Libya - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Libya: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Libya, country in northern Africa that borders the Mediterranean Sea. Libya is one of the largest countries in Africa. Despite its size Libya is thinly settled. The Sahara, the vast desert of northern Africa, covers much of the country. Nearly all of Libya’s inhabitants live near the coast. Tripoli, located on the Mediterranean coast, is the capital and largest city.

Most of Libya’s people are descended from a mixture of Berbers, the country’s original inhabitants, and Arabs, who arrived in the 7th century AD. Small numbers of Berbers still live in the extreme south of the country. The great majority of the people are Muslims, and Islam is the official state religion. Arabic is the official language.

Libya was a poor country until the discovery of oil in the 1950s. Since then its large reserves of petroleum have made Libya one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. Many of its people, however, still live by farming and grazing livestock, despite the extremely limited amount of good farmland.

The site of ancient Phoenician, Roman, and Arab settlements, Libya was colonized by Italy in the early 20th century. The country became an independent monarchy in 1951, and in 1969 young army officer Muammar al-Qaddafi seized power. Qaddafi proceeded to create a new Libya based on his theories of socialism and Arab nationalism. He renamed the country the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The word Jamahiriya was coined by Qaddafi, who defines it as a state run by all its people. Most outsiders viewed Libya as a military dictatorship, however.


The Sahara, a vast North African desert, covers most of Libya. Much of the country’s land consists of barren, rock-strewn plains and sand sea. Two small areas of hills rise in the northwest and northeast, and the Tibesti massif rises near the southern border. There are no permanent rivers or streams in Libya. The coastline is indented near the center by the Gulf of Sidra, where barren desert reaches the Mediterranean Sea.

Libya is bounded on the east by Egypt, on the southeast by Sudan, on the south by Chad and Niger, on the west by Algeria, and on the northwest by Tunisia.

Natural Regions in Libya

Libya is divided into three natural regions. The largest, to the east of the Gulf of Sidra, is Cyrenaica, occupying the plateau of Jabal al Akhḑar. To the west of the Gulf of Sidra lies the agricultural region of Tripolitania. Hundreds of miles to the south, in southwestern Libya, is the basin of Fezzan.


In Cyrenaica the limestone Jabal al Akhḑar (Green Mountains) near the Mediterranean coast reach as high as 900 m (3,000 ft). The higher parts are covered with dense scrub and some pines and juniper. Rainfall is sufficient for some agriculture.

South of the Jabal al Akhḑar lies an immense, but lower, sandstone plateau. This plateau makes up the western extent of the Libyan Desert, which is part of the Sahara. Much of this area is covered with sand dunes, especially along the border with Egypt. Several oases are located along the western edge of the Libyan Desert. The most important and most southerly of these is Al Kufrah, situated more than 800 km (500 mi) south of the Jabal al Akhḑar. Another 500 km (300 mi) of sparsely inhabited desert stretches between Al Kufrah and the southern border of Libya.


The Jefara plain stretches along the Mediterranean coast of Tripolitania, west of the Gulf of Sidra. The capital city of Tripoli is located here. Most of Libya’s population lives in the Jefara, a semiarid, sandy coastal plain, or on the plateau just south of it. Several well-irrigated areas in the region serve as important agricultural resources.

Farther south, limestone hills and mountains rise to a height of about 800 m (2,500 ft) and are dotted with patches of stunted Mediterranean bushes and shrubs. Rainfall is barely adequate for agriculture here; olives, figs, and barley are raised by dry-farming methods. To the south, the mountains descend to the red sandstone desert plateau of Al Ḩamrā’. Desert nomads graze livestock in the northern part. The eastern end of this plateau merges into the Jabal as Sawdā’ (Black Mountains).


About 500 km (300 mi) south of Tripoli, the plateau descends to the Fezzan basin, a sandy area with scattered oases. Life here depends upon water provided by wells and springs. To the southeast, the land again rises to a desert plateau and, along the southern border of Libya, gives way to the high, rugged Tibesti massif. The highest point in Libya, Pic Bette, is located here.

Climate in Libya

Most of Libya has an arid, desert climate year-round. Along the coast, however, there are areas with a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot, dry summers and mild, wetter winters. In Tripoli average daily temperatures range from 8° to 16°C (47° to 61°F) in January and from 22° to 29°C (71° to 85°F) in July, and average annual rainfall is 380 mm (15 in). Temperatures are similar in the Cyrenaican coastal city of Banghāzī, but only 270 mm (11 in) of rain falls in an average year. The plateau and mountainous areas are slightly more humid. Temperatures are much hotter south of the northern highlands, and the average rainfall drops to less than 150 mm (6 in) per year. The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth occurred at Al ‘Azīzīyah, southwest of Tripoli, where the temperature peaked at 58°C (136°F) in 1922.

Natural Resources of Libya

The principal resource of Libya is petroleum. Natural gas, gypsum, limestone, marine salt, potash, and natron (sodium carbonate) are also exploited.

Plants and Animals in Libya

Although Libya was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire for its output of grains in ancient times, climatic changes have eroded its agricultural productivity. Today, most of Libya supports only sparse growth or is without any vegetation at all. Date palms and olive and orange trees grow in scattered oases in the desert, and junipers and mastic trees are found in the higher elevations.

Only a few large mammals are found in Libya. Wildlife includes desert rodents, hyenas, gazelles, and wildcats. Eagles, hawks, and vultures are common.

Environmental Issues in Libya

Libya has undertaken a number of major irrigation projects intended to ease the country’s water shortage. The most ambitious is the so-called Great Man-Made River (GMMR), a massive 25-year irrigation scheme begun in 1984. The GMMR is a vast water pipeline system designed to tap the aquifers of the Sarir, Sabhā, and Al Kufrah oases in southern Libya and transport fresh water to Libyan towns and agricultural areas along the Mediterranean coast. The first two of five planned phases in the construction of the GMMR were completed in the 1990s, supplying Banghāzī, Surt, and Tripoli with water. Slumping oil revenues in the mid-1990s delayed the start of the third phase of the project until the early 2000s. Although the project’s planners predicted that the GMMR could supply Libya with 5 million cubic meters (177 million cubic feet) of water per day when completed, it is unclear how long the water supplies will last.

Libya has pursued an extensive reforestation program in recent decades. Since the 1960s, the government has planted millions of seedlings in western Libya in an effort to prevent further soil erosion and desertification.

Libya has ratified the London Dumping Convention and the Mediterranean Action Plan, although untreated sewage and waste from the country’s extensive petroleum industries continue to pollute the Mediterranean Sea and coastal areas. Libya has also ratified international agreements that limit marine dumping and nuclear testing, and the country has signed treaties intended to protect biodiversity and the ozone layer. Libya is party to the World Heritage Convention.


About 97 percent of the people of Libya are of Berber and Arab descent. Workers from other countries make up the remainder of the inhabitants. The population is unevenly distributed across the country: 87 percent live in urban areas, mostly on the coast. With the development of the petroleum industry, more and more Libyans have left rural areas for the expanding job opportunities and prosperity of the cities. A small number of Libyans still live in nomadic or seminomadic groups in the plains and desert.

Principal Cities of Libya

The ports of Tripoli and Banghāzī are the two largest urban areas in Libya. Other important urban areas include Mişrātah (Misurata) in Tripolitania, and Darnah and Tobruk in Cyrenaica.

Religion and Languages spoken in Libya

Islam is the state religion, and virtually all Libyans are Sunni Muslims. Arabic is the official language. The Berber language Tamazight is spoken in Berber villages and communities. English and Italian are frequently used in trade, although the government has discouraged the use of foreign languages.

