Libya (07/94)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Official Name: 
Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

Area:  1.8 million sq. km. (700,000 sq. mi.). 
Cities:  Capital--Tripoli (pop. 1.5 mil-lion).  Other--Benghazi (800,000). 
Terrain:  Desert and semidesert; hills south of Tripoli and east of Benghazi. 
Climate:  Mediterranean on coast; arid.

Nationality:  Noun and adjective--Libyan(s). 
Population (est.):  4.9 million.
Annual growth rate (est.):  3%. 
Ethnic groups:  Berber and Arab 97%; some Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians, and Tunisians. 
Religion:  97% Sunni Muslim. 
Language:   Arabic. 
Education:  Years compulsory--7.  Attendance--90%.  Literacy--64%.
Health:  Infant mortality rate--60/1,000.  Life expectancy--male, 66 yrs.; female, 71 yrs. 
Work force:  1.3 million, 500,000 of whom are resident foreign workers.  Industry--31%.   Services--27%.  Government--24%.  Agriculture--18%.

Type:  Islamic Arabic Socialist "Jamahiriya" or "state of masses." 
Independence:  December 24, 1951.  Revolution:  September 1, 1969. 
Constitution:  December 11, 1969 (amended March 2, 1977)--established popular congresses and peoples committees.
Aministrative divisions:  10 regions controlled by the central government; 25 municipalities (baladiya).
Political system (political parties are banned):  Based on theory of  Maj. Gen. Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, multilayered popular assemblies (people's congresses) with executive institutions (people's committees) are guided by political cadres (revolutionary committees).
Suffrage:  Mandatory universal adult.

GDP (1992 est.):  $27.7 billion. 
Per capita GDP:  $5,700.
Natural resources:  Crude oil, natural gas, gypsum.
Agriculture:  Products--wheat, barley, olives, citrus fruits, vegetables, dates, peanuts; 75% of Libya's food is imported.
Industry:  Types--petroleum, food processing, textiles, cement, handicrafts.
Trade:  Exports (1992)--$10 billion:  petroleum, peanuts, hides.  Major markets--Italy, countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, Spain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Turkey.  Imports--$7.6 billion:  machinery, transport equipment, food, manufactured goods.  Major suppliers--Italy,
countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, U.K., Japan.
Exchange rate (October 1993):  1 Libyan dinar=U.S.  $3.15. 

Libya has a small population in a large land area.  Population density  is about 50 persons per sq. km. (80/sq. mi.) in the two northern regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but falls to less than one person per sq. km. (1.6/sq. mi.) elsewhere.  Ninety percent of the people live in less than 10% of the area, primarily along the coast.  More than half the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.  Fifty percent of the population is under age 15.

Libyans are primarily a mixture of Arabs and Berbers.  Small Tebou and Touareg tribal groups in southern Libya are nomadic or semi-nomadic.  Among foreign residents, the largest groups are Egyptians (estimates range from 400,000 to 1 million), Tunisians (40,000), Turks, Pakistanis,
Indians, Sudanese, Moroccans, Jordanians, South Koreans, and Thais.  Other foreign residents include 70,000 from Eastern Europe and 40,000 from Western Europe.

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 16th century.  Libya remained part of their empire--although at times
virtually autonomous--until Italy invaded in 1911 and, after 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; 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.  Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy under King Idris.

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.

King Idris ruled the Kingdom of Libya until he was overthrown in a military-led coup on September 1, 1969.  The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic.  Col. Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi emerged as leader of the RCC and eventually as de facto chief of state, a position he currently holds.  He has no official position.

Seeking new directions, the RCC's motto became "freedom, socialism, and unity."  It pledged itself to remove 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.

During the years since the revolution, Libya claimed leadership of Arab and African revolutionary forces and sought active roles in various 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.

For seven years, the Government of Libya consisted of Colonel Qadhafi and the Revolutionary Command Council.  On March 3, 1977, Qadhafi convened a General People's Congress (GPC) to proclaim the establishment of "people's power," change the country's name to the Socialist People's
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and to vest, theoretically, primary authority in the GPC.

Qadhafi remained the de facto chief of state and secretary general of the GPC until 1980, when he gave up his office.  He continues to control the Libyan Government through direct appeals to the masses, a pervasive security apparatus, and powerful revolutionary committees.

Although he holds no formal office, Qadhafi exercises absolute power with the assistance of a small group of trusted advisers, who include relatives from his home base in the Sirte region, which lies between the rival provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

Before the 1969 constitution, Libya had a dual system of civil and religious courts.  The new constitution established the primacy of Shari'a, or Islamic law, unifying the two systems.  Civil laws now must conform to Shari'a.

The Libyan court system consists of four ascending levels.  The GPC appoints justices to the Supreme Court.  Military courts and special "revolutionary courts" operate outside the judicial system.

After the revolution, Qadhafi took increasing control of the government, but he also attempted to achieve greater popular participation in local government.  In 1973, he announced the start of a "cultural revolution" in schools, businesses, industries, and public institutions to oversee administration of those organizations in the public interest.  The March 1977 establishment of "people's power"--with mandatory popular participation in the selection of representatives to the GPC--was the culmination of this process.

The GPC is the legislative forum that interacts with the General People's Committee, whose members are secretaries of Libyan ministries.  It serves as the intermediary between the masses and the leadership and is composed of the secretariats of some 600 local "basic popular

The GPC secretariat and the cabinet secretaries are appointed by the GPC secretary general and confirmed by the annual GPC congress.  These cabinet secretaries are responsible for the routine operation of their ministries, but real authority is exercised by Qadhafi directly or through manipulation of the peoples and revolutionary committees.

In the 1980s, competition between the official Libyan Government and military hierarchies and the revolutionary committees was growing.  An abortive coup attempt in May 1984, apparently mounted by Libyan exiles with internal support, led to a short-lived reign of terror in which thousands were imprisoned and interrogated.  An unknown number were executed.  Qadhafi used the revolutionary committees to search out alleged internal opponents following the coup attempt, thereby
accelerating the rise of more radical elements inside the Libyan power hierarchy.

In 1988, faced with rising public dissatisfaction with shortages in consumer goods and setbacks in Libya's war with Chad, Qadhafi began to curb the power of the revolutionary committees and to institute some domestic reforms.  The regime released many political prisoners and eased restrictions on foreign travel by Libyans.  Private businesses were again permitted to operate.

Since the late 1980s, Qadhafi has pursued a harsh anti-Islamic fundamentalist policy domestically, presumably viewing fundamentalism as a potential rallying point for opponents of the regime.  Ministerial positions and military commanders are also frequently shuffled to diffuse potential threats to Qadhafi's authority.  More recently, the government has sought to counter popular discontent over deteriorating economic conditions with appeals to nationalism in the face of international sanctions.

Despite these measures, internal dissent continues.  Qadhafi's security forces launched a pre-emptive strike at alleged coup plotters in the military and among the Warfallah tribe in October 1993.  Widespread arrests and government reshufflings followed, accompanied by public
"confessions" from regime opponents and allegations of torture and executions.

Principal Government Officials
De facto Head of State--Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi
Secretary, Foreign Liaison Office--'Umar Mustafa al-Muntassir

The General People's Congress continued to pursue the goals of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council soon after the 1984 coup attempt.  These goals included a more equitable distribution of income and services, greater government control of the economy, and independence from foreign influence.  Libya also dedicated increasing resources to showcase items such as major irrigation projects, overseas interventions, and a military buildup.

In 1992-93, the Libyan Government embarked on a gradual economic liberalization program.  Recent developments include the issuance of regulations governing the privatization of selected public enterprises and the lifting of restrictions on private wholesale trade.  Its economy remains dependent upon revenues from exported crude oil.  Currently, oil production is 1.5 million barrels per day.

During the 1970s, Libyan Government expenditures did not keep pace with the rapid rise in oil revenues.  The resulting surplus led to the growth of large central bank foreign exchange reserves.  At their peak, these reached $14 billion in 1981, but OPEC's production restraints and softening oil prices led to revenue shortfalls, which have resulted recently in an annual drawdown of foreign exchange reserves by about $2 billion per year.  Reserves dropped to $3.5 billion in 1993.

Since 1981, fiscal difficulties associated with declining oil revenues combined with the effects of various socialist schemes have hurt merchants and other business professionals.  Although Libyans have experienced a dramatic rise in the standard of living during the past 20 years, more recent economic austerity measures as well as tighter internal security controls have caused a general deterioration in the quality of life for many Libyans.  Nonetheless, distribution of national wealth remains more equitable in Libya than in many other developing countries.

