From as early as 8000 BC, Neolithic peoples lived in Libya’s coastal plain. By the Late Bronze Age, the Berber people’s Afroasiatic forebears are said to have expanded across the region. The Garamantes, who were located in Germa, are the oldest recorded name for such a tribe. In Libya, the Phoenicians were the first to set up trade stations. By the 5th century BC, Carthage, the most powerful of the Phoenician colonies, had expanded its dominion over most of North Africa, spawning a separate culture known as Punic.
The Ancient Greeks invaded Eastern Libya around 630 BC, establishing the city of Cyrene. In the next 200 years, the region that became known as Cyrenaica would see the establishment of four more major Greek towns. Cambyses II’s Persian army conquered Cyrenaica in 525 BC, and it remained under Persian or Egyptian control for the following two centuries. When Alexander the Great arrived in Cyrenaica in 331 BC, he was welcomed by Greeks, and Eastern Libya was once again ruled by the Greeks, this time as part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
The Romans did not immediately invade Tripolitania (the area surrounding Tripoli) when Carthage fell, instead leaving it under the authority of the Numidian monarchs until the coastal towns begged for and received its protection. Ptolemy Apion, the last Greek king, left Cyrenaica to Rome, which conquered it in 74 BC and merged it with Crete as a Roman province. Tripolitania prospered as part of the Africa Nova province, and had a golden period in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when the city of Leptis Magna, seat of the Severan dynasty, was at its peak.
On the eastern side, Cyrenaica’s first Christian communities were established by the time of Emperor Claudius, but it was heavily devastated during the Kitos War and nearly depopulated of Greeks and Jews alike, and, despite being repopulated by Trajan with military colonies, the decadence began from then. Libya was one of the first countries to convert to Nicene Christianity, and it was home to Pope Victor I; yet, Libya was also a hotspot for early heresies like Arianism and Donatism.
The Vandals’ devastating march across North Africa in the 5th century accelerated the collapse of the Roman Empire, which saw the classical towns fall into ruin. When the Empire (now known as the East Romans) returned in the 6th century as part of Justinian’s reconquests, attempts were made to fortify the ancient cities, but it was just a final gasp before they fell into neglect. During the Vandal era, Cyrenaica, which had remained a Byzantine outpost, took on the features of an armed camp. To cover military expenses, unpopular Byzantine rulers levied high taxes, while cities and basic services—including the water system—were neglected. By the early seventh century, Byzantine authority over the area had weakened, Berber rebellions had become more common, and there was nothing to stop Muslim invasion.
The Rashidun army captured Cyrenaica under the leadership of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. In 647, a force headed by Abdullah ibn Saad successfully reclaimed Tripoli from the Byzantines. Uqba ibn Nafi conquered the Fezzan in 663. The hinterland Berber tribes embraced Islam, but they opposed Arab governmental authority.
Libya was ruled by the Umayyad Caliph of Damascus for the next few decades, until the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads in 750, and Baghdad took control. Libya had significant local autonomy during the Aghlabiddynasty when Caliph Harun al-Rashid designated Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab as his administrator of Ifriqiya in 800. The Shiite Fatimids dominated Western Libya by the end of the ninth century, and in 972, they governed the whole area and named Bologhine ibn Ziri as governor.
Ibn Ziri’s Berber Zirid dynasty eventually split from the Shiite Fatimids and recognized Baghdad’s Sunni Abbasids as legitimate Caliphs. In response, the Fatimids forced tens of thousands of Arab Bedouins from the Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal tribes to migrate to North Africa. This event changed the fabric of the Libyan countryside forever, cementing the region’s cultural and linguistic Arabization.
However, Zirid authority in Tripolitania was short-lived, as the Banu Khazrun Berbers rebelled in 1001. Tripolitania remained under their authority until 1146, when the Normans of Sicily overtook the area. Abd al-Mu’min, the Moroccan Almohad commander, did not reclaim Tripoli from European control until 1159. Tripolitania was the site of many conflicts between Ayyubids, Almohad monarchs, and Banu Ghaniya rebels during the following 50 years. Later, from 1207 until 1221, an Almohad commander, Muhammad ibn Abu Hafs, controlled Libya before the formation of a Tunisian Hafsid dynasty independent of the Almohads. For almost 300 years, the Hafsids controlled Tripolitania. The Hafsids were more involved in the power struggle between Spain and the Ottoman Empire by the 16th century.
Before the Ottoman invasion in 1517, Cyrenaica was ruled by Egyptian-based kingdoms such as the Tulunids, Ikhshidids, Ayyubids, and Mamluks. After Kanem’s reign, Fezzan gained independence under the Awlad Muhammad dynasty. Between 1556 to 1577, the Ottomans ultimately occupied Fezzan.
Ottoman Tripolitania (1551–1911)
In 1551, the Ottoman admiral Sinan Pasha seized control of Libya after a victorious conquest of Tripoli by Habsburg Spain in 1510 and its surrender to the Knights of St. John. Turgut Reis, his successor, was appointed Bey of Tripoli and then Pasha of Tripoli in 1556. By 1565, a pasha chosen directly by the sultan in Constantinople/Istanbul had administrative power in Tripoli as regent. Although Ottoman authority was absent in Cyrenaica, a bey was stationed in Benghazi late in the following century to serve as an agent of the government in Tripoli after the rulers of Fezzan pledged their allegiance to the sultan in the 1580s. Slaves from Europe and a significant number of enslaved Blacks brought from Sudan were also common sights in Tripoli. Turgut Reis imprisoned almost the entire inhabitants of the Maltese island of Gozo, a total of 6,300 persons, and sent them to Libya in 1551.
With time, the pasha’s janissary corps grew to wield actual authority. Dey Sulayman Safar was chosen as head of administration when the deys launched a coup against the pasha in 1611. A succession of deys essentially controlled Tripolitania for the following hundred years. Mehmed Saqizli (r. 1631–49) and Osman Saqizli (r. 1649–72) were the two most powerful Deys, both Pashas who controlled the area successfully. Cyrenaica was likewise captured by the latter.
Due to a lack of direction from the Ottoman administration, Tripoli descended into a state of military chaos, with coup after coup and few deys being in power for more than a year. Turkish soldier Ahmed Karamanli launched one such coup. From 1711 until 1835, the Karamanlis governed mostly in Tripolitania, although they also had power in Cyrenaica and Fezzan by the mid-eighteenth century. Ahmad’s successors proved to be less competent than he, but the Karamanli were able to take advantage of the region’s fragile power balance. Those were the years of the Tripolitanian civil war, which lasted from 1793 to 1795. Ali Benghul, a Turkish commander, ousted Hamet Karamanli in 1793 and temporarily restored Ottoman control to Tripolitania. Yusuf (r. 1795–1832), Hamet’s brother, restored Tripolitania’s freedom.
War broke out between the United States and Tripolitania in the early nineteenth century, resulting in a series of conflicts known as the First Barbary War and the Second Barbary War. By 1819, the Napoleonic Wars’ numerous treaties had driven the Barbary nations to almost completely abandon piracy, and Tripolitania’s economy had begun to collapse. As Yusuf’s health deteriorated, rivalries arose among his three sons. Civil war broke out shortly after.
The Karamanli dynasty and an autonomous Tripolitania were both put to an end when Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II brought in soldiers purportedly to restore order. Order was not quickly restored, and the Libyan rebellion led by Abd-El-Gelil and Gûma ben Khalifa continued until the latter’s death in 1858. Administrative improvements and improved order in the administration of Libya’s three provinces marked the second era of direct Ottoman control. Between 1850 to 1875, Ottoman authority was re-established in Fezzan in order to profit from Saharan trade.