Education and Cultural Institutions in Libya

Primary education in Libya is free and compulsory. The Qaddafi government has placed emphasis on education, especially since the great expansion of government revenue from booming oil exports. New schools have opened, and more teachers have been trained. Close to 87 percent of the adult population is literate.

In the 2006 school year 755,338 pupils were enrolled in primary schools, taught by 97,334 teachers. About 733,000 students attended secondary, vocational, and teacher-training schools. During the same period, 375,028 students attended Libya’s five universities, the largest of which was Al-Fateh University in Tripoli.

The Government Library and National Archives are located in Tripoli, and the country’s largest library, containing more than 300,000 volumes, is affiliated with the University of Garyounis (1955) in Banghāzī. Among the leading museums, which contain mainly antiquities excavated from various ruins, are the Lepcis Magna Museum at Al Khums, and the archaeological, natural history, epigraphy, prehistory, and ethnography museums in Tripoli.


Libya was traditionally an agricultural country, although farming was restricted primarily to the coastal regions. Livestock raising was also important. During the Italian colonial period in the first half of the 20th century and during the North African campaigns of World War II (1939-1945), almost all local industry and trade was destroyed. At independence in 1951, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. No more than 10 percent of its people could read or write, and there were only a handful of college graduates. The per capita annual income was about $30 a year and the country’s principal export was scrap metal collected from World War II battlefields.

The discovery of petroleum in the late 1950s effected a profound change in the economy: The gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the value of all goods and services produced by a country, increased from $1.5 billion in 1965 to $25.4 billion in 1985. Per capita income skyrocketed to among the highest in the world. But petroleum revenues began a decline in the 1980s, forcing cutbacks in development programs. Per capita income declined by at least 25 percent. The economy rebounded in the 1990s, and in 2000 Libya showed its first budget surplus in a decade.

Government Role in the Economy in Libya

Since 1969 the domestic economy of Libya has reflected the economic philosophy of the country’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. In 1978 the second volume of Qaddafi’s guiding treatise, The Green Book, was published. In it he declared opposition to private retail trade, wages, and rent—all of which he deemed forms of exploitation. Workers were required to participate in self-management committees, and companies were forced to distribute a set percentage of profits to their workers. Several years later, all individual bank accounts were seized in an effort to ensure equal assets for all Libyans.

The government nationalized most economic activities and discouraged foreign investment in all fields except the hydrocarbon (petroleum and natural gas) sector. These economic upheavals disrupted the development of domestic trade and industry. During the 1990s the government began to allow privately owned retail shops, and it authorized the privatization of some state-owned industries. It also allowed foreign investment. The government has been generous and egalitarian in the distribution of its oil revenues, however, resulting in dramatic improvements in the education, health, and housing of virtually all Libyans.

In 1992 the United Nations (UN) imposed economic sanctions on Libya in response to its support of international terrorism. Those sanctions were lifted in 1999, opening the way for foreign investment. In 2004 the United States lifted its economic sanctions, and U.S. companies began seeking investment opportunities in Libya.

Labor in Libya

Like many oil-producing countries with small populations, Libya has relied heavily on workers from other countries. However, Libya’s worsening relations with many countries in Africa as well as government expulsions on political grounds reduced the number of foreign workers in the country. Foreign workers who sent their earnings home also constituted a drain on Libya’s foreign exchange reserves, and as oil prices began to drop in the 1980s, so did the number of foreign workers. In 1990, 11 percent of the working population was engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 23 percent in industry; and 66 percent in services.

Agriculture of Libya

Desert covers about 95 percent of Libya’s land, and much of the remainder is used for grazing. Most of the arable land and pastureland of Libya is in Tripolitania. Grains are grown and livestock grazed to a lesser extent in Cyrenaica. Cultivation in the eastern and southern regions is sporadic and dependent on rainfall. Although agricultural production has increased as a result of irrigation projects and the use of fertilizer, Libya still must import the majority of its food. Principal crops include tomatoes, wheat, potatoes, watermelons, citrus fruits, dates, and olives; principal livestock include sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and poultry.

Fishing in Libya

Fish are plentiful in Mediterranean waters off Libya’s coast, especially tuna and sardines. However, Italians, Greeks, and other Europeans do most of the fishing in these waters. Libya’s government has sought to expand the fishing industry and opened a fishing port with refrigeration facilities at Zliten. In 2007 the catch of marine fish totaled 40,830 metric tons. Sponges are also collected near the shore.

Mining in Libya

The first commercially exploitable petroleum deposits in Libya were discovered in 1958 and large-scale development began in 1961. By 1970 crude oil production had reached more than 160 million metric tons a year. By 1972, 21 United States and European firms held concessions to operate in the rich oil fields south of the Gulf of Sidra.

But crude oil production declined in the 1970s because of government restrictions. The government imposed these restrictions partly to pressure foreign oil companies to agree to its demands, and partly to ensure that Libya’s oil reserves were not exhausted while the country was still largely undeveloped. Through negotiations and seizures, Libya had extended government control over all of the oil companies operating in its territory by the end of 1973. Libya quadrupled the price of its oil after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. By the early 1980s there was a glut in the world oil market, and Libya restricted production in an effort to maintain prices. By 2004 Libyan crude oil production had risen to 519 million barrels per year, or 1.42 million barrels per day. Crude oil is exported through tanker terminals at the Mediterranean ports of As Sidr, Ra’s Lānūf, Marsá al Burayqah, Marsá al Hariqah, and Az Zuwaytīnah.

Libya has also produced and exported liquefied natural gas since the early 1970s. Marsá al Burayqah and the Surt area are major centers for natural gas mining and processing. In 2003 Libya produced 7 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Other minerals produced in significant quantities in Libya include marine salt and gypsum.

Manufacturing in Libya

Major manufactured products of Libya include refined petroleum, petrochemicals, and construction materials. Most consumer goods must be imported. Traditional handicrafts are of minor economic importance.

Tourism of Libya

Libya features some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, as well as extraordinary ancient Greek and Roman ruins. However, while Qaddafi expressed interest in promoting tourism, Libya’s political isolation long prevented the development of a significant tourist trade. The lifting in 1999 of UN sanctions, which had severed international air links with Libya, led to an increase in the number of tourists and a government commitment to develop tourist services. In the early 2000s new hotels opened in large cities and potential tourist centers.

Energy in Libya

Libya produces 100 percent of its electricity in thermal facilities, which are concentrated in the Tripolitania region.

Currency and Banking of Libya

The unit of currency is the Libyan dinar, consisting of 1,000 dirhams. The bank of issue is the Central Bank of Libya (1955), which also supervises the banking system and regulates credit. In 1972 the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank was established to deal with overseas investments.

Foreign Trade in Libya

Petroleum accounts for 91 percent of Libya’s export trade. Manufactured goods and food are the country’s chief imports. In 2007 exports totaled $44 billion, and imports, $14.5 billion. Principal trading partners for exports are Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and Tunisia; chief partners for imports are Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.

Transportation in Libya

Good roads along the coast connect Tripoli with Tunis, Tunisia, and, through Banghāzī and Tobruk, with Alexandria, Egypt; another road connects Sabhā in the deep interior with the coastal roadway. Libyan Arab Airlines provides local and international flights. Several international airlines serve Tripoli and Banghāzī. Tripoli, Banghāzī, Tobruk, and Mişrātah are the main ports.

Communications in Libya

The postal and telecommunications systems of Libya are government owned and operated. The government also owns the newspapers and does not permit media opposition to government policies. Libya has 4 daily newspapers. Al-Fajr al-Jadid, which is published in Tripoli, is printed in an Arabic and an English edition.


