Wiesław LIZAK

Libya is an Arabic-speaking country and according to most sources it is relatively ethnically homogeneous. Around 86% of the population are Arabs, and 11% of the population are Berber tribes (including Tuaregs inhabiting desert areas).

At the same time, it should be remembered that a large part of the country has Berber roots and the ongoing Arab conquest in the time of the first Muslim caliphs changed its demographic structure in favour of the Arabic-speaking component (both groups make up approximately 97% of the population and the South is also inhabited by the Sub-Saharan Tubu).

However, until today the tribal divisions, characteristic for communities living in this difficult climate, have survived. It is estimated that about 140 tribes and large families with political significance live in Libya.

Considering the relatively short history of the country as an independent geopolitical unit and additionally its creation as a result of external intervention, it is difficult to expect that the Libyans have become a modern, homogeneous nation. On the one hand, belonging to the Arab world and on the other hand, persistent tribal differences, make Libya a specific state where the loyalty to the central government must compete with loyalty to other reference groups created on the basis of tribal identity.

The ethnic differences also overlap with regional differences resulting from the fact that Libya was created as a conglomerate of two provinces which for the past three centuries belonged to one country (the Ottoman Empire) but retained some distinct features.

These differences date back to ancient times. Historically, Tripolitania was a region of the Maghreb countries (today’s Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), while Cyrenaica was more integrated with the Arab East (Mashrek) in terms of socio-economic factors.

At the time of the Turkish rule in North Africa this was not a problem – both the east and west of today’s Libya were the provinces of the empire.

The relatively large scope of their autonomy made it easier to rule over the vast territory of the country. The Italian intervention, uniting Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, created the premises for full integration of both provinces, but it required time and commitment to promoting modernization processes. Italian rule in Libya, however, lasted only about 30 years and for the greater part of this period the national liberation struggle (led by Umar al-Mukhtar) continued, so unification processes could not proceed effectively.

Of course, this does not change the fact that the epopee of the anti-colonial insurrection was an important factor in building modern identity of contemporary Libyans in its ideological-political layer. The British and French occupation, which lasted for nearly a decade, was of temporary character, so only after gaining independence on December 24, 1951 Libya could launch building a strong state and modern identity.

However, the challenges faced by the authorities were confronted with factors objectively limiting the effectiveness of this process such as the vastness of the territory and the dispersion of the relatively small population, regional differences and low level of development in the social and economic dimension (the oil deposits were not discovered until 1959 and their exploitation began in 1963).

There were also some elements of rivalry between the main centres of both provinces – the capital of Tripoli and Benghazi in eastern Libya which, on the one hand was an expression of historical differences, but on the other hand – of modern aspirations to play the dominant role in the state.

The political dominance of Tripoli was one of the factors driving the mechanism of this rivalry. The Libyan Monarchy tried to use the religious factor to build a new Libyan identity. This factor played an important role, but was only one of many elements shaping social awareness.

Nevertheless, the political role of the Sanusijja brotherhood in the interwar period favoured the use of a religious factor in the process of building the modern national identity.

Entrusting the role of a monarch to the religious leader, Idris I, and the conservatism of the ruling elite around him evoked reluctance and resistance in some social circles impressed by the pan-Arab and socialist ideas which were triumphant at that time thanks to Egypt’s policy and its charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the fifties and sixties of the XX century.

The above created the prerequisites of the fall of the monarchy as a result of the coup by the military group of young officers in 1969 and the transformation of the country from autocratic monarchy into an authoritarian regime led by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi but also – despite the revolutionary rhetoric – based on neo-patrimonial principles referring to local specificity of tribal and rural communities and political patronage.

Libya is a relatively rich country. The main source of Gross Domestic Product is oil, whose vast deposits were discovered in the Libyan Sahara. With the population of several million, it allowed Libya to achieve a high GDP per capita making it one of the richest countries in the African continent.

The geographical proximity made European countries (mainly from Western Europe – Italy, Spain, France, Germany) the main recipients of Libyan energy resources which in turn generates interest in the development of their mutual relations.

As a result of the geopolitical location and energy resources, during the Cold War period Libya became the subject of influences of the Western and Eastern powers which in turn triggered international tensions resulting from the endeavours to gain influence and control of the strategic resources of the country.

This rivalry continued also after the end of the Cold War, although in another geostrategic and economic dimension. Between gaining independence and the military coup organized by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi on September 1, 1969, Libya remained in the Western powers’ sphere of influence and close relations with the United States resulted in the location on its territory of the largest US military air base on the Mediterranean coast, where about 4 600 American soldiers were stationed (Wheelus Air Base – near Tripoli).

Libya remained in the orbit of Western influence also in the economic dimension (investments in the oil industry). The radicalism of transformations initiated together with the “revolution of September 1” led to the deterioration of relations with the West. The new Libyan authorities with colonel al-Qaddafi in the lead decided to break the existing external connections and took steps to develop an independent development path.

In 1977 al-Qaddafi published the program of political transformation of the country calling it in the ideological dimension the third global theory constituting in fact a mixture of nationalist (with strong references to Pan-Arabism), socialist and populist slogans as well as elements of the Muslim religion.

The program was comprised in the Green Book which, printed in millions of copies and in many languages, was aimed at dissemination in Libya and in the whole world the slogans of the Libyan revolution as the expression of striving for modernization and development based on own resources and own concepts, competitive to the models offered by the developed world.

The wealth coming from the export of crude oil was to be the source of support for ambitious development programs implemented by revolutionary authorities. The anti-Western course in Libya’s foreign policy objectively positioned the country on the side of the Eastern bloc in the Cold War era, nevertheless the radicalism of actions and the high level of assertiveness in Libyan politics made Tripoli a difficult partner for Moscow and its allies.

His unconventional behaviour in foreign policy made the Libyan leader a controversial partner for other actors, building a wall of reluctance around him and inducing readiness to engage in attempts to eliminate the politician who does not avoid actions negatively evaluated from the point of view of the stability of the international order.

Libya has been among others sanctioned by the UN Security Council for more than 10 years for supporting international terrorism (after accusations of organizing the attack on an American plane of the Pan Am Airways on December 21, 1988 over the Scottish city of Lockerbie, which resulted in the death of 259 passengers and crew members as well as city residents).


Wiesław Lizak – University of Warsaw


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