Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Libya

History of Libya
A picture taken on April 9, 2015 shows the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, in the city of Oea, in modern Tripoli, Libya. For over two thousand years the old city has been the heartbeat of the Libyan capital, with its whitewashed historic buildings and vibrant markets but ongoing clashes and the rise of jihadist groups have put a dent in the old town’s economy and prospect. AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA


Libya was the Arab country most disrupted by the rebellions of 2011. The regime of Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown after a civil war that lasted for most of 2011 and split the country into two regions that have remained effectively separate ever since. Two governments – both of which claim to represent the country as a whole – survive on the receipts from oil revenues.

Oil made Libya extremely wealthy during the 1970s and allowed the Qaddafi regime to engage in political adventurism at home and abroad. Yet oil has not made Libya rich in a wider sense. Apart from oil, Libya is essentially quite poor – other economic resources have not been developed to the same extent.

The struggle to control Libya is also focused on an important non-economic resource – its geographical position gives it great strategic advantages. Libya controls the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the crucial Sicilian Channel that links the two halves of the sea. It is also the northern end of land routes joining the Mediterranean with sub-Saharan Africa. Both these routes have had a deep and long influence on the history of Libya.

The coastline of Tripolitania in the west has been fought over since the time of the Roman empire. The Saharan routes through which until the nineteenth century slaves were brought to the Muslim cities of the eastern Mediterranean are still thoroughfares for migrants.

In this history section, Fanack explains the evolution of the deep roots of modern Libya, which could be described as one of the most repeatedly colonised countries in the world.


After Phoenicians and Greeks established trading colonies on the Mediterranean shore, the Romans conquered the coast of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and set up important cities such as Leptis Magna to supply agricultural products to the empire. In the interior local kingdoms such as the Garamantes controlled the entrance to the Sahara.

The Muslim Conquest – 7th to 16th Centuries

Roman power declined in the third and fourth centuries CE and the coastal area was occupied briefly by the Vandals and then by the Byzantines who ruled the eastern roman empire from Constantinople. This left Cyrenaica and Tripolitania open to invasion from the east by Arabs who brought the new religion of Islam. However, they never founded important political centres there.

Tripolitania was a dependency of Muslim rule in Tunisia, a much richer Muslim territory and the mountainous regions offered a refuge for the Ibadis and their heterodox understanding of Islam.

The domination of Tripolitania from Tunisia continued under the Fatimids (10th century) and their successors the Zirids (11th century). In the 12th century the city of Tripoli was conquered by the Normans from the northern shore of the Mediterranean before becoming an appendage of the Moroccan Almohad empire.

The Tunisian Hafsid dynasty brought it back to Muslim rule in the early 13th century. Under Hafsid rule, Tripoli became prosperous through trade and corsairing.

Ottoman Control, Corsairs and Qaramanlis (16th -18th Centuries)

After the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman rule spread into Egypt and leapfrogged along the North African coast toward Morocco as part of a maritime war with Spain. Spanish forces took Tripoli in 1510, handed it briefly to the Knights of St John, along with Malta, and lost it to the Ottomans in 1551.

Like other Ottoman possessions in North Africa, like Tunis and Algiers, Tripoli became an autonomous province. A pasha, appointed by the Sultan in Istanbul, ruled the province, but a local militia headed by the dey effectively controlled it.

Kulughlis, the descendants of Turkish soldiers and local women, dominated the militia leadership. They relied on the desert trade and to a considerable extent on the profits made by the corsairing ships, which attacked Christian shipping and territory in the Mediterranean.

Libya was exceptionally well-situated to control the sea routes between the two halves of the Mediterranean. However, it was an unstable system and in 1711 one of the Kulughli commanders, Ahmad Qaramanli, seized power in a military coup and won the title of Pasha from the Ottoman Sultan.

Although Tripoli remained nominally Ottoman, the Qaramanli family ruled Tripoli as a dynasty for over a century. For the first time in Libyan history, the territory that would become Libya was effectively independent. Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli (1795-1832) was the last powerful member of the family. To build the economy of Tripoli he encouraged the trans-Saharan trade and reinvigorated corsairing.

However, the government of the young United States of America refused to buy protection for its merchants’ ships and in 1803 blockaded Tripoli and landed troops in Cyrenaica. Yusuf survived but in 1832 he abdicated in favour of his son. In 1835 the Ottoman Empire landed an army to put Tripolitania and Cyrenaica back under its direct control.

Second Ottoman Period – Al-Senussi (1823 – 1859)

The Ottomans reimposed their rule through a campaign of European-style colonial warfare, using military conquest and punitive taxation. The trade between Tripoli and Europe grew, but in Cyrenaica, which was very remote from the capital, real power lay with an Islamic religious brotherhood. Led by the al-Sanusi family, it had commercial and political links across the Sahara. It eventually moved its headquarters deep into the desert.

The Road to Italian Occupation

By the end of the nineteenth century, the economy was opening to European trade and political influence. Britain was the largest trading partner, but Italian nationalists began to identify Libya as a suitable territory to colonise. Libya would provide a ‘fourth shore’ giving Italy, reunified since 1871, strategic power over the central Mediterranean.

Libya was not a viable colony economy wise. In 1911 the Italian government manufactured an excuse to declare war and invaded. The Ottoman army, concentrated in the Balkans to preserve Ottoman control there, withdrew and Italy annexed Libya. Despite the Ottoman withdrawal, there was vigorous opposition from parts of the Libyan population and a brief attempt to set up an independent republic in the hinterland of Tripoli.

