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 Arabs conquered Libya in the seventh century A.D. In the following
centuries, most of the indigenous peoples adopted Islam and the Arabic
language and culture. The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in
the mid-16th century. Libya remained part of their empire--although
at times virtually autonomous--until Italy invaded in 1911 and, in the
face of years of resistance, made Libya a colony.
In 1934, Italy adopted the name "Libya" (used by the Greeks for all
of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony, which
consisted of the Provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.
King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, led Libyan resistance to Italian occupation
between the two World Wars. From 1943 to 1951, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica
were under British administration, while the French controlled Fezzan.
In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent
residence in Cyrenaica until the removal in 1947 of some aspects of foreign
control. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies,
Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.
On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating
that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. King
Idris I represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. When
Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951, it was the first
country to achieve independence through the United Nations and one of the
first former European posessions in Africa to gain independence.
Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy under King
The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent
income from petroleum sales enabled what had been one of the world's poorest
countries to become extremely wealthy, as measured by per capita GDP. Although
oil drastically improved Libyas finances, popular resentment grew as wealth
was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. This discontent
continued to mount with the rise throughout the Arab world of Nasserism
and the idea of Arab unity.
On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then
28-year-old army officer Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi staged a
coup detat against King Idris, who was exiled to Egypt. The new regime,
headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy
and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. Qadhafi emerged as leader
of the RCC and eventually as de facto chief of state, a political role
he still plays. The Libyan Government asserts that Qadhafi currently
holds no official position, although he is referred to in government statements
and the official press as the Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.
The new RCC's motto became "freedom, socialism, and unity." It
pledged itself to remedy backwardness, take an active role in the Palestinian
Arab cause, promote Arab unity, and encourage domestic policies based on
social justice, non-exploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.
An early objective of the new government was withdrawal of all foreign
military installations from Libya. Following negotiations, British
military installations at Tobruk and nearby El Adem were closed in March
1970, and U.S. facilities at Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli were closed
in June 1970. That July, the Libyan Government ordered the expulsion
of several thousand Italian residents. By 1971, libraries and cultural
centers operated by foreign governments were ordered closed.
In the 1970s, Libya claimed leadership of Arab and African revolutionary
forces and sought active roles in international organizations. Late
in the 1970s, Libyan embassies were redesignated as "people's bureaus,"
as Qadhafi sought to portray Libyan foreign policy as an expression of
the popular will. The people's bureaus, aided by Libyan religious,
political, educational, and business institutions overseas, exported Qadhafi's
revolutionary philosophy abroad.
Qadhafis confrontational foreign policies and use of terrorism, as
well as Libyas growing friendship with the U.S.S.R., led to increased
tensions with the West in the 1980s. Following a terrorist bombing at
a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American military personnel,
in 1986 the U.S. retaliated militarily against targets in Libya, and imposed
broad unilateral economic sanctions.
After Libya was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103
over Lockerbie, Scotland, UN sanctions were imposed in 1992. UN Security
Council resolutions (UNSCR) passed in 1992 and 1993 obliged Libya to fulfill
requirements related to the Pan Am 103 bombing before sanctions could be
lifted. Qadhafi initially refused to comply with these requirements, leading
to Libyas political and economic isolation for most of the 1990s.
In 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the UNSCR requirements by surrendering
two Libyans suspected in connection with the bombing for trial before a
Scottish court in the Netherlands. One of these suspects, Abdel Basset
al-Megrahi, was found guilty; the other was acquitted. Al-Megrahis conviction
was upheld on appeal in 2002. In August 2003, Libya fulfilled the remaining
UNSCR requirements, including acceptance of responsibility for the actions
of its officials and payment of appropriate compensation to the victims
families. UN sanctions were lifted on September 12, 2003. U.S. sanctions
against Libya remain in place.