Libya is governed as a jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) under a constitution adopted in 1977 by the General People’s Congress (GPC), the national legislature established in 1976. The tenet behind this political arrangement is the Third Universal Theory, expounded by Muammar al-Qaddafi in his three-volume tract, The Green Book. This theory, which exhibits influences from socialism, Islamic political theory, and Libyan tribal practice, was designed as an alternative to both capitalist liberalism and communism. Although Qaddafi, who came to power in a military coup in 1969, is treated internationally as the Libyan head of state, he claims to have relinquished all formal power in favor of the GPC, retaining only an advisory role as the “Supreme Guide” of the Libyan revolution. In practice, however, he retains ultimate power. Delegates to the General People’s Congress are chosen by local governments, known as Basic People’s Congresses. Organizations known as Popular Committees are also important elements of the political scene, serving as vehicles to bring together political and policy interests outside the congresses, typically in workplaces.

Local Government of Libya

Libya is divided into 26 municipalities and 1,500 communes, or Basic People’s Congresses. Much domestic policymaking has devolved from the central government to local authorities.

Judiciary in Libya

The Libyan judiciary consists of a supreme court, courts of appeal, courts of first instance, and summary courts. At independence, civil, criminal, and commercial justice in Libya followed the Egyptian model. Under Qaddafi, Libya’s laws were revised to align them with Sharia, or Islamic law. In 1979 judicial power in Libya came under the authority of the People’s Committee for Justice.

Defense of Libya

After Qaddafi came to power, he consolidated the Royal Libyan Army (in which he had served) and the larger and better equipped provincial police and security forces into one national military force. In the 1980s he claimed to have disbanded much of the regular standing army in favor of civilian militia units, a policy of “arming the people.” In actuality, this “People’s Army” serves as an adjunct to the regular military. In 2006 the regular military establishment included an army of 45,000 members, a navy of 8,000, and an air force of 23,000.


Libya has been conquered numerous times throughout its history, first by ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and later by successive invasions of Arab groups.

Ancient Times

The distinction between the two major regions of Libya—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica—goes back to antiquity. The Phoenicians founded colonies on the coast of Tripolitania, which were conquered by Carthage in the 6th century BC. The Greeks established settlements in Cyrenaica in the 4th century BC. Under the Greeks the city of Cyrene flourished as a center of intellectual life and was noted for its schools of medicine and philosophy. Both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica became part of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century BC. For about 500 years, under Roman rule, great advances were made in agriculture, especially with the introduction of irrigation, and in the construction of roads and cities. When Roman emperor Diocletian divided the empire into parts in the late 3rd century AD, Tripolitania remained directly under Roman rule while Cyrenaica was assigned to the East.

Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, described the Garamantes people of the Fezzan as sedentary farmers who used horse-drawn chariots in warfare. His account was verified in the 20th century by ancient cave art, discovered in the Jabal Akākus (jabal means “mountains”) of the western Fezzan and the Jabal al ‘Uwaynāt near the Egyptian border.

Arab Conquest

Libya was conquered in AD 455 by the Vandals, the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome, and in the following century by the armies of the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs under Amr ibn al-As swept over the country in 643, although they did not convert it to Islam until the 11th century. After the Arab conquest, Cyrenaica tended to follow Egypt, while Tripolitania formed part of the Western Arab world. The Roman cities largely disappeared. Only Tripoli remained.

The region was ruled successively by the Umayyads, Fatimids, and a Berber dynasty. In the mid-12th century the Normans of Sicily dominated the Mediterranean region and ruled part of Libya from 1146 to 1158. They soon abandoned it to the Berber Almohad dynasty. During the following centuries Libya, or parts thereof, frequently changed hands until it was finally conquered, in the 16th century, by the Ottoman Empire.

Libya remained under Ottoman control until the early 20th century. During this period local Turkish rulers often had a large degree of autonomy and ruled Libya as if it were an independent country. The Karamanli family, which ruled from 1711 to 1835, are an example of this phenomenon. Under their rule, Tripoli served as a major base for the notorious Barbary pirates. The United States Navy attempted to stop the piracy by sending a naval force to Tripoli in 1805. American troops, including some marines, marched from Alexandria in Egypt to Tripoli, inspiring part of the line in the Marines’ Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” By 1830 piracy along the so-called Barbary Coast (now western Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) had been largely suppressed.

An Italian Colony

In the 19th century the Ottomans tried to rule the area more effectively, but in 1911 Italy went to war against Turkey and occupied Libya. By this time the Sanusi, an Islamic brotherhood, had arisen in the interior of Cyrenaica. When Italian forces invaded Libya, the Sanusi led the Cyrenaican resistance against them. Although the Ottomans renounced their rights over Libya in 1912, the Italians met stiff resistance from Libyans. Italian occupation was confined to certain areas of the Libyan coast until 1922, but by 1932 it had been extended to all the interior. Until 1934 Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were separate colonies. Libya was made part of the national territory of Italy by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1939.

During World War II (1939-1945), Libya was the scene of intense desert fighting. After the Allies expelled German and Italian troops in 1943, France and Britain shared control of the country. By the peace treaty of 1947 Italy renounced all claims to the territory, and in 1949 the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution calling for the granting of independence to Libya by January 1, 1952.

Kingdom Established

A national assembly, composed of delegates from Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan, convened at Tripoli in 1950. The assembly nominated Emir Sayid Idris al-Sanusi, head of the Cyrenaican government and leader of the Sanusi brotherhood, to serve as king of an independent Libya. It promulgated the Libyan constitution on October 7, 1951. On December 24 the emir, as King Idris I, proclaimed the independence of the federal United Kingdom of Libya. Elections were held in February 1952, and parliament met for the first time in March. Libya joined the Arab League in 1953 and the United Nations (UN) in 1955. In 1963 the constitution was amended to give women the right to vote, and the federation of three provinces was replaced by a centralized government system.

At the time of independence Libya’s population was poverty-stricken and largely illiterate. Britain and the United States agreed to extend economic and technical aid to the government in exchange for the right to maintain their military installations in Libya. Because of the shortage of Libyan judges and teachers, many Egyptians entered government service. As oil revenues increased during the 1960s, Libya terminated the treaties under which the last British and U.S. air bases had operated, and the last troops left by 1970.

Libya was not a participant in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, but it strongly supported its Arab League neighbors in opposition to Israel after the war. Libya also gave financial aid to Jordan and the United Arab Republic, as Egypt was then called, to rebuild their economies.

Overthrow of the Monarchy

A new era in the history of Libya began on September 1, 1969, when a group of young army officers overthrew the royal government and established a republic under the name Libyan Arab Republic. The revolutionary government, led by Muammar al-Qaddafi, a 27-year-old army officer aspiring to leadership of the Arab world, showed a determination thereafter to play a larger role in the affairs of the Middle East and North Africa. Representatives of Libya engaged in discussions with Egypt and Sudan on plans for the coordination of economic, military, and political policies of the three countries. In September 1971, Egypt, Libya, and Syria agreed to form a federation designed for mutual military advantage against Israel. This and a later agreement to form a union with Tunisia were abandoned in 1974.

In internal affairs the Qaddafi regime nationalized all banks and decreed that all businesses must become wholly owned by Libyans. Agreement was reached with foreign-owned oil companies that increased Libya’s annual oil revenues by $770 million at that time. In the early 1970s, however, Libya also nationalized the oil resources of the country. After the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 Libya joined in an embargo of oil sales to the West and urged higher prices to the oil-consuming countries.

Qaddafi’s Regime

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi’s domestic revolution was coalescing. The constitution of 1977 laid out the new political system, whereby Libya became a “state of the masses” (jamahiriya) ostensibly run by the people through a system of local and national committees. The country’s official name was changed to Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and a decade of economic upheaval began as the government seized most private property and instituted a radically egalitarian welfare state.

Under Qaddafi’s leadership Libya took a much more active role not only in Arab affairs but also in international politics. Opposing the peace initiative toward Israel of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, Libya took a leading part, along with Syria, in the so-called “rejectionist front” in 1978. Its support for the Palestine Liberation Organization later expanded to barely concealed subsidies for terrorists in other nations, and in the early 1980s the regime was believed to be linked to a campaign of assassinations directed against Libyan dissidents residing abroad. In 1974 Libya seized a segment of Chadian territory known as the Aozou Strip, claiming rightful ownership of the region under a colonial-era treaty. Over the next 15 years, Libyan forces intervened in a civil war in neighboring Chad. A peace treaty with Chad was signed in 1989.

Libyan relations with the United States deteriorated in the early 1980s. In 1981 U.S. Navy jets shot down two Libyan fighter planes that had intercepted them over international waters in the Gulf of Sidra. Libya, which claimed all of the Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters, decried the attack. In 1982 the United States imposed an embargo on Libyan oil imports. Another encounter in the Gulf of Sidra in March 1986 resulted in the destruction of two Libyan ships by U.S. Navy ships. In April, responding to heightened terrorism in Europe apparently directed by Libya against Americans, the United States bombed sites in Libya declared by U.S. president Ronald Reagan to be “terrorist centers.” Qaddafi’s home at one of the barracks was damaged and his infant daughter was killed, but the major damage was to other military sites.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Libya urged moderation, opposing both Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent use of force against Iraq. The following year United Nations sanctions were imposed against Libya for its refusal to extradite the two men suspected of the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The United States added further sanctions against Libya in 1996.

By the mid-1990s Qaddafi had begun moving away from his self-appointed role as leader of the opposition to the international system. Decades of disappointment with failed efforts to engineer Arab unity and the added burden of international sanctions had taken their toll on the regime and the country. Moreover, developing Libyan opposition to the Qaddafi regime created difficulties at home. Starting in the mid-1970s many of the best-educated Libyans had left the country, and some formed opposition groups in exile. During the 1980s the United States supported elements of the exiled opposition, but they had little effect on the regime. In the 1990s, however, a new opposition developed. Although Qaddafi had come to power an advocate of Islam, he and the religious elite of Libya parted ways in the early 1980s, and Qaddafi’s version of Islam became increasingly heterodox. As a result, he faced the same kind of Islamist opposition many of the secular regimes in the Arab world confronted, and he found that his interests increasingly coincided with those of regimes he had once reviled, such as Algeria and Egypt. By the late 1990s observers suggested that Qaddafi had become interested in Libya’s participation in the international system not as a “rogue state,” as the United States had labeled the nation, but as a law-abiding member.

Recent Developments

In 1994 the International Court of Justice ruled that Chad had sovereignty over the Aozou Strip, and Libya accepted the ruling without protest. In 1999 Libya agreed to hand over the two suspects in the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie to stand trial in The Netherlands under Scottish law. Upon delivery of the suspects for transport to The Netherlands, the United Nations suspended sanctions against Libya.

The conviction of one of the Lockerbie suspects and the acquittal of the other failed to satisfy the Lockerbie families, who had become a strong lobbying group in the United States, and U.S. sanctions against Libya were extended in 2001. However, relations with the United States seemed to be thawing, and signs pointed toward Libya’s readiness to end its decades of political isolation. Qaddafi referred to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States as “horrific,” and Libya subsequently shared sensitive intelligence about terrorist networks with the United States.

In 2003 Libya disclosed that it had been pursuing a program to develop nuclear weapons but that the program had been discontinued. Qaddafi announced that Libya was forsaking weapons of mass destruction and would cooperate with international organizations in dismantling its weapons programs. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) subsequently reported that Libya’s nuclear program was more advanced than had been suspected but that Libya was still not close to developing an atomic bomb. In response to Qaddafi’s announcement and as a result of Libya accepting responsibility for the Pan American bombing, the United States moved to normalize relations between the two countries. The United States formally restored partial diplomatic relations with Libya in 2004 and established full diplomatic relations in 2006.

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