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LOCATION: Northern Africa
POPULATION: 6.1 million (includes 166,510 non-nationals)
LANGUAGE: Arabic; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


Libya is located in a region of North Africa known as the Maghrib (the Arabic word referring to the direction of the sunset). It is bordered to the east by Egypt, to the west by Algeria and Tunisia, and to the south by Chad, Niger, and Sudan. The name “Libya” comes from an ancient Egyptian name for a Berber tribe that was applied by the Greeks to most of North Africa, and the term “Libyan” to all of its Berber inhabitants. It was not until Libya achieved independence in 1951 that its history changed from one of cities and regions to that of a modern nation-state.

Geography was the principal determinant in the separate historical development of Libya's three traditional regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Until the late 1960s, each of these regions held on to its own identity, as they were separated by formidable deserts.

The history of Libya can be traced as far back as the eighth millennium bc. Archeological evidence indicates that Libya's coastal plain was home to a Neolithic culture whose peoples were skilled in the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops. Farther to the south, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a vast savannah rich in game. This civilization flourished until 2000 bc, when the land began to desiccate, eventually becoming what is today the Sahara desert.

The peoples who settled in the area were called Berbers. Although the origins of these nomadic tribes remain largely a mystery, evidence suggests that they migrated from the steppe regions of southwest Asia. Roman, Greek, Phoenician, and Arab conquerors all attempted to defeat or assimilate the Berbers into their cultures, with varying degrees of success. Phoenician traders arrived in the area around 900 bc and established the city of Carthage in approximately 800 bc in what is today neighboring Tunisia. The Carthaginians spread Phoenician hegemony across most of North Africa, where a distinctive “Punic” civilization came into being, and established several towns along the Libyan coast. The Berbers were either enslaved by the Phoenicians or forced to pay tribute.

While the Phoenicians were busy on the western coast of Libya, the Greeks established control in the east. By 631 bc, Greek settlers had established the city of Cyrene on a fertile highland about 32 km (20 mi) inland. Within 200 years, four more Greek cities had been established, constantly resisting encroachments by the Egyptians to the east and the Carthaginians to the west. Eventually, the Greek settlement was overrun by Persia, later to be returned to Greek control by Alexander the Great in 331 bc. However, the city-states constantly vied with each other for power, leaving them vulnerable to the expanding Roman Empire. In 74 bc, Ptolemy Apion, the last Greek ruler, bequeathed the area, collectively known as Cyrenaica, to Rome, which formally annexed the area by ad 74.

In spite of the political strife, there was much cultural and economic development in the area. The region grew rich from grain, wine, wool, and stock breeding and from the cultivation of silphium, an herb widely regarded as an aphrodisiac. A school of intellectuals known as the Cyrenaics, who expounded a doctrine that defined happiness as the sum of all human pleasures, developed in the area.

The Roman conquest of the region would prove disastrous for the Berbers. Tribes were forced to become settled or leave the area. For this reason, the Berbers resisted Roman rule. The Romans began their occupation by controlling the coastal lands and cultivating the area. It is estimated that North Africa produced 1 million tons of cereal each year for the Roman Empire, as well as fruits, figs, grapes, beans, and olive oil.

Along with the Roman presence, Judaism and Christianity began to influence the Berbers. Many Jews who had been expelled from Palestine by the Romans settled in the area, and some of the Berber tribes converted to Judaism. Christianity arrived in the area in the 2nd century ad and was especially attractive to slaves. By the end of the 4th century, many of the settled areas had become Christian, along with some of the Berber tribes.

In ad 429, the German king Gaiseric, backed by 80,000 Vandals (a German tribe), invaded North Africa from Spain, eventually weakening Roman control. With the decline of Roman power, the Berber tribes began to return to their traditional lands. Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent his army to North Africa in ad 533 and within a year conquered the German forces.

The most influential conquest of the area was the invasion of Arab Muslims beginning in ad 642. By ad 644, the Muslims had established control over Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west. The nomadic Berbers quickly converted en masse to Islam and joined the Arab forces. By ad 663, the Arabs had spread their influence to the south in Fezzan with the help of Berber troops. The Arabs used the region as a launching pad for operations against Carthage. In ad 670, the Arabs established the town of al-Qayrawan, south of modern-day Tunis, and continued to spread their influence to the west.

The ruling Arabs viewed Islam primarily as a religion for Arabs and therefore treated non-Arab converts as second-class citizens. Political sentiment developed among Muslims on the Arabian Peninsula, however, that rejected the Arabism of the ruling Umayyid dynasty in favor of strict equality for all Muslims. Followers of this movement, called Kharajites, spread to North Africa, and many Berbers became attracted to their message of Islamic equality. They eventually rebelled against the Arab caliphate's control of the area and established a number of independent kingdoms.

