Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Society of Libya

Women's protest in Libya, 2011
Women’s protest in Libya, 2011

Libya’s population of just over six million is one of the smallest of the Arab states, but it is spread thinly over one of the geographically largest countries.

The Libyan population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim. Christianity is now limited to expatriate residents. There was once a historically important Jewish community, but it has entirely disappeared. The distinctions between Arab and Berber that are so noticeable in Morocco and Algeria are absent in Libya: only since the fall of Gaddafi has the numerically small Berber community made itself felt.

Libya’s government under Gaddafi was extremely authoritarian and repressive. The revolution of 2011 has provided a political opening. Many Libyans characterize their society as ‘conservative’. Gaddafi’s rule reinforced this characteristic, as families focused on their closest inner circle for trust and loyalty. He used tribal animosities and loyalties to rule and divide, and the 2011 revolt reinforced awareness of tribal identities but also a sense of unity among the population.

Gaddafi dominated Libyan society for more than forty years. His dictatorship has influenced the population’s collective mentality and culture, and the media. His writings and speeches prescribed how Libyans should behave and think in every area of life: expression, education, leisure, sport, arts, and culture.

It was difficult to educate school children and university students to think independently in these circumstances. A general lack of trust meant that daily life was governed by the fear that an ‘antenna’ might identify a person as being ‘disloyal to Gaddafi’s revolution’. Some Libyans characterized Libyans as ‘being all prisoners of Gaddafi’.

This was against a background of extraordinary economic growth. After the exploitation of oil began in the 1960s, the characteristics of Libyan society changed drastically. It evolved from an impoverished country to a more prosperous society, and it changed demographically. Relations within Libyan society have been affected by the arrival of large numbers of migrant workers from the Arab world, Africa, and Asia. Libya is presently the most prosperous country from the African continent.

After the embargo was lifted, the country witnessed an economic boom and an increase in consumerism. After the 2011 revolution, many private initiatives popped up, and small and middle-sized enterprises grew in number.

Human development index

Libya ranks 64th (out of 186 countries) in the Human Development Index for 2012. This puts it in the category of ‘high human development’. It is positioned well ahead of neighbouring countries, such as Tunisia (94), Algeria (94), Morocco (130), and Egypt (112), while major oil- and gas-exporting countries, such as United Arab Emirates (41), Qatar (36), Bahrain (48), Saudi Arabia (57) and Kuwait (54), are ranked ahead of Libya.

Libya scores well by some measures: the literacy rate is 89.2 percent, and gross enrolment of students in primary, secondary, and tertiary education is high (83 percent). There has been a general improvement in many factors over the past thirty years: life expectancy, for instance, increased from 46.6 years in 1960 to 60 years in 1980 and 74.9 years in 2011 (World Bank).

Libya’s score, in international terms, is low (0.216) on the gender-inequality index (GDI), at 64, below Saudi Arabia but above Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.

infographic on human development index of Libya

Clans and communities

infographic on tribes and ethnic groups in Libya

Libya has historically been a tribal society. Unlike other countries in North Africa, tribes are still major players in the political structure. This is not, however, primarily an ethnic issue: there are relatively few Berber speakers. After the 1969 coup especially, Gaddafi crushed all expression of a Berber identity, but since the 2011 revolution, in which Berber communities played a leading role, the use of the Berber language and cultural expression has increased. Up until independence in 1951 and even more so since Gaddafi came to power, the historically important Jewish community has been reduced to almost nothing; its members left for Israel, North America, and Europe.


Historically, Libyan society has revolved around the family, with grandparents, parents, married sons with families, and unmarried relatives living often together in one house. This was a concomitant of the tribal structure of rural society. In recent years, urbanization, economic factors, and migration have disrupted these patterns, although they retain the strength of normative values.

The average household size in Libya in 2000-2006 was 6.3, but total fertility fell rapidly between 1960 (7.05 births per woman) and 2011 (2.5 births).

Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Libya declined by 44 percent, a high rate compared with Egypt, for example. One reason for this was the growing use of contraception, which increased from 5 percent among women aged 15-49 in 1978 to 45 percent in 1997. Another factor was the increase in the mean age of marriage (1973: 18.7 for women, 24.6 for men; 1984: 23.0 for women, 27.4 for men; 1995 29.2 for women 32.0 for men) (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Marriage Data 2008).

infographic on fertility rate in Libya


The royal Constitution of Libya of 1951 provided no specific protections for women. Article 11 simply stated that ‘Libyans shall be equal before the law. They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without distinction of religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship, or political or social opinions’.

