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
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 possessions in Africa to gain independence.
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. Although oil drastically improved
Libya?s 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 Mu?ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi
staged a coup d?etat 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
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.
Qadhafi?s confrontational foreign policies and use of terrorism,
as well as Libya?s 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 (UNSCRs) 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 Libya?s
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-Megrahi?s 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. International Emergency
Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)-based sanctions were lifted
September 20, 2004.
On December 19, 2003, Libya publicly announced its intention to
rid itself of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Missile
Technology Control Regime (MTCR)-class missile programs. Since
that time, it has cooperated with the U.S., the U.K., the
International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Organization for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons toward these objectives. Libya
has also signed the IAEA Additional Protocol and has become a
State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.