In ad 750, the Abbasids, successors to the Umayyid dynasty, spread their rule to the area and appointed Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab as governor in al-Qayrawan.

In the last decade of the 9th century, missionaries from the Ismaili sect (Shia Muslims with a more esoteric and mystical interpretation of Islam) converted the Kutama Berbers to Islam and led them in opposition against the established Aghlabi kingdom. Al-Qayrawan fell in ad 909, and the next year the Kutama installed the Ismaili grandmaster from Syria, 'Ubaidallah Sa'id, as imam (leader) of their movement and ruler of the territory they had conquered, which included Tripolitania, the northwestern section of Libya. This imam founded the Fatimid dynasty.

The Fatimids turned their attention to the east, and by ad 969 they had conquered Egypt and moved its capital to the new city of Cairo. From there, the Fatimid dynasty established a caliphate rivaling that of Baghdad. Tripolitania was left to Berber rule, and considering the diverse loyalties of the different tribes, conflict became inevitable. In the 11th century, the Fatimids sent Arab Bedouins to North Africa to assist their forces against other Berbers. Eventually, the influx of Arabs into the region promoted the arabization of the entire area.

Nevertheless, independent kingdoms managed to establish themselves. The greatest of these were the Almoravids, the Almohads, the Hafsids, and the Zayanids. The kingdoms were all led by Muslim leaders who greatly encouraged learning and arts.

Meanwhile, the Catholics of Spain sought to reclaim southern Spain from the Muslims. Spain had become a cosmopolitan and pluralistic center of learning under Muslim rule. The Spanish conquest in 1492, however, fundamentally changed the character of the area. The new rulers forced all Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity. Many fled to North Africa, and a sizable community of Jews settled in the area from Morocco to Libya.

As Europe experienced a slow economic revival and Spanish power began to increase, the Mediterranean became a battleground for supremacy among the Hapsburg Empire, the Spanish, and the Ottoman Turks. By 1510, Spanish forces had captured Tripoli, but Spain was more concerned with lands further west and entrusted the protection of Tripoli to Malta.

By this time, piracy had become prevalent along the North African coast. Because Muslim vessels were not allowed to enter European ports, Muslim pirates began raiding European ships. The most famous of these pirates was Khayr ad-Din, known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard. Khayr ad-Din captured several European ports, recognizing the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan over the territory he had conquered. In 1551, the Maltese were driven out of Tripoli by the Turks. It took until the 1580s, however, for the Turks to extend their power south into Fezzan. In actuality, however, they exercised little control there.

By 1815, the European states combined forces against the North African states. Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and Naples declared war on Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Deprived of the basis of its economy, Tripoli was unable to pay for basic imports or service its foreign debt. When France and Britain pressed for payment on behalf of Tripoli's creditors, the regional ruler authorized extraordinary taxes to provide the needed revenue. The imposition of these taxes led to an outcry in the town and among the tribes that quickly developed into civil war. Eventually, the sultan sent troops from Turkey and regained control of the region.

By the early 1800s, Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Sanusi had begun to have a profound influence on the region. Largely influenced by Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, he incorporated teachings from both orthodox Sunni Islam and Sufism to create an austere reform movement that proved very popular among the Berbers. In Tripolitania and Fezzan, al-Sanusi gained such popularity that he was called the “Grand Sanusi.” The Bedouins revered him as a saint. After his death in 1859, his son, Muhammad, brought the Sanusi order to its peak of influence, and he was widely regarded as the Mahdi (a popular messianic leader in Islamic tradition).

Meanwhile, Italy turned its attention to North Africa. Becoming a unified state only in 1860, Italy had a late start in the European race for colonies, and it viewed Libya as compensation for its acquiescence to the establishment of a French colony in Tunisia. Toward this end, Italy engineered a crisis with Turkey in 1911. When Turkey refused to allow Italian military occupation, Italy declared war on Turkey. With Turkey facing troubles in the Balkans, it was forced to sue for peace with Italy, essentially turning over control of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in October 1912.

Italian control over the area, however, was slow to consolidate because of organized resistance among the remaining Sanusi orders, especially in the south. When Italy joined the Allied powers in 1915, the first Italo-Sanusi war became a battle of World War I. At war's end, the Allied powers recognized Italy's sovereignty in Libya.

Several nationalist movements began to take shape in Libya, although there was little cooperation among them. A pan-Arabian nationalist, 'Abd ar-Rahman 'Azzam, persuaded local leaders to demand Italian recognition of the region as an independent republic. After this attempt failed, Tripolitanian nationalists met with the Sanusis in 1922 and offered to accept Idris as emir of Tripolitania. Although initially hesitant to draw the anger of the Italians, Idris accepted the emirate over all of Libya and then fled to Egypt to avoid capture, sparking the second Italo-Sanusi war.

With the ascension of Benito Mussolini's Fascist government in 1922, Italy's position on Libya quickly changed to one of brutal military pacification. The final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne opened the door for Italy's annexation of Libya.

The greatest resistance to the Italian occupation in the early 1920s was led by a religious leader, 'Umar al-Mukhtar. A veteran of many campaigns, Mukhtar was a master of desert guerrilla tactics. Leading small, mobile bands, he attacked outposts, ambushed troop columns, and cut supply and communication lines before fading back into the desert. Unable to defeat Mukhtar in a direct confrontation, the Italians resorted to a war of attrition, herding people into concentration camps, burning crops, blocking wells, and slaughtering livestock throughout Libya. Mukhtar, however, held out until his capture at al-Kufrah, the last Sanusi stronghold, in 1931. He was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Arabs assembled to witness the event. With his death, the pacification of Libya was complete.

Libya became known as the “fourth shore” of Italy. Its annexation was seen as a way to provide resources for and to relieve overcrowding in Italy. To this end, the infrastructure of Libya was greatly improved, but only to the benefit of the Italian settlers. Most arable land was confiscated from the local tribes and given to Italian colonists, who by 1940 numbered about 110,000, or 10% of the population. Education for the Arabs during this time was completely ignored, as evidenced by a literacy rate of less than 10%. This lack of education created a dearth of skilled workers and professionals, a problem that would plague Libya for decades.

Most Libyan leaders realized that their best hope for independence lay in the defeat of Italy in a larger conflict, and World War II (1939–45) provided them with such an opportunity. When Italy officially entered the war on the side of Germany, the Libyan leaders, including Idris, immediately threw their support, both physical and verbal, behind Great Britain. Although Britain welcomed the Sanusi support, it made no coherent statement or promise to secure Libyan independence.

In late October 1942, British troops broke through Axis lines at Alamein in a massive offensive that sent the Germans and Italians into retreat. Cyrenaica was taken in November, followed by Tripolitania in January 1943. The road to Libyan independence was long and protracted. Britain took control of Libya until the end of the war. Italy's claim to Libya was offi-cially renounced in 1947. During this time, nationalist movements formed in Libya, and in November 1950, Idris was accepted as the leader of a unified Libya. A constitution was drafted and adopted in October 1951. On 24 December 1951, King Idris I proclaimed the independence of the United Kingdom of Libya as a sovereign state.

The vast majority of power in the Libyan government lay in the hands of the newly appointed monarch, and after the first general election in February 1952, Idris abolished all political parties. In his foreign policy, Idris maintained a strongly pro-Western stance, even agreeing to allow the United States to maintain a military base there. Although diplomatic relations were established with the Soviet Union in 1955, economic aid was refused in deference to the United States and Britain.

In spite of foreign aid, Libya remained a relatively poor and underdeveloped country until the discovery of oil in 1959, which turned Libya into an independently wealthy country in short order. The vast majority of Libyans, however, did not see much improvement in their standard of living as a result of the corruption and inefficiency of the monarchy and the unfavorable contracts of the Western oil companies. This fact, along with Libya's continued pro-Western foreign policy, led to an increasingly volatile situation among the populace and, more importantly, among an increasingly pan-Arabist army.

On 1 September 1969, in a daring coup d'état, a group of about 70 young army officers and enlisted men seized control of the government and abolished the monarchy. The army quickly rallied behind the coup and, within a few days, had control of the entire country. Popular reception of the coup, especially among young urbanites, was enthusiastic. The coup was headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), of which Captain Muammar Qadhafiwas a member.

The RCC adopted a socialist philosophy but rejected communism because of its atheistic stance. The council reaffirmed Libya as an independent Arab and Muslim nation and enacted many social, economic, and political reforms. Overnight, Libya shifted from a traditionalist Arab state to an idealistic nationalist state.

As the RCC fought off initial challenges to its power, more and more authority was transferred to the RCC and, ultimately, to the hands of Qadhafi. However, Qadhafiwas a highly idealistic pan-Arabist influenced by Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir of Egypt. In this light, Qadhafiturned his attention to foreign affairs, leaving administrative tasks to Major Abdel Salam Jallud.

