Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Libya

A Militia member is on guard after the General National Congress decided to protect government offices and diplomatic residences. Janzour, Libya Aug. 12, 2013.
A Militia member is on guard after the General National Congress decided to protect government offices and diplomatic residences. Janzour, Libya Aug. 12, 2013.


Libya, the country drowning in chaos today, is governed by multiple sides since a national alliance led by the NATO overthrew the president Muammar al-Gaddafi. Libyans are currently crushed between Khalifa Haftar, the supreme leader of the Libyan National Army, and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.During the “Arab Spring” (February 2011), Libyans revolted to overthrow al-Gaddafi’s regime, who took over the reins of power after a military coup. After overthrowing the Libyan king Idris al-Senussi in 1969, Al-Gaddafi claimed himself as the leader of the country. He considered his act a revolution against the monarchy. Gaddafi ruled the country until his death at the hands of two protestors in October 2011.

In this section, we will dive into Libya’s history from present to past, attempting to get through the conclusive events which laid out this country’s present and identity from a historian’s perspective.

Between Independence and Italian Colonization (1951-1911)

Libya acquired its independence from Britain and France in December 1951. At that time, Idris al-Senussi was appointed by the great powers of the United Nations as a king for the country.
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During World War II, Libya became a battlefield between the Nazis and the Allied Forces. The Senussis provided Libyan soldiers to help the British advance in Libya. When British military management was imposed on Cyrenaica in 1943, the new government allied with Idris al-Senussi. After evacuating the Italians from the country, the residents of Tripoli were forced to cooperate with al-Senussi. This laid the political foundations of Libya after the war.
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In January 1929, the Italian government unified Tripoli and Cyrenaica into a single colony. After the defeat of Omar al-Mukhtar, a colonization state was born. However, the Italians didn’t have much time to execute their plans, because they were defeated at the hands of the British in World War II.
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When World War I ended, the Italian fascist governments sought an ultimate “pacification” in Libya. They broke the agreements with the local groups and crushed the resistance. Mohamed Idris al-Senussi was exiled to Egypt in 1922. However, the Senussi resistance continued under the leadership of Omar al-Mukhtar, the son of the Senussi School.

Between the Ottomans and the Spanish Forays (1911-1510)

In the second Ottoman phase, the Ottomans regained direct control over Tripoli and Cyrenaica in 1835 through occupation. They imposed taxes and integrated local leaders in the territorial government. As a result, the resistance was focused on the western mountain in Misurata and Fezzan (south-west of Libya). However, the Ottomans were able to crush it.

The Ottomans’ dominance was mild in Cyrenaica. This province was controlled by the Senussi Sufi Brotherhood that was established in Mecca in 1837. This Sufi group introduced the first king after independence.
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Under the Ottoman rule, Tripoli has prospered as an ideal refuge for pirates who hauled merchant ships in the Mediterranean. This sort of military activity has provided a lot of profits to the pirates who took over the three main ports in North Africa – Alger, Tunis, and Tripoli.

In 1711, Ahmed Karamanli – who was a Turkish Officer – seized power and appointed himself as Pasha. Karamanli founded a dynasty that continued for 124 years.

The Spanish conquered Tripoli in 1510 and handed it to The Knights Hospitaller, who were expelled by the Ottomans in 1530. During 1540s, the Ottomans evacuated the Spanish from their bases in Tunisia. The Ottoman leader “Dragut” reclaimed Tripoli in 1551.

Between the Local Tribal Groups and Islam (1500-662)

During the period spanning from the 13th to the 15th century, Fezzan was under the rule of the kings of Kanem, a kingdom that was located in modern Chad and Nigeria. However, the wars between Kanem and Bornu in the early 16th century allowed the Moroccan tribal group Awlad Muhammad to take over Fezzan and its capital – Murzuq.‎

In the early 13th century, Al-Mohads were weakened at a rapid rate after the collapse of their tax base and suffering defeats against the Christian armies in Spain. As a result, Al-Mohads rulers had defected in Tunisia and founded a ruling dynasty that was called “the Hafsids”, claiming the Islamic Caliphate for themselves. However, the Hafsids were not able at the height of their power to pass neither Tripoli in the east nor mid-Algeria in the west.

In the late 9th century, the Shia Ismailis settled in North Africa. The Fatimids were the only important Shia Caliphate in the history of Islam, and they aimed to invade the Arab east eventually. The capital of the Fatimid Caliphate –Mahdiya– was built in Tunisia, on a peninsula facing the Mediterranean to the east. After taking power in Tripoli, Amazighi Zirids dynasty served faithfully the Fatimids. As a result, they were appointed as rulers over al-Maghreb al-Awsat after the Fatimid state was moved to Cairo.
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Instability and agriculture have deteriorated due to the growing weakness of the Zirids’ rule. The region was invaded by two external forces: the Christian Normans from Sicily Island, who invaded all coastal cities including Tripoli during the period between 1446 and 1148; and Al-Mohads dynasty that was founded in Marrakech (Morocco). In 1151, Al-Mohads armies marched east and occupied the city of Algeria, Constantine, and Béjaïa in 1152. Seven years later, the Normans occupied Tripoli.
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The Sunni Muslims continued their conquest in North Africa after their lead “Muawiyah I” seized the Caliphate in 661 and founded the Umayyad dynasty. The assault was led by Uqba ibn Nafi in 662. By the year 674, Uqba had already crossed the desolate Libyan Desert to establish a new base in Kairouan, south of today’s Tunisia. Kairouan then became the Islamic capital for North Africa.

Garamantes and Phoenicians (500 AD-1200 BC)

Between 900 BC and 500 AD, The Garamantes established a strong state in Fezzan. They dominated the convoys’ roads across the desert to Egypt and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s worth noting that the Phoenicians were the first arrivals to these lands in the 12th century BC. Due to their commercial expansion in gold, silver, ivory and raw materials, they founded colonies in Leptis Magna (Lebda), Oia (Tripoli), and Sabratha. The name of “Tripoli” reminds us of the prosperity of these three ancient cities. At that time, Phoenicians used to trade with the Amazighs tribes.

The Amazighs adopted a big part of the Phoenician culture and their language, which was – like all other Semitic languages – written from right to left.
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Further Reading

Below are the publications by acclaimed journalists and academics concerning the history of Libya section of this country file: