Modern History of Libya

For most of their history, the peoples of Libya have been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control.  The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines ruled all or parts of Libya.

Although the Greeks and Romans left impressive ruins at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha, little else remains today to testify to the presence of these ancient cultures.

The Italian colonial period proved devastating for native Libyans. Half of the indigenous population were either exiled or exterminated between 1911 and WWII. The country was reduced to a theatre of war in which huge minefields were laid, some remaining to the current day.

Following the outbreak of hostilities between Italy and Turkey in 1911, Italian troops occupied Tripoli. Italian sovereignty was recognized in 1912. Libyans continued to fight the Italians until 1914, by which time Italy controlled most of the land. Italy formally united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1934 as the colony of Libya.

Libya was the scene of much desert fighting during World War II. After the fall of Tripoli on Jan. 23, 1943, it came under Allied administration. In 1949, the UN voted that Libya should become independent, and it became the United Kingdom of Libya and achieved independence in 1951.

Following a 1969 military coup, Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-QADHAFI began to espouse his own political system, the Third Universal Theory.

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 has always seen himself as a revolutionary and visionary leader.

Oil was discovered in the impoverished country in 1958 and eventually transformed its economy. Qaddafi's regime committed to a more equitable distribution of Libya's enormous oil income, and billions of dollars were spent on roads, schools, housing, hospitals and agriculture. In practice, however, Libya's government was and continues to be a strict military dictatorship.

Italian colonization

In the 1920s and '30s the Italian government expended large sums on developing towns, roads, and agricultural colonies for Italian settlers. The most ambitious effort was the program of Italian immigration called “demographic colonization,” launched by the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1935.

As a result of these efforts, some 150,000 Italian settlers were established in Libya (about 18 percent of that country's total population) by the outbreak of World War II (1939–45).

These colonizing efforts and the resulting economic development of Libya were largely destroyed during the North Africa campaigns of 1940–43. Cyrenaica changed hands three times, and by the end of 1942 all of the Italian settlers had been withdrawn. Cyrenaica largely reverted to pastoralism.

Somewhat more of the economic and administrative development achieved by Italy survived in Tripolitania; however, Libya by 1945 was impoverished, underpopulated, and also divided into regions—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica—of differing political, economic, and religious traditions.


Libya became one of the main battlegrounds of North Africa after Italy entered World War II in June, 1940 (for military details, see North Africa, campaigns in). After the Allied victory over the Axis in N Africa (1943), Libya was placed under an Anglo-French military government.

The future of Libya gave rise to long discussions after the war. In view of the contribution to the fighting made by a volunteer Sanusi force, the British foreign minister pledged in 1942 that the Sanusis would not again be subjected to Italian rule.

During the discussions, which lasted four years, suggestions included an Italian trusteeship, a United Nations trusteeship, a Soviet mandate for Tripolitania, and various compromises. The Big Four (Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR) failed to reach agreement on the future of Libya as stipulated in the 1947 peace treaty with Italy.

The United Nations was given (1949) jurisdiction and decided that Libya should become independent. Finally, in November 1949, the UN General Assembly voted that Libya should become a united and independent kingdom no later than January 1, 1952.

A constitution creating a federal state with a separate parliament for each province was drawn up, and the pro-British head of the Sanusiyyah, Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, was chosen king by a national assembly in 1950.

On December 24, 1951, King Idris I declared the country independent. Political parties were prohibited, and the king's authority was fundamental.

Though not themselves Sanusis, the Tripolitanians accepted the monarchy largely in order to profit from the British promise that the Sanusis would not again be subjected to Italian rule. King Idris showed a marked preference for living in Cyrenaica, where he built a new capital on the site of the Sanusi zawiyah at Al-Bayda'.

Though Libya joined the Arab League in 1953 and in 1956 refused British troops permission to land during the Suez Crisis, at that time the government in general adopted a pro-Western point of view in international affairs.

The Discovery of Oil

The discovery of major petroleum deposits in both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica assured the country of income on a vast scale. The 1950s in Libya were characterized by great poverty; minimal economic development was made possible only by the payments and loans received from various Western nations. In 1958, petroleum was discovered in the country.

Libya changed abruptly from a pauper state, dependent on international aid and the rent from U.S. and British air bases, to an oil-rich monarchy in 1959. And by the early 1960s Libya was taking in growing revenues from the exploitation of that resource.

Soon after the discovery of oil there was an enormous expansion of all government services and also of construction projects, and a corresponding rise in the economic standard and the cost of living.

On September 1, 1969, a group of young army officers led by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi deposed the king and made Libya a republic. The new regime, passionately Pan-Arab, broke the monarchy's close ties to Britain and the United States and also began an assertive policy that led to higher oil prices and to 51 percent Libyan participation in oil company activities and in some cases to outright nationalization.

The Qaddafi Regime

On Sept. 1, 1969, 27-year-old Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi deposed the king and revolutionized the country, making it a pro-Arabic, anti-Western, Islamic republic with socialist leanings.

The 1951 constitution was abrogated, and government was placed in the hands of a 12-member Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) headed by Qaddafi, who became prime minister. In mid-1972, Qaddafi turned the post of prime minister over to Abdul Salam Jallud, but he remained the RCC's president, the country's most important political and military office.