The change that Qadhafienvisioned for Libyan society began in 1973 with the so-called Cultural Revolution. The idea was to combat inefficiency and apathy in the government bureaucracy by involving large numbers of the populace in political affairs. On the economic front, the main task was the redistribution of wealth from oil revenues. A property law was passed that forbade ownership of more than one private dwelling per family. Retail and wholesale trade operations were replaced by “people's supermarkets” that were heavily subsidized by the government. While these moves were popular among poor Libyans, they created resentment among the traditional aristocracy, which led an attempt at sedition from abroad. As retaliation, a series of opposition figures were assassinated.

Libya continued to increase the amount of revenue it obtained from the sale of petroleum. Toward this end, Qadhafisuggested that the production of oil be controlled, and he strongly supported the establishment of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). There, he expounded his policy of using oil as leverage against the Western states and Israel. As a consequence of these policies, oil production in Libya dropped by half between 1970 and 1974, even as revenues from the sale of oil quadrupled.

On the political front, Qadhaficontinued to agitate for Arab unity. While many Arab leaders gave lip service to the idea of a pan-Arab state at some “time in the future,” Qadhaficonsidered it an achievable goal in the immediate future. As such, Qadhafieventually tried to form a federation with Egypt and Syria. Egypt, however, proved quite apathetic on this front, and the federation was struck a fatal blow in 1973 when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel without informing Qadhafi.

Relations with Western states remained troubled for some time. The major Western powers accused Libya of sponsoring terrorism in support of the Palestine Liberation Organization's aspirations to statehood. Libya was also accused of supporting the Irish Republican Army (though no credible evidence of this has ever been produced), Lebanese leftists, and left-wing movements in Europe and Japan. As a result, relations with the United States and Britain steadily deteriorated. The low point in these relations occurred in 1988, when a Pan Am airliner was blown up in mid-flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people. Libyan operatives were widely believed to be behind the attack, a fact the country officially acknowledged in 2003. After an investigation and trial lasting until 2001, a Libyan intelligence agent was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the attack. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Libya began a process of greater cooperation with Western powers and declared an end to what was then a secret nuclear weapons program.


Libya has a population of about 6.1 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of 22. The population grows by approximately 2.3% per year, partly a result of general improvement in health conditions, which has led to a decrease in both the infant mortality rate and the death rate. More than 90% of the population identifies itself as Arab; most of the remaining minority is composed of Berbers and black Africans. Approximately 76% of the population now lives in urban areas concentrated along the coast. There are also small numbers of Greeks, Maltese, Pakistanis, Indians, and Egyptians.

Libya is located in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea. It has an area of 1,760,000 sq km (679,536 sq mi) and a coastline of 1,800 km (1,119 mi), making it the fifteenth largest country in the world. There are some fertile highlands in the north but no true mountain ranges except in the largely empty southern desert. In all, more than 80% of Libya is covered by the Sahara desert. There are no rivers; a few saltwater lakes are located near the Mediterranean coast.


Arabic is the national language of Libya. Although the government officially discourages the use of other languages, English is the most popular second language, and it is regularly taught in school. Because the Italians failed to assimilate or educate the population during its occupation, the Italian language never caught on in Libya as French did in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

Arabic, a highly evolved Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic, is spoken by nearly the entire population of Libya. Written Arabic has two forms: Modern Standard Arabic is taught in schools throughout the Arab world, while classical Arabic is an older version of the language derived from the Quran. Libyans also speak their own dialectical Arabic, which includes many slang terms, some from Berber and Italian.

In greeting, a Libyan says as-salamu 'alaykum, which means “peace be with you.” The response is wa 'alaykum as-salam, which means “and peace be with you as well.”

Common Libyan female names include 'Aysha, Fatima, Amna, Khadija, and Asma. Male names are Muhammad, 'Ali, Yusif, Ibrahim, and Mukhtar.


Libya has many legends based on the exploits of Muslim leaders who resisted the Crusaders or the Italian colonizers. These leaders, such as 'Umar al-Mukhtar, often come from highly religious backgrounds and are considered well learned. They are called marabouts, or holy men, and they are believed to have baraka, or divine grace, which allows them to perform miracles. Though the government discourages such practice, their burial sites are often destinations for pilgrimages, and some of these leaders have become saints in the popular mind. Many people visit their graves to ask for intercession.

Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in religious history. One such story, which is commemorated annually throughout the Islamic world, is that of al-Isra' wa al-Mi'raj. According to legend, on the twenty-sixth day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca, Saudi Arabia (then Hijaz), to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal visit to heaven. This legend partly explains the importance of Jerusalem to people of the Islamic faith.

Another folk belief that is common in Islamic communities, including Libya, is that evil spirits, called jinns, live in haunted places. Jinns are demons that are believed to take on animal or human form.


