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History of Libya

The visible history of Libya is a flux of stronger and weaker control by outsiders. The invisible unwritten history of Libya includes the history of its rich mix of peoples added to the indigenous Berber tribes. For most of their history, the peoples of Libya have been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control. The modern history of independent Libya begins in 1951.

Table of contents
1 Ancient Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) to 647 CE
2 Islamic Tripolitania and Cyrenaica 647-1911
3 Italian Colony, 1911-1951
4 Modern Libya

Ancient Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) to 647 CE

Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has been drying. Reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in great variety of form and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, cairns, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step-pyramidlike mounds. Most remarkable are the trilithons, some still standing, some thrown down, which occur isolated or in rows, and consist of two squared uprights standing on a common pedestal that support a huge transverse beam. In the Terrgurt valley “there had been originally no less than eighteen or twenty megalithic trilithons, in a line, each with its massive altar placed before it" according to Cowper.

The territory of modern Libya had separate histories until Roman times, as Tripoli and Cyrenaica.

Tripoli, was originally a group of Phoenician colony dependent on Carthage. Phoenicians founded the three great cities (tri + polis) of Oea, Sabrata and Leptis Magna (site of magnificent Roman ruins). Carthage and its dependencies fell to Rome after the Third Punic War. Tripoli is the ancient sea port at the terminus of three great caravan routes linking the coast with Lake Chad and Timbuktu across the Sahara. Near the port of Tripoli stands a Roman triumphal arch with four richly sculpured fronts of white marble, the blocks being held together with cramps. It was begun in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius, according to a still-unmutilated dedicatory inscription, and finished under Marcus Aurelius.

In ancient times, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the armies of Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic successors from Egypt, then Romans, Vandals, and local representatives of the Byzantine Empire ruled all or parts of Libya.

Although the Romans left impressive ruins at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha, little else remains today to testify to the presence of these ancient cultures.

Cyrenaica, by contrast, was Greek before it was Roman. It was also known as Pentapolis, the “five cities” being Cyrene (near the village of Shahat) with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), Arsinoe (Tocra), Berenice (Bengazi) and Barca (Merj). From the oldest and most famous of the Greek colonies the fertile coastal plain took the name of Cyrenaica. In the south Cyrenaica faded into the Sahara. Conquered by Alexander, it passed to the Ptolemies, then to Rome.

In the 5th century both Tripoli and Cyrenaica were conquered by the Vandals, whose power was destroyed by the Byzantine general Belisarius in the following century.

Islamic Tripolitania and Cyrenaica 647-1911

The Arabs penetrated Libya in 647CE. In the following centuries, most of the indigenous peoples adopted Islam, and the Arabic language and culture erased the culture of Christian Rome.

Tripoli was pillaged in 1146 by the Normans of Sicily. In 1321 the Beni Ammar established an independent dynasty there, which lasted (with an interval, 1354-1369, during which two sovereigns of the Beni Mekki reigned) until 1401, when Tripoli was reconquered by Tunis.

There was a brief Christian interregnum, 1510-1553, when Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain took Tripoli and in 1528 gave it to the Knights of St John. The Christians were expelled in 1553 by Turkish corsairs Dragut and Sinaii, acting under very loose control from Ottoman Constantinople. Dragut, who afterwards fell in battle at Malta, lies buried in Tripoli in a much venerated tomb. After Dragut's decease, the connection between Tripoli and Constantinople seems to have been considerably weakened.

But Tripolitan pirates soon became the terror and scourge of the Mediterranean; half the states of Europe seem at one time or other to have sent their fleets to bombard the capital. In 1714 Ahmed Pasha Karamanli achieved practical independence, and he and his descendants governed Tripoli as a regency, the claims of the Sublime Porte being recognized by the payment of tribute, or “presents.” In May 1801 the pasha demanded from the United States an increase in the tribute ($83,000) which that government had paid since 1796 for the protection of their commerce from piracy. The demand was refused, an American naval force blockaded Tripoli, and a desultory war dragged on until June 3, 1805.

In 1835, the government of Sultan Mahmud II took advantage of local disturbances to reassert their direct authority and held it until the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

As decentralized Ottoman power had resulted in the virtual independence of Egypt as well as Tripoli, the coast and desert lying between them relapsed to anarchy, even after direct Ottoman control was resumed in Tripoli. The Islamic political/religious brotherhood of the Senussi filled the power vacuum, until the Sublime Porte felt the need of tightened control in Cyrenaica. In 1875 the district, till then a 'sanjak' of the 'vilayet' of Tripoli, was made to depend directly on the Ministry of the Interior at Constantinople, and the Senussi soon ceased to be 'de facto' rulers of Cyrenaica, withdrawing to their oases in the Kufra, far to the south.

Thus Libya remained part of the empire-- although at times virtually autonomous-- until Italy invaded in 1911, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing.

Italian Colony, 1911-1951

The attempted Italian colonization of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was never wholly successful. Several reorganizations of the colonial authority were made necessary, in the face of an armed Libyan opposition. From 1919 (May 17) to 1929 (24 January) the Italian government maintained the two traditional provinces, with separate colonial administrations. A system of controlled local assembies with limited local authority was set up, but it was revoked 9 March 1927. In 1929 Tripoli and Cyrenaica were united as one colonial province, then in 1934, as Italy struggled to retain colonial power, the classical name "Libya" was revived as the official name of the colony, which was split into four provinces, Tripoli, Misurata, Bengasi, and Derna.

In 1920 (October 25) the Italian government recognized Sheikh Sidi Idris as head of the nomadic Senussi, with wide authority in Kufra and other oases. The Sheikh would eventually become king of the free Libyan state.

Sporadic fighting intensified after the accession to power in Italy of the dictator Benito Mussolini. From 1922 to 1928, Italian forces under Gen. Badoglio slowly gained control over Libya. The Senussi leader in Cyrenaica surrendered to the Italians, 3 January 1928, virtually ending the organized struggle for independence in eastern Libya, for the time. Resistance to the Italian occupation crystallized round the person of Sheik Idris, being called the Emir of Cyrenaica.

In March 1937 Mussolini made a spectacular state visit to Libya, where he opened a new military highway running the entire length of the colon., He had himself declared protector of Islam and was presented with a symbolic sword. Mussolini's publicized encouragement of the Arabic nationalist movement suited his wider policies of confronting Britain and France. In September 13-15 1940, Mussolini's highway sped the invasion of Egypt by Italian forces stationed in Libya. Counterattacks of British Allied forces from Egypt, later commanded by Montgomery and their successful two-month campaign (Tobruk, Bengasi, El Argheila), and the counteroffensives under Rommel, 1940-43, are part of the wider history of World War II. In the early post-war period, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica remained under British administration, while the French controlled Fezzan.

In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal in 1947 of some aspects of foreign control. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.

Modern Libya

On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. Idris represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. When Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951, it was the first country to achieve independence through the United Nations and one of the first former European possessions in Africa to gain independence. Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy and Idris was proclaimed king.

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled what had been one of the world's poorest countries to become extremely wealthy, as measured by per capita GDP. Although oil drastically improved Libya's finances, popular resentment grew as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. This discontent continued to mount with the rise throughout the Arab world of Nasserism and the idea of Arab unity.

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 28-year-old army officer Mu'ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi staged a coup d'etat against King Idris, who was exiled to Egypt. The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. Qadhafi emerged as leader of the RCC and eventually as de facto chief of state, a political role he still plays. The Libyan Government asserts that Qadhafi currently holds no official position, although he is referred to in government statements and the official press as the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution."

Qadhafi took control of Libya from a group of reformist Muslims (fundamentalists), named the Senusiyyah after their founder Muhammad b. Ali al-Senusi. They gained support by opposing Italian and British occupiers. Their rise in power followed a similar path as that of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, although with obviously different endings.

Since he took power in a 1969 military coup, Qadhafi has espoused his own political system - a combination of socialism and Islam - which he calls the Third Universal Theory.

The new RCC's motto became "freedom, socialism, and unity." It pledged itself to remedy "backwardness", take an active role in the Palestinian Arab cause, promote Arab unity, and encourage domestic policies based on social justice, nonexploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.

An early objective of the new government was withdrawal of all foreign military installations from Libya. Following negotiations, British military installations at Tobruk and nearby El Adem were closed in March 1970, and U.S. facilities at Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli were closed in June 1970. That July, the Libyan Government ordered the expulsion of several thousand Italian residents. By 1971, libraries and cultural centers operated by foreign governments were ordered closed.

In the 1970s, Libya claimed leadership of Arab and African revolutionary forces and sought active roles in international organizations. Late in the 1970s, Libyan embassies were redesignated as "people's bureaus," as Qadhafi sought to portray Libyan foreign policy as an expression of the popular will. The people's bureaus, aided by Libyan religious, political, educational, and business institutions overseas, exported Qadhafi's revolutionary philosophy abroad.

Viewing himself as a revolutionary leader, Qadhafi used oil funds during the 1970s and 1980s to promote his ideology outside Libya, even supporting subversives and terrorists abroad to hasten the end of Marxism and capitalism.

On August 19, in the Gulf of Sidra Incident (1981), a dispute over whether the Gulf of Sidra was international waters or not, two Sukoi Su-22 fighter jets engaged two United States F-14 Tomcats operating from US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) operating in the gulf near the "line of death". The US jets shot down the Libyan fighters and the United States placed an embargo on Libyan oil imports starting on March 10, 1982.

Libyan military adventures failed, e.g., the prolonged foray of Libyan troops into the Aozou Strip in northern Chad was finally repulsed in 1987.

Qadhafi's confrontational foreign policies and use of terrorism, as well as Libya's growing friendship with the U.S.S.R, led to increased tensions with the West in the 1980s. Following the 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing in West Berlin targeted at American military personnel the U.S. retaliated militarily against targets in Libya, and imposed broad unilateral economic sanctions.

After Libya was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, UN sanctions were imposed in 1992. UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs) passed in 1992 and 1993 obliged Libya to fulfill requirements related to the Pan Am 103 bombing before sanctions could be lifted. Qadhafi initially refused to comply with these requirements, leading to Libya's political and economic isolation for most of the 1990s. The UN sanctions cut airline connections with the outer world, reduced diplomatic representation and prohibited the sale of military equipment. Oil-related sanctions were assessed by some as equally significant for their exceptions: thus sanctions froze Libya's foreign assets (but excluded revenue from oil and natural gas and agricultural commodities) and banned the sale to Libya of refinery or pipeline equipment (but excluded oil production equipment). Under the sanctions Libya's refining capacity eroded. The lifting of the U.N. sanctions, Libyan support for terrorism decreased after UN sanctions were imposed. In 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the UNSCR requirements by surrendering two Libyans suspected in connection with the bombing for trial before a Scottish court in the Netherlands. One of these suspects, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was found guilty; the other was acquitted. UN sanctions against Libya were subsequently suspended. The full lifting of the sanctions, contingent on Libya's compliance with the remaining UNSCRs, including acceptance of responsibility for the actions of its officials and payment of appropriate compensation, was passed 12 September 2003, explicitly linked to the release of up to $2.7 billion in Libyan funds to the families of the 1988 attack's 270 victims.