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BACKGROUND NOTES: LIBYA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
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
Terrain: Desert and semidesert; hills south of Tripoli and east of
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.
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.
Administrative 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Since December 1981, U.S. passports have been declared invalid for
travel to, in, or through Libya, unless specifically validated for such
travel by the Department of State. Unauthorized use of a U.S. passport
for travel to Libya is subject to criminal prosecution under Section
1544 of Title 18, United States Code.
Persons seeking passport validations or further information should
contact the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services,
Room 300, 1425 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20522-1705; or, if abroad,
the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. The U.S. Government maintains no
diplomatic or consular representation in Libya, and, therefore, cannot
provide protective services to American citizens. Very limited services
are available through the embassy of Belgium in Tripoli, which acts as
the U.S. protecting power in Libya. Further information is available
from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public
Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- July 1994
Managing Editor: Peter A. Knecht -- Editor: Peter Freeman
Department of State Publication 7815 -- Background Notes Series
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402.
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