Libya: Country profile

A former Roman colony, Libya has seen more than its fair share of invaders.

Map and flag of Libya
Map and flag of Libya

Today, the country has carved out a unique image: present day Libyan society is founded upon a blend of Islamic, Arab and animist African cultures, fused with a national identity which sees itself as uniquely apart, neither eastern nor western.

Much of this forging of identity has been due to the role played by the country’s controversial and charismatic leader, Muammar al-Qadhafi.


Libya, which is mostly desert, is in northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Egypt and Tunisia. It has a land area of 1,759,540 sq km. 

Historical background

Libya, home to the Phoenicians and Greeks, was later the seat of the eastern enclave of the Roman Empire.

In the seventh century, Islam was introduced by way of Arab traders who sold spices and handicrafts. Over the following centuries, much of the native population adopted Islam and the Arabian influence began to dominate cultural traditions.

The Ottoman Turks arrived in the mid-16th century and Libya remained part of their empire until the Italian invasion in 1911. At times during this period it was virtually autonomous and was referred to as Tripolitania with successive pashas (kings) on the throne. By 1914, despite fierce resistance, the Italians declared Tripoli a colony.

In 1934, Italy adopted the name Libya (used by the Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony, which consisted of the provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

Modern political history

After gaining independence in 1951, Libya was transformed by the discovery of oil which turned the country into a wealthy state.
On 1 September 1969, 27-year-old army colonel al-Qadhafi, along with army officers, led a coup that overthrew the monarchy and established a republic, the Libyan Arab Republic.

Qadhafi declared a “green revolution”, a mixture of socialist and Islamic ideologies, with aspirations for leadership of the entire Arab world.

Libyan representatives entered talks with Egypt and Sudan to coordinate the 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, but the 1973 Arab-Israeli war changed the situation on the ground and plans were abandoned.
In 1972 Libya nationalised its major oil resources. When OPEC declared an oil embargo in 1973 against the West for its support of Israel during the Arab-Israeli war, Libya joined in and urged higher prices for the oil-consuming countries.

In 1986 the United States bombed Tripoli in retaliation for the bombing of a US marines barracks in Lebanon and a nightclub which killed Americans in Germany.

US President Ronald Reagan declared a “war against terrorism” and declared Libya as the prime instigator of the attacks.

Two years later, Libya was also blamed for the bombing of a Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and crippling international economic and political sanctions were enforced, isolating Libya from the international community.

A decade later, two Libyans were handed over in connection with the bombing for trial in The Hague. One was convicted, the other freed. UN sanctions were suspended.
Relations between Libya and the United States and Britain improved in 2003 when Libya – in light of the US led war on Iraq – announced it was giving up its weapons of mass destruction programme.

Official name: Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Capital: Tripoli
Form of government: Islamic Arabic Socialist or Mass-State
Gained independence: 24 December 1951


Libya’s economy is based on a mix of socialist and Islamic principles, and is highly dependent on oil. With a small population, it has one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa. A decade of economic sanctions has damaged Libya’s already slow progress toward economic reform and liberalisation.

Currency: Dinar (LYD) – 1 USD = (app) 1.19 LYD
Natural resources: Oil, natural gas, gypsum
Major industries: Oil, food-processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement
GDP: $41bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 3% (2001 est)
Per capita GDP: $7600 (2002 est)
Imports: 15.4% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 35.5% of GDP (2000 est)


The Libyan Army is organised into several military components with five executive presidential guards. Apart from its conscripted army, there are about 40,000 reserves organised into a People’s Militia, much like a national defence guard.

Military budget: $1.2bn (2001 est)
Army size: 76,000 active troops


Libya at various times in its history was occupied by Carthage, Rome, Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Spain and Italy. They have all left their indelible marks on the country.

It was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1551 to 1911, serving in the 18th century as a base for pirates who, in return for immunity, provided large revenues to the local ruler.

The region of Cyrenaica is home to the famous limestone mountain range, Jabal al-Akhdar, the Green Mountains, considered one of the natural wonders of the world.

Population: 5,551,000 (2003 est)
Languages: Arabic (official), Italian, English
Religions: Sunni Muslim 97%
Ethnic diversity: Arab and Berber 97%
Literacy rate: 82.6%
Important Media: Al-Fajr al-Jadid (available in an English edition), Al-Shams, Al-Jamahiriyah, Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar, Great Jamahiriyah TV (state-run, available terrestrially and via satellite), Voice of Africa – state-run external service, broadcasting in Arabic, English, French.

Sources: World Bank,, MSN Encarta,, The Almanac 

Source : Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read