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Atlas Libya

Country (long form)
Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Total Area
679,362.19 sq mi
1,759,540.00 sq km
5,115,450 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Arabic, Italian, English, all are widely understood in the major cities
76.2% total, 87.9% male, 63% female (1995 est.)
Sunni Muslim 97%
Life Expectancy
73.34 male, 77.66 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
Jamahiriya (a state of the masses) in theory, governed by the populace through local councils; in fact, a military dictatorship
1 Libyan dinar (LD) = 1,000 dirhams
GDP (per capita)
$7,900 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
services and government 54%, industry 29%, agriculture 17% (1997 est.)
petroleum, food processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement
wheat, barley, olives, dates, citrus, vegetables, peanuts; beef, eggs
Arable Land
crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas
machinery, transport equipment, food, manufactured goods
Natural Resources
petroleum, natural gas, gypsum
Current Environmental Issues
desertification; very limited natural fresh water resources; the Great Manmade River Project, the largest water development scheme in the world, is being built to bring water from large aquifers under the Sahara to coastal cities
Telephones (main lines in use)
318,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

The Romans invaded Tripolitania (the region around Tripoli) in 106 BC, and by 64 BC Julius Caesar's legions had completed the occupation. As a Roman province, Libya was prosperous, reaching a golden age in the 2nd century AD. The three principal Roman cities of Sabratha, Oea and Leptis Magna provided the empire with grain, oil and a supply of slaves and exotic goods from sub-Saharan Africa.

The decline of the Roman Empire saw the classical cities fall into ruin, a process hastened by the Vandals' destructive sweep though northern Africa in the 5th century AD. When the Byzantines took over in the 6th century, efforts were made to strengthen the old cities, but it was only a last gasp before they collapsed into disuse. Only Oea, which survives today as Tripoli, the nation's capital, remains a living city.

The Arab invasion of the 7th century brought Islam to the country, where it remains firmly entrenched to this day. Arab rule was culturally fruitful, and many examples of early Islamic architecture remain, especially in the oases of the south. The Arabs ruled Libya until the Turks conquered the country in the mid-16th century, administrating it through a succession of locally appointed rulers who levied a toll on every Christian fleet using the Mediterranean.

Following the Napoleonic wars, European powers began to colonise northern Africa, and the Turks hastened to strengthen their control of Libya. Their last North African possession, Libya was taken from the Turks by Italy in that country's last-minute bid for colonies in Africa.

The Italian colonial period proved devastating for native Libyans, as the large-scale 'Italianisation' of the country saw half of the indigenous population either exiled or exterminated between 1911 and the end of WWII. The crowning insult was being reduced to a theatre of war in which huge minefields were laid, some of which remain.

In the postwar years, Italy was forced to give up Libya, and the country became independent under King Idris, an aging Senussi leader from Cyrenaica, the region around Benghazi. The king's support was spotty outside Cyrenaica, and tensions in the country mounted, fired by growing political discontent and a mood of Pan-Arabism that was sweeping the Arab world. On 1 September 1969, a small group of army officers led by 27-year-old Captain Mu'ammar Gaddafi deposed the old king in a coup. Soon after, British and American troops were ordered to leave the bases they had occupied since WWII, and the 25,000 descendants of the Italian colonists were also forced to pack up and leave promptly.

Gaddafi's regime was committed to a more equitable distribution of Libya's enormous oil income, and billions of dollars were spent on roads, schools, housing, hospitals and agriculture. During the 1970s, Gaddafi penned the Green Book, which he claims is a radical alternative to capitalism and communism. Launching his revolution, he declared Libya to be a Jamahiriya (loosely translated as a 'state of the masses') and set about dismantling the state apparatus and replacing it with people's committees. In practice, however, Libya's government was and remains a strict military dictatorship.

Almost wholly foreign-owned and controlled at the time of King Idris' overthrow, Libya's oil deposits have been taken over by a government determined to gain control over the country's main natural resource. Oil money funded the multi-billion-dollar Great Man-Made River project, which pumps water from ancient aquifers deep under the desert to the coastal areas, a project intended to make Libya self-sufficient in food production.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Libya adopted a high international profile based on Pan-Arabism, its virulent condemnation of 'western imperialism', its support of liberation movements around the world and military adventurism in neighbouring African nations. What angered Western countries most was Gaddafi's support of real and so-called liberation movements, and particularly his alleged support of international terrorist organisations. These activities served to isolate Libya further from the international community. The most violent reaction to Libya's politics came from the USA, culminating in the air strike of April 1986 that killed dozens of people, including Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter.

Libya entered a period of isolation following the 1988 bombing of a Pan-Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. Libya was accused of planting the bomb, and two Libyans were named as suspects. The US and Britain demanded the suspects be turned over for trial, Libya refused, and the resulting standoff caused the US to force the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya.

In March 1998, the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, ruled that it had jurisdiction in the case and rejected British and US arguments over the right to decide where the two Libyans suspected of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing should be tried. In December 1998, the Libyan congress endorsed a plan to send the men for trial in the Netherlands, where they would be tried under Scottish law. The question of where the men would serve prison time if convicted of the bombing remained at issue until February 1999, when Gaddafi agreed to house them in a special UN-monitored jail in Scotland. In return for coming to the party, the UN lifted the sanctions it had imposed on Libya seven years earlier.

Since the lifting of sanctions, Gaddafi has been working hard to overturn Libya’s ‘terrorist state’ image. He now styles himself as an African ‘peacebroker’, turning his back on his Arab neighbours to take a leading role in the aims of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU).

Gaddafi's control of Libya remains absolute, despite occasional outbreaks of civil disobedience and several rumoured military coup attempts.