This Constitution was abolished after the 1969 coup and not replaced. The third volume of the Green Book contains a long section on women, beginning: ‘It is an undisputed fact that both man and woman are human beings’ – which emphasized the differences between women and men. It stated: ‘A woman, whose created nature has assigned to her a natural role different from that of man, must be in an appropriate position to perform her natural role.’ It concluded that ‘there is no difference in human rights between man and woman, the child and the adult, but there is no absolute identity between them as regards their duties’.

Against the background of these conservative pronouncements, Libya was the first Arab state to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), although it made reservations about parts of it referring to equality before the law (where it referred to the rules of inheritance), marriage and family relations. Libya was also one of several Arab states that signed the International Labour Organization’s Equal Remuneration Convention.

Libya scored high in the Gender Inequality Index of the Human Development Index, a composite measure accounting for inequality in achievements between women and men in reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market. In 2012 Libya received a score of 0.216, compared to Tunisia’s 0.261 and Kuwait’s 0.274.

Specifically, the Gaddafi regime liberalized the legal position of women. The minimum age of marriage is twenty years. Marriage by proxy or coercion is prohibited, and Libyan women were given the same right to divorce as men. Polygamy was effectively abolished: a man may marry only one additional wife, for specific reasons only and on the condition that his first wife gives permission. Equality of salary was legally mandated. Women were obliged to perform one year of military service at the age of eighteen. Traditional male professions such as the military, aerospace, and engineering were formally opened to women.

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 reported that Libya had achieved equality between the two sexes in higher education; enrolment of Arab women in higher education varies, being highest in Libya and the UAE, although it also pointed out that professions that did not fit the traditional Libyan view of women were prohibited. In fact, few women actually enter the labour force after graduation. Data from Index Mundi show that 28.2 percent of women participate in Libya’s labour force in 2011.

On the other hand, from 2005 onwards, human-rights organizations reported unknown numbers of women and girls imprisoned on suspicion of violating codes of moral conduct. They were confined in so-called ‘social rehabilitation’ facilities, after their families rejected them. Some were victims of rape and were imprisoned because families felt dishonoured by the women’s supposed crimes.

The interim constitution promulgated by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in 2011 did not specifically mention women. Article 6 stated that ‘Libyans shall be equal before the law. They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without discrimination due to religion, doctrine, language, wealth, race, kinship, political opinions, and social status, tribal or eminent or familial loyalty.’ But it also firmly committed itself to a traditional view of gender relations. Article 5 said: ‘The family is the basis of society and shall be entitled to protection by the State. The State shall also protect and encourage marriage. The State shall guarantee the protection of motherhood, childhood, and the elderly. The State shall take care of children, youth, and the handicapped.’

This conservative outlook was reflected in the NTC’s decision in January 2012 to drop a proposal to create a 10 percent minimum quota for women in Parliament. In the elections of July 2012, 1.3 million women registered to vote, 540 women registered as candidates on party lists, and 85 females ran as independent candidates (2,415 men ran as independent candidates). Women candidates did well in party lists and won 32 out of 80 seats, but only one female candidate won an independent seat (out of 120 possible seats) (Libya Herald, 20 October 2012).

Education and youth

Education was one of the successes of the Gaddafi regime. Libya has the lowest basic illiteracy rate in North Africa, but before the 1969 coup more than 80 percent of the population was illiterate. In 2009 89.2 percent of the population over the age of 15 was literate. Public education expenditure is 3.4 percent of GDP.

Education is compulsory from six to fifteen years. Secondary school begins at twelve years. In Libya, girls generally are educated longer than boys (ten years for girls and eight for boys), which is unusual for an Arab country. The average number of years of education received by people aged 25 and older is 7.3. At school entrance, a child can expect, on average, 16.6 years of schooling (UNDP). The combined gross enrolment in education for both sexes is 57.1 percent.