The overwhelming majority of Libyans (97%) are Muslims, although a Catholic church has been built in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. The practice of Islam varies from individual to individual. Civil law is based on religious code, or Shari'a. Most Libyans belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, which was introduced by the conquering Arabs. However, there are still remnants of the Sanusi order, which was influenced by Shia doctrine through the Fatimids.

Islam teaches that God (Allah) sends guidance to humans in the form of prophets, and it accepts the earlier Semitic prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets who were sent with the message that there is only one God. Muslims believe in heaven and hell, the Day of Judgment, and angels. The Quran is the holy book of Muslims; it teaches that in order to get to heaven, men and women must believe in God and do good works by struggling in God's way. Belief and action are tightly bound together in Muslim literature.

The Islamic religion has five pillars: (1) Muslims must pray five times a day; (2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) Muslims must fast during the month of Ramadan; (4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) each Muslim must recite the shahada—ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah —which means, “I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”


Libya commemorates both secular and Muslim religious holidays. One major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting called Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or having sex during daylight hours in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham, as well as his son, to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son.

Religious holidays are celebrated by going to the mosque for group prayers and then returning home to share large meals with family and visiting relatives. Part of the feast is normally given to relatives and part to the poor. Libyan children enjoy visiting carnivals on holidays. Other Islamic holidays, celebrated to a lesser degree, are the Islamic New Year, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and the Tenth of Muharram (the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, commemorated because Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery on this day; the Prophet Muhammad instructed all Muslims to fast on this day).

Secular holidays include Independence Day (December 24) and Evacuation Day (June 11), a commemoration of the U.S. withdrawal from Wheeling Air Force base in Libya in 1970. Army Day is celebrated on August 9 and Proclamation Day on November 21.


Male babies are usually circumcised at birth, although some families wait until the boy reaches the age of 10 or 11. Children of both sexes are expected to help with household chores.

All children between the ages of 6 and 15 are required to attend nine years of school or vocational training. Afterward, they may attend three years of secondary school. Young boys and girls attend school together, but beginning at age 10 or 11, they attend separate schools. After school, young boys may attend schools specializing in religious training, where they learn to recite the Quran from memory.

Desert Bedouins are expected to marry and produce children in order to increase the size and power of the extended family and/or tribe. The majority of Libyan marriages are arranged by families, and even those who marry for love must have the approval of their families. Weddings take place either in a mosque or in the bride's home, with the ceremony administered by an imam (Muslim prayer leader). A marriage contract is signed during the wedding ceremony.

Elderly family members are cared for by their children, and none are put in retirement or old-age homes. Upon death, the deceased's body is washed, clothed in clean linen, and buried with his or her right side facing Mecca. Only men attend the funeral; women express their grief at the deceased's home by wailing.


Islam is central to the Libyan way of life, and this fact is reflected in Libyans' social mores and use of language. Daily life revolves around the five daily prayers that Muslims are obliged to perform. Many Libyan men attend the mosque regularly, in keeping with the five prayer times; Libyan women predominantly pray in the home. As in all Muslim countries, Friday is Libya's holy day, and the noon prayer is almost always attended at the local mosque.

The practice of Islam has also influenced the Libyan use of language. The typical Libyan greeting is an Islamic one: as-salamu 'alaykum, which means “peace be with you.” The response is wa 'alaykum as-salam, “and peace be with you as well.” God's name is always invoked in conversation. A Libyan will usually say in-sha' Allah, which means “if God wills it,” when asked whether he or she plans to do something. This might appear to be indecisive, but it is actually an acknowledgment of God's role in everything one does.

A Libyan always greets guests with a cup of coffee or tea, and desert tradition requires that a guest be offered food. Hospitality is part of the Libyan code of honor. Travelers often find it difficult to navigate cities without being repeatedly asked into strangers' homes for tea and cakes.

Libya has no bars or night clubs, but there are many sidewalk cafés where men drink coffee or tea and socialize. In the evenings, most Libyans can be found at home. In keeping with Islamic teaching, alcohol is illegal in Libya, even at high-end hotels in the major cities.

It is considered disrespectful to openly criticize anyone, and courtesy must always be shown when in public. Children must respect adults. Libyans of tribal background give great importance to tribal loyalty, and strangers arouse tribal suspicion—not surprising in light of the country's history of foreign colonization. Urban dwellers, particularly in larger cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi, are more open to outside influences and ideas. Most Libyans treasure their privacy. This has been particularly true since the 1980s, when outspoken political opposition to the current regime became a punishable offense. Thus, Libyans avoid making any public comments that might be interpreted as political criticism.