Italian Libya (1911–1943)
Following the Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912), Italy made the three areas into colonies at the same time. The area of Libya was known as Italian North Africa from 1912 to 1927. Between 1927 and 1934, the area was divided into two colonies, Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania, both of which were governed by Italian governors. Around 150,000 Italians have settled in Libya, accounting for around 20% of the entire population.
The term “Libya” (used by the Ancient Greeks for all of North Africa save Egypt) was chosen by Italy as the official name of the colony in 1934. (made up of the three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan). Despite his arrest and death on September 16, 1931, Omar Mukhtar became a national hero as a resistance commander against Italian colonialism. In honor of his patriotism, his image is now emblazoned on the Libyan ten dinar note. Between the two world wars, Emir of Cyrenaica Idris al-Mahdi as-Senussi (later King Idris I) led the Libyan resistance against Italian control. According to Ilan Pappé, the Italian military “killed half the Bedouin population (directly or via illness and hunger in camps)” between 1928 and 1932. According to Emilio Gentile, an Italian historian, the suppression of resistance resulted in 50,000 fatalities.
Italy joined World War II in June 1940. The hard-fought North African Campaign, which culminated in defeat for Italy and its German allies in 1943, was staged in Libya.
Libya was occupied by the Allies from 1943 until 1951. The former Italian Libyan provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica were governed by the British troops, while Fezzan was managed by the French. Idris returned from exile in Cairo in 1944, but he did not return to Cyrenaica permanently until 1947, when certain elements of foreign rule were removed. Italy renounced all claims to Libya under the provisions of the 1947 peace deal with the Allies.
Independence, Kingdom of Libya and Libya under Gaddafi (1951–2011)
Libya proclaimed independence on December 24, 1951, as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy led by King Idris, Libya’s only monarch. The discovery of substantial oil reserves in 1959, as well as the following revenue from petroleum sales, allowed one of the world’s poorest countries to become very rich. Despite the fact that oil significantly helped the Libyan government’s finances, anger among certain groups grew as the nation’s riches was more concentrated in the hands of King Idris.
The Al Fateh Revolution began on September 1, 1969, when a small number of military officers headed by Muammar Gaddafi, a 27-year-old army officer, launched a coup against King Idris. In government pronouncements and the official Libyan press, Gaddafi was referred to as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.”
Libya established the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” on March 2, 1977. Gaddafi handed up authority to the General People’s Committees and claimed to be nothing more than a symbolic figurehead from then on. Opposition to the new system was not allowed. Gaddafi ordered the death of twenty-two officers who had participated in a 1975 failed military coup, as well as the execution of many civilians, around the same time the Jamahiriya was founded. Though the government refused to disclose election results, the new “jamahiriya” governing system he created was publicly referred to as “direct democracy.”
During the Jamahiriya period, Libya’s administration was founded on Gaddafi’s ideas articulated in his 1975 book The Green Book. Political problems were debated at the local level across the nation under the Jamahiriya system, which was convened by one of the approximately 2,000 local “people’s committees.” The committees would then forward their votes to a central general committee made up of elected individuals, with votes from local congresses ultimately influencing national decisions.
Libya began sending military supplies to Chad’s Goukouni Oueddei and the People’s Armed Forces in February 1977. When Libya’s backing for rebel troops in northern Chad turned into an invasion, the Chadian–Libyan war started in earnest. Later that year, Libya and Egypt fought a four-day border battle that became known as the Libyan-Egyptian War, after which both countries agreed to a truce via Algerian President Houari Boumediène’s mediation. Hundreds of Libyans died in Gaddafi’s attempt to rescue his buddy Idi Amin during the conflict with Tanzania. Gaddafi has funded a variety of different organizations, ranging from anti-nuclear protests to Australian labor unions.
Since 1977, the country’s per capita income has risen to more than US $11,000, the fifth highest in Africa, and its Human Development Index has risen to the highest in Africa, surpassing that of Saudi Arabia. This was accomplished without the need of any foreign loans, allowing Libya to remain debt-free. The Great Manmade River was also constructed to provide unrestricted access to fresh water throughout most of the nation. Financial assistance was also given for university scholarships and work programs.
Libya’s oil revenues, which surged in the 1970s, were mostly spent on weapons purchases and the sponsorship of hundreds of paramilitaries and terrorist organizations throughout the globe. In 1986, an American airstrike failed to kill Gaddafi. Following the bombing of a commercial aircraft that killed hundreds of people, Libya was ultimately sanctioned by the United Nations.
Colonel Gaddafi was given the title “King of Monarchs of Africa” by a gathering of more than 200 African kings and traditional rulers who met on August 27, 2008 in the Libyan town of Benghazi. Traditional rulers, according to Tanzanian Sheikh Abdilmajid, have greater power in Africa than their own governments.
2011 Civil War
Libya witnessed a full-scale revolution on February 17, 2011, after the Arab Spring movements overthrew the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. The turmoil had extended to Tripoli by the 20th of February. The National Transitional Council was formed on February 27, 2011, to govern the regions of Libya under rebel control. France was the first country to recognize the council as the genuine representation of the Libyan people on March 10, 2011.
Pro-Gaddaffi troops were able to militarily reverse rebel advances in Western Libya, launching a counter-offensive down the coast into Benghazi, the de facto epicenter of the revolt. The town of Zawiya, 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of Tripoli, was bombed by air force aircraft and army tanks before being captured by Jamahiriya forces, who “executed a degree of cruelty rarely seen in the war.”
The UN Human Rights Council, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Human Rights Council, have denounced the crackdown as a violation of international law, with the latter body expelling Libya outright in an extraordinary move requested by Libya’s own representation to the UN.
Resolution 1973 was approved by the United Nations Security Council on March 17, 2011, with a 10–0 majority and five abstentions, including Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Germany. The resolution authorized the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya and the use of “all necessary measures” to protect people. On March 19, NATO partners took the first step toward securing the no-fly zone by destroying Libyan air defenses when French military aircraft flew into Libyan airspace on a reconnaissance mission ahead of strikes on enemy targets.
American troops were in the vanguard of NATO operations against Libya in the weeks that followed. Over 8,000 American troops, including warships and planes, were stationed in the region. In 14,202 strike sorties, at least 3,000 targets were hit, including 716 in Tripoli and 492 in Brega. B-2 Stealth bombers, each equipped with sixteen 2000-pound bombs, flew out of and returned to their base in Missouri, in the continental United States, as part of the American air assault. The air assistance supplied by NATO was critical to the revolution’s eventual triumph.
By August 22, 2011, rebel forces had seized Green Square in Tripoli, renaming it Martyrs’ Square in honor of those murdered since February 17, 2011. On the 20th of October 2011, the uprising’s last hard combat came to a conclusion in Sirte, where Gaddafi was arrested and murdered. On the 23rd of October 2011, three days after the fall of Sirte, loyalist troops were defeated.
The civil war in Libya claimed the lives of at least 30,000 Libyans.
Since the loss of loyalist troops, Libya has been split apart by a slew of competing armed militias linked to various regions, towns, and tribes, while the central government has remained weak and unable to exercise control over the nation. In a political battle between Islamist leaders and their opponents, competing militias have positioned themselves against each other. Libyans conducted their first parliamentary elections following the fall of the previous government on July 7, 2012. The National Transitional Council formally turned authority over to the fully elected Public National Congress on August 8, 2012. The General National Congress was then charged with forming an interim administration and writing a new Libyan Constitution, which would be adopted in a general vote.
Unnamed organized attackers demolished a Sufi mosque with tombs in broad daylight in the Libyan capital Tripoli on August 25, 2012, in what Reuters called “the most brazen sectarian assault” since the conclusion of the civil war. It was the second time in two days that a Sufi shrine had been desecrated. Suspected Islamist militants have committed many acts of vandalism and heritage damage, such as the demolition of the Nude Gazelle Statue. Other well-known vandalism incidents include the desecration and destruction of second-world-war British burial sites in Benghazi. Many additional instances of heritage vandalism were alleged to have been carried out by Islamist-affiliated extremist militias and mobs that damaged, plundered, or looted a number of historic monuments that are still in risk today.
On September 11, 2012, Islamist terrorists carried out a surprise assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, killing J. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three others. In both the United States and Libya, the event sparked anger.
Libya’s Prime Minister-elect Mustafa A.G. Abushagur was deposed on October 7, 2012, after failing for the second time to get parliamentary approval for a new government. Ali Zeidan, a former GNC member and human rights lawyer, was chosen prime minister-designate by the General National Congress on October 14, 2012. After the GNC accepted Zeidan’s cabinet, he was sworn in. Prime Minister Zeiden stepped down on March 11, 2014, after being removed by the GNC for failing to stop a rogue oil shipment. He was succeeded by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. In the midst of increasing instability, al-administration Thani’s briefly considered the idea of restoring the Libyan monarchy on March 25, 2014.
Elections for the Council of Deputies, a new legislative body designed to succeed the General National Congress, were conducted in June 2014. The elections were plagued by violence and poor voter participation, with polling booths in certain regions being shuttered. Secularists and liberals performed well in the elections, much to the chagrin of Islamist legislators in the GNC, who reconvened and proclaimed the GNC to have a continuous mandate, refusing to recognize the new Council of Deputies. Tripoli was seized by armed supporters of the General National Congress, forcing the newly elected parliament to escape to Tobruk.
Since mid-2014, Libya has been torn apart by a war between competing parliaments. The power vacuum has been exploited by tribal militias and terrorist organizations. In the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, hardline Islamist militants captured Derna in 2014 and Sirte in 2015. Egypt conducted airstrikes against ISIL in support of the Tobruk government in early 2015.
Meetings were conducted in January 2015 with the goal of reaching a peaceful deal between Libya’s opposing parties. The so-called Geneva-Ghadames negotiations were intended to bring the GNC and the Tobruk administration together at a negotiating table to resolve the internal crisis. The GNC, on the other hand, never took part, indicating that internal divisions impacted not just the “Tobruk Camp,” but also the “Tripoli Camp.” Meanwhile, terrorism in Libya has been gradually rising, impacting neighboring nations as well. Two Libyan-trained terrorists are said to have carried out the terrorist assault on the Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015.
The United Nations sponsored a series of diplomatic talks and peace negotiations in 2015, led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon. In addition to the UN Support Mission in Libya’s regular operations, the UN continued to support the SRSG-led discussion process (UNSMIL).
In July 2015, SRSG Leon briefed the UN Security Council on the progress of the negotiations, which had just reached a political agreement on the 11th of July that established “a comprehensive framework…includ[ing] guiding principles…institutions and decision-making mechanisms to guide the transition until the adoption of a permanent constitution.” “…designed to culminate in the establishment of a modern, democratic state founded on the principles of inclusiveness, the rule of law, separation of powers, and respect for human rights,” according to the process’ stated goal. “The Libyan people have clearly spoken themselves in favor of peace,” the SRSG said, praising the parties for reaching an accord. Following that, the SRSG informed the Security Council that “Libya is at a critical juncture,” he said, urging “all parties in Libya to continue to engage constructively in the dialogue process,” adding that “a peaceful resolution of the conflict can only be achieved through dialogue and political compromise.” In Libya, a peaceful transition can only be possible if a large and concerted effort is made to assist a future Government of National Accord “.. Throughout mid-2015, talks, discussions, and conversation took place at different international locations, concluding in early September in Skhirat, Morocco.
In 2015, the UN Human Rights Council requested a report on Libya’s situation, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, established an investigative body (OIOL) to report on human rights and the rebuilding of Libya’s justice system as part of the international community’s ongoing support.