In 2002, there were more than a million boys and girls in public schools. Officially, there is no state kindergarten system, though private initiatives are present. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in universities, of which there are nine in Libya:

  1. Umar al-Mukhtar University (in Bayda and Tobruk)
  2. University of Benghazi (formerly University of Garyounis)
  3. University of Tripoli
  4. Misrata University
  5. Sabha University
  6. Sirte University (formerly al-Tahaddi University)
  7. Zawiya University (formerly Seventh of April University)
  8. al-Mergib University (in Khoms)
  9. Azzaytuna University (in Tarhuna)

There are four higher institutes of technical learning:

  1. Libyan International Medical University (in Benghazi)
  2. al-Asmarya University of Islamic Sciences (Zlitan)
  3. Petroleum Training and Qualifying Institute (Tripoli)
  4. Academy of Graduate Studies (Tripoli)

infographic on literacy rate in Libya

Standards are not high: in the Ranking Web of Universities, the top-ranking Libyan university (Umar al-Mukhtar) is number 12,081. The majority of university teachers come from Egypt, Jordan, India, and the Philippines. A Libyanization policy was ineffective, because there were not enough Libyans with higher degrees. A further problem, also driven by nationalist considerations, was that of language: only Arabic could be used in street signs, and, in response to the US air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, English was forbidden to be taught. This created a major gap in the educational development of almost an entire generation. In 2005 the ban on teaching in English was lifted, causing a boom in language institutes. People who could afford it preferred to take language courses in Malta.

Public-school education in Libya consists of six years of primary education (starting at age six) and three years of middle-school education, which is compulsory and free. The basic education program includes Arabic, mathematics, natural sciences, history, geography, art, music, and technical and physical education. Once a basic education certificate is awarded, pupils have the choice of working or continuing for three years in secondary school. Secondary education consists of three years in a general secondary school, with a science or an arts stream, which is also a preparation for university. The alternative is a technical secondary school for four years.

infographic on education index in Libya


Despite a decreasing birth rate over the past forty years (see Family), nearly half the Libyan population is younger than thirty years. The lack of opportunity, high unemployment, and the advent of satellite television broadcasting daily life in other countries encouraged the participation of youth in the 2011 revolt.

Youth unemployment is a problem. In 2011, total employment was 46.4 percent for men and women over the age of 15 but only 24.2 percent for those between 15 and 24 (World Bank).


Oil money has brought a rapid improvement in health. In 1960 life expectancy at birth was 46.7 years (47.9 for females and 45.5 for males), in 1970 it was 51.4 (53 for females and 50 for males), in 1990 it was 68 (70.4 for females and 65.8 for males), and in 2011 it was 75 (77.6 for females and 72.4 for males). 98 percent of children were inoculated against DPT and measles in 2010. In 2010, 97 percent of the population had access to improved sanitation; the incidence of tuberculosis was 40 per 100,000 people.

But the health system lacked investment. Public-health spending decreased from 5.5 percent of government expenditure in 1995 to 4 percent in 2010 and from 4.4 percent of GDP to 3.5 percent over the same period. The embargo contributed greatly to the neglect of hospitals and clinics.

infographic on life expectancy in Libya

In 1997 there were 1.29 medical practitioners per 1,000 population. By 2009 this had risen to 1.9 per 1,000. Medical personnel used to be recruited from Arab and eastern European countries. Libyans preferred receiving medical treatment in Tunisia or Turkey. In 2010 the total health expenditure per capita was 713, 3.9 percent of GDP.

According to the World Health Organization (2013), the life expectancy at birth is 58 and 74 for males and females, respectively. Some of the risk factors are associated with Libya’s relative wealth: in 2008 high blood glucose among adults affected 14.5 percent of males and 14.4 percent of females; high blood pressure among adults affected 45.2 percent of males and 38.9 percent of females; 21.5 percent of males and 41.3 percent of females were obese; 47 percent of male adults (and a negligible number of females) smoked (among adolescents, 11 percent of males and 5 percent of females). Alcohol consumption was insignificant. These scores are higher than other countries in the region; in Morocco, for example, high blood glucose was 10.6 percent for males and 10.9 for females, high blood pressure was 34.0 for males and 37.6 for females, adult obesity was 11.1 percent for males and 23.1 for females, and 33 percent of adult males and 2 percent of adult females smoked.

The mortality rate for children under five years is 17 per 1,000 live births for both sexes, which is low compared to the regional average of 68 and the global average of 57. World Bank data for 2012 estimated the average infant death rate at 13.

HIV is an increasing problem, particularly among immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries, where HIV infection is one of the main causes of death. By the end of 2006, the World Health Organization reported 10,450 people as HIV-positive, but experts estimate the actual number of HIV patients is much higher.


Libya has developed extraordinarily quickly since the discovery of oil. This has brought rapid development, but there are still huge social and economic imbalances. In terms of gender, for instance, literacy of women in 2010 was 82.69 percent and 95.61 percent for men (World Bank), although the gap narrowed greatly under the Gaddafi regime (it was 42.3 percent for women, compared to 77 percent for men in 1984) and the ratio of young literate females to males aged 15-24 in 2010 was 99.9 percent). Far more men than women are part of the labour force: the participation rate for women in 2011 was 30 percent but 76.8 for men. Regional imbalances and the distribution of wealth are difficult to quantify: the Gaddafi government did not provide the necessary statistics.

The Libyan oil boom in the 1960s caused a large-scale migration into Tripoli and Benghazi. In 1964, 27 percent of the land was urban, twenty years later it had risen to 40 percent. This demographic change tested traditional social cohesion in some urban neighbourhoods that were flooded with migrants, and rural areas were depleted of population. Despite government attempts to reverse this process by granting land to tens of thousands of peasant families, people tended to want only to relocate close to their tribal territory. It seems certain that the lifting of the embargo in 2003 increased social inequality, with the benefits going only to the business elite with Gaddafi-family connections. The post-revolt government is confronted with these problems. In 2003 public-sector salaries averaged 250 Libyan dinars (USD 196), and many people took a second job.

The 2011 revolution increased the breakdown of social cohesion. Although Libya’s ‘oneness’ was stressed ideologically, the lack of security, the prevalence of militias, and the lack of functioning government agencies and social-security networks put pressure on social cohesion. In these circumstances, tribal affiliation and Islam provide a strengthened sense of security and identity. According to the Arab Human Development Report 2005, pension coverage in Libya, where the great majority work in the public sector, had reached 70 percent.


During the Gaddafi period, crime was suppressed by the security apparatus. In 2008 the homicide rate was 2.9 per 100,000 people, which is not particularly low (compared with Egypt 1.0, Morocco 1.4, and Tunisia 1.1), though it was much lower than Lebanon (6.1). There were nine judicial executions in Libya in 2007 (compared with 42 in the US, 48 in Egypt, and none in Morocco or Tunisia). In 2013 Libya was ranked 47th (out of 173 countries) in the number of prisoners per 100,000 people.

Crime in Tripoli increased significantly after the 2011 revolt. There have been increased reports of armed robbery, kidnapping to settle scores, carjacking, burglary, and crimes involving weapons. Theft of guest workers’ wages and mobile phones is also reported. Just before Tripoli fell to the NTC forces, the Gaddafi regime released between 15,000 and 16,000 criminals, most of whom remained free in 2013. It is unclear to what extent these criminals really have been involved in crimes, as the accused did not receive fair trials and Libya lacked a reliable, unbiased judicial apparatus. Hundreds of thousands of small arms looted from government facilities are now in the hands of the local population, which has contributed to the rise in violent crime. The government has initiated campaigns to hand in weapons, but the results are not yet convincing. Prisoners who were convicted did not always stay in jail. In July 2013 around 1,200 prisoners staged a mass jailbreak from Kuwafiya prison in Benghazi, and only a few were recaptured.

Crime statistics are unreliable, but in January 2013, the Ministry of the Interior announced that over the period 2010 to 2102 murders increased from 87 to 525 (up 503 percent), thefts from shops and offices from 143 to 783 (up 448 percent), and thefts from private homes from 1,842 to 2,387 (up 30 percent) (Libya Herald, 9 January 2013).

After the 2011 revolt, various militias supplanted the police in maintaining internal security. Militia members operate checkpoints within and between major cities. Libyan militia members are poorly trained and often are affiliated only loosely with the government. Clashes between rival militias and revenge killings do occur. Traffic accidents are the most common safety threat for visitors, and reports of armed highway robberies in both urban and rural areas have increased.

In this article: Libya | Society