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Libya - Introduction

Overview

A former Roman colony, Libya is a mostly desert country which saw invasions by Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and more recently Italians before gaining independence in 1951.


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.

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.

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.

Desertification, or scarcity of potable water, is a pressing environmental issue. In 1984 the government launched the $20bn Great Man-Made River project, with the purpose of extracting water from Libya's Sahara Desert in the south. The first two out of five phases are now complete. The ultimate aim is to build 1000 desert wells, from which 6.5m cubic metres of water will be pumped and transferred daily to coastal cities in the north. As an emerging leader in hydrological engineering, Libya hopes to share its expertise with other African and Middle Eastern countries facing similar problems.

The desert landscape also yields natural highlights including sand dunes, lakes, oases and rock formations.

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.

The name ‘Libya’ is an indigenous (i.e. Berber) one, which is attested in ancient Egyptian texts as, R'bw (= Libu), which refers to one of the tribes of Berber peoples living west of the Nile.

In Greek the tribesmen were called Libyes and their country became "Libya", although in ancient Greece the term had a broader meaning, encompassing all of North Africa west of Egypt. Later on, at the time of Ibn Khaldun, the same big tribe was known as Lawata.

A part of the Ottoman Empire since the sixteenth century, Libya became an Italian colony in 1911. The country saw much fighting in the desert during the Second World War, during which period Libya was under the Allied rule. From 1945–1951 Libya remained under the UN trusteeship, after which it became an independent nation.

Libya, once shunned by much of the international community over the 1988 bombing of a PanAm plane above the Scottish town of Lockerbie, has undergone a dramatic rehabilitation.

Tripoli formally took responsibility for the incident in 2003. The move, part of a deal to compensate families of the 270 victims, heralded the lifting of UN sanctions.

Months later, Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction, paving the way for a further blossoming of relations with the West.

The Libyan economy depends primarily upon revenues from the oil sector, which contribute about 95% of export earnings, about one-quarter of GDP, and 60% of public sector wages.

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.

Libya is a transit and destination country for men, women, and children from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation; many victims willingly migrate to Libya en route to Europe with the help of smugglers, but may be forced into prostitution or work as laborers and beggars to pay off their $800-$1,200 smuggling debt; laborers from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia are reportedly trafficked to Libya for the purpose of labor exploitation.

Tripoli is the capital of Libya and its largest city. Other cities include Ajdabiyah, Al Bayda, Al Marj, Benghazi, Darnah, Misratah, and Tobruk.

Oil was discovered in 1958 and with it, the country was transformed into a wealthy monarchy. Ten years later, though, the king was overthrown in a coup led by the 27-year-old Muammar Gaddafi, and Libya embarked on a radically new chapter in its history.

The system is a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices and is supposed to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of "direct democracy."

Qadhafi following the 1969 military coup, began to espouse his own political system, the Third Universal Theory and has always seen himself as a revolutionary and visionary leader. He used oil funds during the 1970s and 1980s to promote his ideology outside Libya, supporting subversives and terrorists abroad to hasten the end of Marxism and capitalism.

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.

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.

Last Updated on Friday 13th November 2009