Libya's major trading partners are Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and countries of the former Soviet Union.  In response to Libyan support of terrorism, the U.S. Government prohibited the importation of Libyan crude oil into the United States in March 1982 and imposed strict controls on U.S.-origin goods intended for export to Libya.  A total ban on trade with Libya went into effect in January 1986.

Although agriculture is the second-largest sector in the economy, Libya is self-sufficient in few foods.  Higher incomes and a growing population have caused food consumption to rise.  Domestic food
production meets only about 25% of demand.  A long-term objective is to become self-sufficient in agriculture, although the scarcity of water is a serious obstacle.  Libya is undertaking a multi-billion-dollar project to tap water resources deep under the Sahara to meet coastal population water needs in the 1990s.  However, technical and administrative problems are hindering progress.

Since 1969, Qadhafi has determined Libya's foreign policy.  His principal foreign policy goals have been Arab unity, elimination of Israel, advancement of Islam, support for Palestinians, elimination of
outside--particularly Western--influence in the Middle East and Africa, and support for a range of "revolutionary" causes. 

After the 1969 coup, Qadhafi closed American and British bases on Libyan territory and partially nationalized all foreign oil and commercial interests in Libya.  He played a key role in introducing oil as a political weapon for challenging the West.  He hoped that an oil price rise and embargo in 1973 would persuade the West--especially the United States--to end support for Israel.  Qadhafi rejected both Soviet communism and Western capitalism, seeking an allegedly middle course.

Libya's relationship with the former Soviet Union involved massive Libyan arms purchases from the Soviet bloc and the presence of thousands of its advisers.  Libya's use--and heavy loss--of Soviet-supplied weaponry in its war with Chad was a notable breach of an apparent Soviet-Libyan understanding not to use the weapons for activities inconsistent with Soviet objectives.  As a result, Soviet-Libyan relations reached a nadir in mid-1987.

Since the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Libya has concentrated upon expanding diplomatic ties with Third World countries and increasing its commercial links with Europe and East Asia.  Libya recently has made substantial investments in international financial institutions and petroleum refining and marketing operations.  These foreign investments, however, have been the target of varying enforcement actions under UN Security Council Resolution 883, which imposed a limited freeze on Libyan assets abroad.

Merger Attempts with Neighbors
In pursuit of his goal of Arab unity, Qadhafi has tried unsuccessfully at various times to merge with Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria.  In August 1981, he signed a treaty with Ethiopia and the then-People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) that attempted to provide a framework for coordinating the foreign policies of the three countries.  In 1984, Libya concluded a treaty of union with Morocco.  Morocco abrogated this treaty in August 1986.  In 1987, Libya once again proposed a bilateral union, with Algeria.  Algeria then called on Libya to join a 1983 tripartite pact linking Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania.  Qadhafi rejected this offer.  Libya and Tunisia subsequently re-stored diplomatic relations in December 1987, as did Egypt and Libya in 1989.  Libya also joined in the 1988 establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union that linked Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, in addition to Libya, in a grouping modeled on the European Union.

In addition to using oil as leverage in his foreign policy, Qadhafi's principal tactics have been destabilization of weaker governments and terrorism.  Libya continues to harbor and finance groups all over the world that share Qadhafi's revolutionary and anti-Western views, including the Japanese Red Army and such radical Muslim groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council.  Its support for terrorist activity
against U.S. citizens and interests resulted in U.S. air strikes against Libya in April 1986; the precipitating event for this U.S. action was the bombing of a Berlin discotheque which killed an American serviceman and for which evidence of Libyan complicity had been discovered.

In October 1987, a Libyan arms shipment was intercepted on its way to the Irish Republican Army.  In 1988, operatives of the Abu Nidal Organization, which is headquartered in Libya, launched a grenade attack on a Khartoum hotel and sprayed a Greek passenger ferry with machine-gun
fire.  Later that year, two Libyan intelligence agents planted an explosive device in Malta on the flight connecting with Pan Am flight 103 in Germany which later exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing
259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground.  In September 1989, Libya masterminded the bombing of UTA flight 772 over Niger, killing all 171 persons aboard.