Living conditions for most Libyans improved dramatically in the years following the 1969 coup. By the 1980s, the welfare system provided work injury and sickness compensation, as well as disability, retirement, and survivors' pensions. Workers employed by foreign firms were also guaranteed the same social security benefits as workers employed by Libyan firms. The government subsidized the underemployed and the unemployed and provided nurseries to care for the children of working mothers. As oil production in the country increased in the 1990s and 2000s, such government subsidized health care greatly improved.

A major problem for Libyans during the 1970s was the country's health care system. The Italian colonization left little infrastructure, and the lack of education provided to the Libyans meant there were few trained health care professionals, a problem that went largely unaddressed by the Idris monarchy. The RCC socialized health care in 1970, making it free for all Libyans. The first medical and dental schools were established in 1970 and 1974, respectively. Health care expenditures increased tremendously beginning in 1970. In 2001, the government spent $343 per capita on health care. From 1990 to 2004, the number of hospital beds increased from 3.5 to 5.8 per 1,000 citizens. Life expectancy at birth is 77 years, a figure similar to or higher than that of many developed nations.

Housing has proved to be a more intractable problem for the Libyan government. A 1969 survey indicated that there was a shortage of nearly 180,000 dwellings. As a consequence, the revolutionary regime invested several million dollars between 1970 and 1995, building some 277,000 houses and apartments. There is still, however, a housing shortage caused by a continued influx of population into the cities from the countryside and by a high birth rate. As a result of the growing population, shantytowns can be found on the outskirts of major metropolitan centers. These are in stark contrast to the European-style villas inhabited by the urban middle class.

The typical Libyan family lives in a state-built apartment building. Those who can afford them hang Persian carpets on the walls for decor. It is common to have at least one sofa and a few embroidered floor cushions for seating. In 2006, there were 4 million mobile phones in use. Combined land line and mobile phones provide telecommunications service to 75% of the population. There were 16 AM radio, 3 FM radio, and 3 short-wave radio stations in operation in 2005. That year, there were 12 broadcast television stations and 24 Internet hosts. Libya's internet code is ly.

In 2002, Libya had about 83,200 km (51,670 mi) of roadways, of which more than half were paved. The main road is a 1,769-km (1,100-mi) coastal highway running from Tunisia to Egypt. An old railway, the Benghazi line, was abandoned in 1964. There are plans for a new railway system, and a railroad between Benghazi and Egypt began construction in 1993, with plans for service to begin in 2010. Tripoli and Benghazi (a city on the Mediterranean coast) both have international airports, and Libya has a national airline, Jamahiriyya Libyan Arab Airlines. A private airline, Afriqiyah Airways, connects Libya with much of Europe and Africa.


Libyan family life operated along traditional tribal, or qabilah, lines, until well after independence. Libyans live with their extended families in tightly knit communities. A typical household consists of a man, his wife, his sons and their wives and children, his unmarried daughters, and perhaps other relatives, such as a widowed or divorced mother or sister. At the death of the father, each son establishes his own household and repeats the cycle. Marriages are typically arranged by negotiation between the families of the bride and groom, as men and women generally are not allowed to mix socially.

The traditional roles of men and women changed noticeably after the coup in 1969. Women were granted the right to vote in the early 1960s, but they were actively encouraged to vote after 1970, in part because of the regime's hope for an expanded political base. The new regime encouraged women to pursue education and provided them with incentives to work. Working mothers were offered cash bonuses, and day care was institutionalized in the 1970s. The retirement age for women was set at 55, and laws were passed ensuring equal pay for equal work.

In spite of the government's efforts, some traditional views have been slow to change. For example, women were disproportionately represented in jobs as secretaries or clerks because of deep-seated cultural biases against the intermingling of men and women. However, by the mid-1980s, women had broken into several professional fields, most notably health care. Since 2001, the government has tried to further redefine the role of women and expand its armed forces by making military service mandatory for both sexes.


Two styles of clothing are visible in Libya. In the cities, there is a mixture of Western and traditional garb. Girls commonly wear brightly colored dresses, and boys wear jeans and shirts. Young men and women wear predominantly modern clothing, though most women continue to cover their hair, in keeping with Islamic tradition. The traditional attire for men is a long white gown worn over a shirt and pants. Some men wear a black or white Muslim hat on their heads. Traditional women also wear long gowns and hair coverings. Most women's gowns cover both the head and body.

In rural areas, traditional dress predominates. Men of the Tuareg tribe in the Libyan desert wear black or dark blue cloaks. Tuareg men also cover their faces and hair with blue veils historically dyed with indigo, leaving only their eyes visible. The latter attire has earned them the title “People of the Blue Veil.” This practice developed out of the need for protection from the desert sun and sand. Styles of dress in the cities often fall along generational lines, and it is not unusual to see people walking side by side wearing different styles of garments. Unlike in other parts of North Africa, in Libya, traditional versus modern dress has not become a charged political issue.


Before every meal, a Libyan recites the Muslim expression bismillah, or “in the name of God.” After finishing the meal, he or she then says al-hamdu lillah, which means “thank God.”

As in other regions of North Africa, couscous is a very popular food. Couscous is semolina wheat sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. The grains are then steamed and ready for use in a favorite recipe. The couscous can be mixed with a number of sauces and then combined with a variety of meats and/or vegetables. Couscous is also combined with honey and milk and served for breakfast. The main meat eaten by Libyans is lamb.

Most Libyan meals are eaten with kasrah, a flat, round, non-yeast bread. Kasrah is often eaten with dips, such as babaghanuj, a dip made of mashed, roasted eggplant mixed with lemon, tahina (sesame seed) paste, and a pinch of salt.

Dates are a favorite snack, known for their abundance. Palm trees are hardy plants that grow in groups by the sea and in oases. Dates from palm trees are used in many forms by Libyans. The fruit can be eaten fresh or squeezed to make juice or date honey. Dried dates can be ground into date flour. And date pits can be roasted and ground to make date coffee.

Coffee and mint tea are popular drinks, served throughout the day. Alcoholic beverages and pork are forbidden by Islamic law.


Before World War II (1939–45), few schools existed in Libya, resulting in a literacy rate of less than 10%. After the discovery of oil in the country in 1959, Libya invested in new schools, vocational training centers, and universities. Another education boom took place in the 1970s, following the installation of the new regime in 1969. Libya adopted a Western-style system that includes six years of primary school, three years of preparatory school, and three years of secondary school. Schooling is mandatory for both boys and girls until the age of 15. After completion of secondary school, Libyans may attend either vocational schools or universities. Libya's first university was established in 1955 in Benghazi. This was followed by universities in Tripoli, Mersa Brega, and Sabha. All schooling, including that at the university level, is free. This includes books, school supplies, uniforms, and meals. As a result of these educational programs, the literacy rate in Libya rose from an abysmal 10% during the Italian occupation to more than 92% as of early 2003.

Problems facing the educational system stem from a lack of qualified teachers. As a result, the vast majority of teachers in Libya are expatriates. In addition, some confusion resulted when the government tried to integrate secular and religious schooling. Military training is a mandatory part of education in the school system, for both men and women, from the secondary through the university level.


Traditional Libyan folk dance is a strenuous and lively form of entertainment. Music and dance troupes often perform together at festivals. Line dancing is popular, with dancers linking arms while swaying, hopping, and gliding across the stage. Singers are often accompanied by musicians who play the violin, the tambourines, the 'ud (a windpipe made of cane), the tablah (a hand-beaten drum), and the lyre.

The Libyan government maintains strict control over the production and distribution of printed matter, and all printing presses are government owned. Libraries, also government owned, have abundant collections of old religious writings but far less modern literature. Printed material that is critical of the regime or of Islam is censored.

Muammar Qadhafispelled out the goals and ideals of his 1969 revolution in a three-volume collection, The Green Book, which he produced between 1976 and 1979. The books emphasize the centrality of Islamic values to the governing of the Libyan nation, but they also stress the importance of the then-fashionable socialist ideologies of the emerging postcolonial countries, and for that they have been criticized by Muslim leaders.

Libya has produced few internationally renowned artists, though Ali Omar Ermes is a notable exception. He lives in the United Kingdom and produces paintings featuring Arabic calligraphy done with a modernist, Western sensibility. His works are in the permanent collection of the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and are collected by world-renowned private collectors such as the Prince of Wales.


Most workers are employed in the oil industry, the largest sector of the Libyan economy. Others work in the state-owned manufacturing firms that produce machinery, appliances, cement and construction equipment, cigarettes, clothing, leather goods, textiles, shoes, fertilizers, and industrial chemicals, as well as processed foods such as olive oil, citrus fruits, tomato paste, tuna, and beverages. Many people who were once employed in agriculture moved to the cities during the oil boom and subsequent industrial development. Agricultural workers made up about 17% of the workforce in 2004. These workers grow citrus fruits, barley, wheat, millet, olives, almonds, dates, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. Many farmers raise sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and poultry and produce dairy products and honey. Fishermen operating out of Tripoli bring in tuna, sardines, and mullet.

There is a shortage of unskilled laborers, attributable in large part to a high military conscription rate, but also to the increased education level of Libya's young people, which makes them look down on menial jobs. Thus, Libya has many unskilled foreign workers from neighboring countries. Libya also has hundreds of thousands of foreign technical workers, who are needed to advise on petroleum extraction and design and to construct irrigation projects.