Italian Reconquest of Libya 1923-32 and Umar Al-Mukhtar

In the 1920s Mussolini’s fascist government began a campaign to finally take control of its colony in Libya, a process it described as a reconquest. Meanwhile, a prominent Sanussi shaykh, Umar al-Mukhtar, led a concerted and very effective military campaign against the Italians.

The Italian army overcame the opposition in 1931 and hanged Umar in public. The government then started to settle Italian colonists in Libya, depriving the local population of access to fertile land, destroying much of the livestock, leading to the death of many Libyans.

World War II and the Creation of the Kingdom of Libya

During the Second World War, Libya was a battleground between the Axis powers and the British and their Commonwealth allies. The defeat of German general Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in October 1942 was a turning point in the war.

After expelling the German army, Britain and France split the territory of the former Italian colony between them – France got the Fezzan and Britain Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. After the war, Libya’s strategic position made the Soviet Union determined not to let Anglo-French colonialism continue.

Under UN auspices Libya became independent as a federal kingdom with the head of the Sanussi brotherhood as king. Libya remained firmly in the western camp and Britain and America took control of important military bases on the coast. However, the country was economically deprived – at independence Libya was the poorest country in the world in per capita terms and had an ill-educated population.

Constructing a Modern Kingdom (1951 – 1969)

Economic conditions in Libya began to change after the discovery and export of oil, which began in 1961. Libya quickly became one of the richest countries in the world per capita. But the administration was incapable of using the oil wealth. At times of great political turnover in the Middle East and North Africa, Nasserite Arab nationalism attracted younger members of the army who especially resented the presence of the US and British bases. On 1 September 1969 junior officers organised a coup d’etat and shortly afterwards Captain Muammar al-Qaddafi was promoted to Colonel and became the leader of the revolutionary group.

Revolutionary Libya

Qaddafi and his fellow officers first formed a Revolutionary Command Council along Nasserist lines. Although there were early attempts at coups within the group itself and the RCC slowly faded away, many of the officers involved remained part of the governing elite. However, power got more concentrated in Qaddafi’s hands, even though he claimed to have no official position beyond revolutionary leader. Under his leadership, the Libyan Arab Republic, which he and the others had founded after the 1969 coup, was replaced in 1977 by a new political formulation – a “state of the masses” or Jamahiriya.

The Jamahiriya was designed to be a new formulation of democracy with widespread popular participation through a hierarchical system of committees. A repressive state structure was central to the system, despite the formal democratic ideals and the supposed withering away of the state.

Revolutionary Committees controlled the population. In international relations, the regime became radically opposed to the western alliance and proposed several attempts to unite with other Arab states, none of which amounted to much in the end. The regime also pursued a long drawn out and ill-organised war to annex part of northern Chad in the 1980s. It backed international terrorism too. When an American airliner was shot down over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, followed by a French plane over Niger in 1989 the United Nations imposed a rigorous system of sanctions. Things were made worse for the regime with a campaign by Islamists who had previously fought in Afghanistan and now sought to bring down the Qaddafi regime.

At the end of the 1990s, Libya was a pariah state. However, the attacks on the US on September 11 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq convinced both the Libyan regime and the western powers of the need to reach an accommodation. In exchange for a Libyan disavowal of terrorism, the US and Britain progressively lifted the sanctions and forged a more friendly relationship.

The 2011 Uprising

The revival of relations between the West and Qaddafi’s Libya did not protect the regime from the anger over human rights abuses, corruption and incompetence. After the success of the Tunisian uprising in late 2010 and the removal of President Ben Ali in January 2011, an uprising began in Benghazi. This led to several months of civil war that pitted a revolutionary National Transition Council (NTC) against the regime.

With NATO support that denied airspace to Qaddafi’s forces and deprived them of an operating capability, the NTC ousted the Qaddafi regime. It did not mean an end to the civil war. The new government subcontracted security to autonomous armed groups, some of which were Islamist-inspired, and the resulting disorder disrupted oil production.

Elections for a General National Conference to prepare a constitution and choose a prime minister took place in 2012, but when Prime Minister Zeidan tried to disband the militias, many of them refused to accept the authority of the state and the government collapsed in late 2013. At the same time rebels in the east set up an alternative government, and a military coalition led by General Khalifa Haftar started an attack on the Islamist militias.

Two Governments in Libya

By January 2015 there were two governments in Libya – in Tripoli and Cyrenaica, but neither had enough money to impose itself on the other. Late 2014 and early 2015 another competitor entered the arena when Islamic State set up a ‘province’ in Derna. Against this background of political disorder, people smugglers began operating openly in Tripolitania, feeding migrants into southern Europe.

The ‘Libyan Political Agreement’ reached in December 2015, was supposed to set up a Government of National Accord to bridge the gap between the two governments in Tripoli and Cyrenaica. However, despite that agreement and several proposed ceasefires, the squabbling continued.

Civil Society Recreating National Identity

COVID-19 struck Libya in 2020 when it was clear that the latest attempt at an interim government to oversee elections was as fraught as its predecessors. With the government divided and ill-equipped, civil society organisations began leading the administrative and relief response to the pandemic. Local firms began to design IT equipment to deal with it. Demonstrators began calling for the return of public services that had existed, however inefficiently, under Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya.