Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

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Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

Type of Government

Libya considers itself a socialist country founded on Islamic law; however, in practice, Libya is a military dictatorship run by Muammar al-Qadhafi (1942–). The country is divided into hundreds of local congresses and committees, the participants of which elect the members of the General People’s Congress (GPC), the legislative branch of the central government. The GPC elects a Secretary General, who is the head of state, and a General People’s Committee, which functions as the executive branch of the government. The judicial arm includes a Supreme Court at the highest level and a Supreme Council for Judicial Authority that administers the judiciary.


Libya is on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa between Algeria and Egypt. Beginning about 6000 BC people farmed the coastal region while hunters and herdsman occupied the southern region, which had more water then but is now the Sahara Desert. Around 2000 BC Berbers settled the area, later to be controlled at various times from Egypt and Carthage until the Roman Republic conquered the region beginning in the third and second centuries BC.

In the fifth century AD, Germanic Vandals took the region from Rome, but the Byzantine Empire captured it from the Vandals in the sixth century. Arab invaders occupied the region beginning in the seventh century. Over the following centuries the Arabs’ Muslim culture mixed with that of the native Berbers, and Arabic became the region’s predominant language. The region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire from 1511 to 1711, by the Qaramanli dynasty until 1835, and again by the Ottoman Empire until 1911.

Italy invaded Libya in 1911 and formally established control by 1912. However, Italy continued to face armed resistance from Libyans until the country’s complete conquest under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) in 1932. Libya was a battleground during World War II from 1940 until 1943. Under the Treaty of 1947, Italy officially relinquished control of Libya to the Allied Forces. The Allies could not agree what to do with Libya, so they decided to put the question to the United Nations. On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly voted to make Libya an independent state.

Libya declared independence under pro-British King Idris I (1889–1983) on December 24, 1951. It established a constitutional, hereditary monarchy, with separate parliaments for the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Political parties were prohibited. Libya became a member of the United Nations in December 1955.

Major oil reserves were discovered in Libya in 1959, turning the country from poor to rich as a nation. Ten years later, on September 1, 1969, military rebels led by twenty-eight-year-old Colonel Qadhafi deposed King Idris I, who was exiled to Egypt. Under the Constitutional Proclamation of December 1969, Qadhafi governed initially through the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy, and called the country the Libyan Arab Republic. In 1977 Qadhafi replaced the RCC with the General People’s Congress (GPC) and changed the name of the country to Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The word “Jamahiriya” is an Arabic word Qadhafi created to mean “state of the masses.”

Government Structure

While Libya calls itself a socialist country run by the people, Western sources consider it a military dictatorship run by Qadhafi. Its structure of government comes from two primary sources. In March 1977 the Declaration of the Establishment of the Authority of the People amended Libya’s Constitutional Proclamation of 1969. In addition, a “Green Book” based on a speech Qadhafi delivered in 1975 contains much of the philosophical foundation for Libya’s government. It contains a so-called third way, an alternative form of government that is supposed to lie somewhere between Western capitalism and the socialism of the former Soviet Union.

Viewed as a socialist state, the foundation for government in Libya is a collection of hundreds of municipalities called Basic People’s Congresses. Each Basic People’s Congress has a Basic People’s Committee that administers local government. The members of the Basic People’s Committees are elected by Libyan citizens over age eighteen. In turn, the Basic People’s Committees elect members to regional People’s Committees for regional People’s Congresses. The regional committees elect the members of the General People’s Congress, which comprises both the legislative and executive arm of Libya’s national government.

The GPC has 760 members elected to three-year terms. Members must be at least eighteen years old and must hold leadership positions in the local congresses and committees. The GPC meets for only two weeks annually and has power to make laws for Libya. The GPC chooses a Secretary General, who serves as the head of state for Libya. The Secretary General serves as head of the five-member General Secretariat, also elected by the GPC. The General Secretariat handles affairs for the GPC in between its biennial assemblies. In addition to the Secretary General, the General Secretariat has secretaries for Women’s Affairs, for Affairs of the People’s Congresses, for Affairs of the Trade Unions, Syndicates and Professional Associations, and for Foreign Affairs.

The GPC also elects a General People’s Committee, which effectively acts as the cabinet or executive arm of the government. The Committee is headed by its own Secretary General, who serves like a prime minister. Each of the other secretaries on the Committee leads one of the ministries, or departments, of the national government.

The judicial arm of the government contains a Supreme Court of Libya and various lower courts. The Supreme Court has five separate chambers, one each for civil and commercial, criminal, administrative, constitutional, and Islamic law cases. The GPC elects the judges of the Supreme Court. Appellate courts below the Supreme Court include three Courts of Appeal covering different regions, plus a Court of Appeals for cases under Islamic law. Below the appellate courts are Courts of First Instance, which handle trials in most cases, plus summary courts, which handle minor matters. According to the U.S. State Department, there are revolutionary and political courts that work outside the regular judiciary to try political crimes and offenses against the state. The laws of Libya are a combination of Islamic legal principles and the Civil Law tradition from Europe.

Qadhafi served as Secretary General of the GPC from its inception until 1979. Since then he has not had an official position, but Libyan government announcements refer to him as the brotherly leader and guide of the revolution. Western sources claim that despite his unofficial status, Qadhafi ultimately controls the military and government of Libya through the use of revolutionary committees with authority to review and control all government conduct.

Political Parties and Factions

Political parties have been illegal in Libya since its independence. A 1972 law defines illegal political activity as any activity based on a political ideology contrary to the principles of the revolution of 1969. The Arab Socialist Union is a state-authorized organization that mobilizes people for political involvement. As such, it effectively serves as the country’s only lawful political party.

Political groups that operate in violation of state law can be exiled. During the 1980s Qadhafi targeted enforcement efforts at Islamic fundamentalist organizations, which represented a threat to his regime. When the Libyan military became a threat during the 1990s, including a failed coup attempt in 1993, Qadhafi replaced military rivals with supporters. In March 1997 the GPC adopted a law called the Charter of Honor to impose punishment on Libyans convicted of crimes of disorder. Some interpreted the law as an assault on opponents of Qadhafi’s regime.

Major Events

After the revolution of 1969, Qadhafi took steps to rid Libya of foreign military bases, including those of Great Britain and the United States. Qadhafi worked at times to create a unified Africa and to create a united nation of Arabic states, but to no avail. During the 1970s and 1980s Libya battled with Chad over a region in that country known as the Aozou strip, rich in mineral deposits. Libya finally withdrew in 1994 after the International Court of Justice ruled in Chad’s favor in the dispute.

In 1979 the United States designated Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism, and already strained relations between the two countries deteriorated. In 1986 the United States bombed Libya in response to the bombing of a nightclub patronized by American military personnel in West Berlin, Germany. Two years later, terrorists with suspected connections to Libya bombed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone aboard and eleven people on the ground. The attack led to economic and other sanctions against Libya by the United Nations, the United States, and others.

In September 1995 Libya began to deport thousands of Arab workers, primarily Palestinian, Sudanese, and Egyptian. Qadhafi claimed the action was necessary to open jobs for Libyans. Some interpreted the move as a protest against peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In 1999 Libya complied with one of the UN’s post-Lockerbie demands by turning over two Libyan intelligence officials for trial in Scotland. One, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi (1952–), was eventually convicted in the Pan Am bombing, while the other was acquitted.

Twenty-First Century

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, Libya took steps to mend its relations with Western nations. In August 2003 Libya agreed to take responsibility for its officials’ actions in the Lockerbie bombing by paying compensation to the victims’ families. That same month in a letter to the UN Security Council, Libya renounced terrorism. In December 2003 Libya announced plans to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. These actions led the United Nations and United States to lift sanctions against the country. In June 2006, just one month after both countries fully restored their mutual embassies, the United States lifted its designation of Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Simons, Geoffrey L. Libya: the Struggle for Survival. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

United Nations Development Programme-Programme on Governance in the Arab Region. “Democratic Governance, Arab Countries Profiles, Libya.” (accessed August 21, 2007).

Vandewalle, Dirk J. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.