Libyan sporting events tend to be very strenuous and spirited. Popular spectator sports are camel racing and horse racing, with competitions held on racetracks in rural areas. Football—known to Americans as soccer—is also a popular spectator sport. In 2008, Libya's national football team was ranked eighty-fifth by FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), the world football governing body. Although the Libyan team has never played in the World Cup, it came within one game of qualifying in 1986 in Mexico City. Other popular sports are basketball and track and field events.


Radio and television, with state-sponsored news, religious, and musical programming, are popular forms of entertainment in Libya. In 2004, there were 18 AM radio stations, 3 FM radio stations, and 3 shortwave stations. There are 16 officially sanctioned broadcast television stations, but satellite receivers are as ubiquitous in Libya as they are in most developing countries. In 2007, al-Libiyah, the nation's first officially sanctioned nongovernment television station, began broadcasting. There are stations in Benghazi and Tripoli that broadcast in French, English, and Italian. The movie theaters show imported foreign films. The news media is tightly controlled, and government censorship is widespread. In the Worldwide Press Freedom Index of 2007, Libya was ranked the one-hundred-fifty-fifth least free media in the world.

Libya has nine museums housing archeological, religious, and historical exhibits. Chess and dominoes are enthusiastically played, both in cafés and in homes. The country is also home to some of the best preserved archeological sites of the classical world, including the Phoenician ruins of Leptis Magna and world-famous Greek ruins at Cyrene.


Libyan art, in keeping with Islamic beliefs, refrains from realistic depictions of people or animals. Instead, artists have a unique style known as arabesque, in which designs are complex, geometric, and abstract. Libyan artisans use intricate lines and geometric shapes in their carpets, embroidered goods, jewelry, leather goods, tiles, and pottery. Islamic words and passages from the Quran are often etched in elaborate calligraphy. Libyan architecture has the same restrictions, and therefore lifelike statues and adornments are not found on buildings.

Small craft shops once sold domestic artwork such as metal-work, pottery, tiles, leatherwork, and handwoven and embroidered goods, but many such shops have closed down because of the nationalization of businesses under Qadhafi, which discouraged artisans from practicing their crafts.


The greatest problems facing Libya today stem from the lack of political freedom and fluctuations in economic well-being. In the 1970s, the average income of Libyans was twice that of their Italian colonizers. Since then, however, fluctuations in oil prices have led to variations in economic well-being in Libya, causing some social distress. The steep rise in oil prices since 2003, however, has brought renewed prosperity. Seeking a share of this new wealth, workers from impoverished Asian and African countries have migrated to Libya, where they often face exploitation. Libya is also a transit country for the trafficking of humans and narcotics.

Islam in Libya has not experienced the sort of radicalization seen in neighboring Egypt and Algeria, for example. It remains, among the nations of the Maghrib (the western part of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean), a moderately religious nation, although there were relatively short-lived Islamist uprisings in the late 1990s in the nation's eastern provinces.

In 2003, Libya officially announced that its intelligence services had planned and carried out the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Since then, many Western nations have resumed diplomatic and economic relations with the once-isolated country. United Nation sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003. The country also announced that year that it was abandoning its nuclear weapons program, which until then had only been suspected.

It is widely believed that Qadhafi's son—and, many believe, heir apparent—Sayf al-Islam Qadhafi, is the force behind Libya's recent reconciliation with the Western powers and its rein-tegration into the world community.


Libya is one of only a few Islamic nations that have signed and ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It did so, however, subject to reservations made in deference to its interpretations of Shari'a (Quranic law).

Human Rights Watch reports that Libya maintains prisons for women and girls who have committed no crime, who have served their sentences for crimes committed, or, in some cases, who are simply seeking refuge from domestic abuse, as there are no shelters for such victims in the country. The government of Libya has rejected the report, saying these are not prisons or detention facilities but are instead “social rehabilitation facilities.” Documented testimonials from women held in such facilities question this assertion.

Libya has no domestic violence laws. Rape cases of extreme violence can be and sometimes are prosecuted, but judges are given the discretion to force the woman to marry her rapist as a form of social remedy. Rape victims can also be prosecuted for adultery if they are married at the time of their rape.


Copeland, Paul W. The Land and People of Libya. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1967.

Gottfried, Ted. Libya: Desert Land in Conflict. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Hodgson, Marshall. The Venture of Islam: The Classical Age of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1789–1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Metz, Helen C., ed. Libya: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1988.

Wright, John. Libya: A Modern History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

—revised by J. Henry