in Libya and features a small orchestra with drums, violins, sitars, and flutes. This musical style may also be played with a tambourine, stringed oud, or the darbuka drum. Chaabi is a similar style which emphasizes a slower, rolling beat and rhythm. Both ma’louf and chaabi are performed at festivals and weddings, and people often dance to the beat of the music. One of the most well-known Libyan musicians of these styles is Mohammad Hassan. Hassan was known as the favorite signer of Gaddafi, but his popularity has declined greatly since the revolution.

The strong Amazigh identity of the Libyan population has corresponded with the popularity of traditional and contemporary Berber music. This music is stylistically varied and utilizes diverse instruments such as the bagpipe and oboe, but typically feature stringed instruments and drums. It makes heavy use of African rhythms and usually features a call-and-response section for larger groups of people. Berber music often includes socio-political themes such as the struggle to maintain identity in the face of an Arab majority and the fight to obtain national recognition of the Amazigh languages.

Music Resources

Sports

Libya has been participating in the Summer Olympics since 1964 and will be sending athletes to the 2016 games in Rio, Brazil, including a swimmer, a distance runner and a Taekwondo competitor. The nation boycotted the 1976 games in Quebec City along with most other African nations due to concerns related to Apartheid South Africa. Libya also boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles after Libyan journalists were refused entry into the United States in July, though generally poor relations between the two countries was also a factor. Libya has never won a medal at the Summer Olympics and has never participated in the Winter Olympic Games. Horse racing and soccer are popular sports in Libya.

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON LIBYA

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on Libya

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The New York Times

News about Libya, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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LIBYAN NEWS OUTLETS

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

CIA World Fact Book Photo Gallery: Libya

This photo gallery shows images of some of Libya’s most popular sites.

BBC News History Timeline