Libyan terrorism also has targeted anti-Qadhafi dissidents overseas.  Qadhafi's public calls for the deaths of Libyan opponents abroad during the latter half of 1993 raised strong suspicions of his regime's involvement in the disappearance of prominent Libyan dissident Mansour Kikhya from Cairo in December 1993.

While supporting terrorist groups, Qadhafi also has attempted to undermine other Arab and African states by supporting coups, funding and training opposition political parties and guerrilla groups, and plotting assassinations of rival leaders.  He also has sought involvement in Asia and Latin America through support for various subversive groups.  Use of such methods has strained Libyan relations with many nations.

Qadhafi's foreign interventions included a bid to prop up former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1979; incursions and intermittent war with Chad throughout the 1980s; continued claims on territory in Chad, Niger, and Algeria; and alleged support of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt.  Libya withdrew its forces from the disputed Aouzou Strip in mid-1994, after the International Court of Justice ruled Libya's presence an illegal occupation of Chadian territory.

The United States supported the UN resolution providing for Libyan independence in 1951 and raised the status of its office at Tripoli from a consulate general to a legation.  Libya opened a legation in Washington, DC, in 1954.  Both countries subsequently raised their missions to embassy level.

After Qadhafi's 1969 coup, U.S.-Libyan relations became increasingly strained because of Libya's foreign policies supporting international terrorism and subversion against moderate Arab and African governments.  In 1972, the United States withdrew its ambassador.  Export controls on
military equipment and civil aircraft were imposed during the 1970s, and U.S. embassy staff members were withdrawn from Tripoli after a mob attacked and set fire to the embassy in December 1979.  The U.S. Government declared Libya a "state sponsor of terrorism" on December 29,

In May 1981, the U.S. Government closed the Libyan "people's bureau" (embassy) in Washington, DC, and expelled the Libyan staff in response to a general pattern of conduct by the people's bureau contrary to internationally accepted standards of diplomatic behavior.

In August 1981, two Libyan jets fired on U.S. aircraft participating in a routine naval exercise over international waters of the Mediterranean claimed by Libya.  The U.S. planes returned fire and shot down the attacking Libyan aircraft.  In December 1981, the State Department invalidated U.S. passports for travel to Libya and, for purposes of safety, advised all U.S. citizens in Libya to leave.  In March 1982, the U.S. Government prohibited imports of Libyan crude oil into the United States and expanded the controls on U.S.-origin goods intended for export to Libya.  Licenses were required for all transactions, except food and medicine.  In March 1984, U.S. export controls were expanded to
prohibit future exports to the Ras al-Enf petrochemical complex.  In April 1985, all Export-Import Bank financing was prohibited.

Due to Libya's continuing support for terrorism, the United States adopted additional economic sanctions against Libya in January 1986, including a total ban on direct import and export trade, commercial contracts, and travel-related activities.  In addition, Libyan Government assets in the United States were frozen.  When evidence of Libyan complicity was discovered in the Berlin discotheque terrorist bombing that killed an American serviceman, the United States responded
by launching an aerial bombing attack against targets near Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986.  Since then, the United States has maintained its trade and travel embargoes and has sought to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear against Libya.

In 1988, Libya was found to be in the process of constructing a chemical weapons plant at Rabta, a plant which is now the largest such facility in the Third World.  Libya is currently constructing another chemical weapons production facility at Tarhunah.  Libya's support for terrorism and its past regional aggressions made this development a matter of major concern to the United States.  In cooperation with like-minded countries, the United States has since sought to bring a halt to the foreign technical assistance deemed essential to the completion of this facility.

In 1991, two Libyan intelligence agents were indicted by federal prosecutors in the U.S. and Scotland for their involvement in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103.  In January 1992, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 731 demanding that Libya surrender the suspects, cooperate with the Pan Am 103 and UTA 772 investigations, pay compensation to the victims' families, and cease all support for terrorism.  Libya's refusal to comply led to the approval of UNSC Resolution 748 on March 31, 1992, imposing sanctions designed to bring about Libyan compliance.  Continued Libyan defiance led to passage of UNSC Resolution 883--a limited assets freeze and an embargo on selected oil equipment--in November 1993.