Libyan History

The History of Libya includes the history of its rich mix of ethnic groups added to the indigenous Berber tribes. Berbers, the bulk of Libya’s population, have been present throughout the entire history of the country. For most of its history, Libya has been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines ruled all or parts of Libya.

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. The Libyan protests against the Italians were led by Omar Mukhtar. He organized for nearly twenty year native resistance to Italian colonization of Libya. The Italians captured and hanged him on 16 September 1931 at the age of 70.

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. Allied forces removed Axis powers from Libya in February 1943. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica came under separate 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 21 November 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before 1 January 1952. King Idris I represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. When Libya declared its independence on 24 December 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. 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 1 September 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 subsequently exiled to Egypt. The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. The new RCC’s motto became “freedom, socialism, and unity.”

Nationwide political violence erupted in February 2011, following the Libyan Government’s brutal suppression of popular protests against Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. Opposition forces quickly seized control of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, as well as significant portions of eastern Libya and some areas in western Libya. Drawing from the local opposition councils which formed the backbone of the “February 17” revolution, the Libyan opposition announced the formation of a Transitional National Council (TNC) on 27 February 2011. The Council stated its desire to remove Qadhafi from power and establish a unified, democratic, and free Libya that respects universal human rights principles. On 23 October 2011 Libya was declared free from Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s regime.