It was also rabidly anti-Israeli. A notorious firebrand, Qaddafi aligned himself with dictators, such as Uganda's Idi Amin, and fostered anti-Western terrorism.

Qaddafi's Libya maintained a strong interventionist orientation on the Palestine issue and in support of other guerrilla and revolutionary organizations in Africa and the Middle East, all of which provoked considerable antipathy from the established governments that were threatened by such groups.

Equally assertive in plans for Arab unity, Libya obtained at least the formal beginnings of unity with Egypt, The Sudan, and Tunisia, but these and other such plans failed as differences arose among the governments concerned.

The regime pursued a policy of Arab nationalism and strict adherence to Islamic law; though Qaddafi espoused socialist principles, he was strongly anti-Communist. He was particularly concerned with reducing Western influences; as part of that effort, the British were forced (1970) to evacuate their remaining bases in Libya, and the United States was required to abandon Wheelus Field, a U.S. air force base located near Tripoli.

In July–August 1977 hostilities broke out between Libya and Egypt, and, as a result, many Egyptians working in Libya were obliged to return home. Indeed, in spite of expressed concern for Arab unity, the regime's relations with most Arab countries were poor. Qaddafi signed a treaty of union with Morocco's King Hassan II in August 1984, but Hassan abrogated the treaty in August 1986.

The regime, under Qaddafi's ideological guidance, continued to introduce innovations. On March 2, 1977, the General People's Congress declared that Libya was to be known as the People's Socialist Libyan Arab Jamahiriyyah (the latter term is a neologism meaning “government through the masses”).

By 1981, however, a drop in the demand and price for oil on the world market was beginning to hamper Qaddafi's efforts to play a strong regional role. Ambitious efforts to radically change Libya's economy and society slowed, and there were signs of domestic discontent. Libyan opposition movements launched sporadic attacks against Qaddafi and his military supporters but met with arrest and execution.

Libya's foreign policy was generally reoriented away from N Africa and toward the heart of the Middle East. Close ties were established with Egypt, and in 1971 Libya joined with Egypt and Syria to form a loose alliance called the Federation of Arab Republics. A “cultural revolution” launched in 1973 sought to make life in the country more closely approximate Qaddafi's socialist and Muslim principles.

An implacable foe of Israel, Libya contributed some men and matériel (especially aircraft) to the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli war of Oct., 1973. After the war, Libya was a strong advocate of reducing sales of petroleum to nations that had supported Israel and was also a leading force in increasing the price of crude petroleum.

Qaddafi was severely critical of Egypt for negotiating a cease-fire with Israel, and relations between the two countries declined steadily after 1973 when Qaddafi failed to push through a merger with Egypt.

By the mid-1970s, Qaddafi had survived numerous coup attempts, and in 1980 he began ordering the assassination of Libyan dissidents who were living in exile in Europe. In 1981, two Libyan fighter planes attacked U.S. forces on maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra (which Libya claims as national waters) and were shot down.

Libya's relations with the United States became even more hostile when it began to support international terrorist organizations. The United States placed a ban on Libyan oil imports in 1982. In 1986, in an apparent attempt to kill Qaddafi, U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack in West Berlin that had killed two American servicemen.

Libya's attempts in the mid-1980s to form a union with Algeria and Tunisia, while not successful, resulted (1989) in the Arab Maghreb Union.

In 1988, a bomb blew up on a Pan Am commercial airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. International warrants were issued for the arrest and extradition to Great Britain of two Libyan suspects in the case, but the government refused to surrender them. Libya was also implicated in the similar 1989 bombing of a French UTA DC-10 over Niger in which 170 people died.

In 1989, it was discovered that a West German company was selling Libya equipment for the construction of a chemical weapons plant at Rabta. These actions, as well as the widespread belief in the United States and Europe that Qaddafi's regime was responsible for terrorist activities, led to American and UN sanctions against Libya in 1992.

In 1994, Libya pulled its troops out of the Aozou Strip, a mineral-rich region of N Chad, after the World Court rejected its claim to that territory. In 1995 there were clashes between Libyan security forces and members of Islamic groups in E Libya. The United States charged (1996) that Libya was constructing a chemical weapons plant southeast of Tripoli and said Libya would be prevented from putting it into operation.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s Libya engaged in intermittent warfare with Chad, largely over control of the mineral-rich Aozou strip situated near the border of the two states.

Libya was eventually bested by Chad's military, and diplomatic ties with Chad were restored in October 1988. In 1994 Libya withdrew its troops from the Aozou strip. Relations with the United States deteriorated in the 1980s as the U.S. government protested Qaddafi's support for international terrorist groups and claimed Libya was producing chemical weapons.

A series of retaliatory trade restrictions and military skirmishes in the Gulf of Sidra culminated in a U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli and Banghazi in April 1986. In 1996 the United States and the United Nations implemented a series of economic sanctions against Libya for its purported involvement in destroying a civilian airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Beginning in the late 1990s Libya embarked on a series of moves designed to end its estrangement from Western nations.

The willingness of Libya officials—after long denying culpability—to surrender suspects in the Scotland bombing and to compensate the families of the victims led to a lifting of UN sanctions in 2003. Later that year, Libya announced that it would stop producing chemical weapons; the United States responded by dropping most of its sanctions.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008