The Country & People of Libya
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Libya, officially Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahirya, republic (1995 est. pop. 5,248,000), 679,358 sq mi (1,759,540 sq km), N Africa, bordered by Algeria and Tunisia (W), the Mediterranean Sea (N), Egypt and Sudan (E), and Chad and Niger (S). The principal cities are Tripoli (the capital) and Tobruk. Most of Libya is part of the Sahara desert; the population is restricted to a coastal strip along the Mediterranean and a few widely scattered oases in the Libyan desert, in the east, and the Fazzan region, in the south. The discovery of oil in 1958 transformed Libya from a poor agricultural country into one of the world's leading petroleum producers, with vast sums to spend on social, agricultural, and military development. Petroleum accounts for 95% of export earnings and about a third of national income; Libya is also an important producer of natural gas. Major crops include cereals, olives, fruits, dates, and vegetables. Lower oil prices and economic sanctions arising from the Lockerbie incident (see below) hurt the economy in the 1990s. The majority of the inhabitants are Arabs, but there are scattered communities of Berbers and, in the southwest, many of mixed Berber and African descent. There are large numbers of foreign workers in Libya; in 1995 several thousand of them without proper papers were expelled. Islam is the official religion (most Libyans are Sunni Muslims), and Arabic is the official language.
At various times in its history the territory that is now Libya was occupied by Carthage, Rome, Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, and Spain. It was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1551 to 1911, serving in the 18th cent. as a base for pirates who, in return for immunity, provided large revenues to the local ruler. Libya was seized by Italy in 1911, but Libyan resistance continued until the 1930s. During World War II, as an Italian colony, it was one of the main battlegrounds of N Africa, passing under an Anglo-French military government when the Axis were defeated in the area in 1943.
In accordance with a UN decision, in 1951 the country became independent as the United Kingdom of Libya, with King Idris I as ruler. Idris was ousted in 1969 in a coup led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, who established an anti-Western dictatorship. British and American bases were closed in 1970, and unification was sought, unsuccessfully, with several other Arab countries.
An implacable foe of Israel, Qaddafi used Libya's vast oil wealth to create an extensive social welfare system and to help support the Palestinian guerrilla movement, particularly radical elements. In 1979 Libya intervened in Uganda to help keep Idi Amin in power, and in 1981 it dispatched troops into neighboring Chad (Libya had occupied the disputed Aozou Strip, in N Chad, in 1973), withdrawing most of them later that year. Qaddafi's forces continued to take sides in Chadian fighting, for a time occupying much of N Chad. In 1990 the dispute over the Aozou Strip was submitted to the International Court of Justice, which ruled in Chad's favor, and the strip was returned to Chad in 1994.
As a member of OPEC, Libya has been a leading exponent of limiting production and increasing prices of petroleum. Since 1986 Libya has attempted to form a union with the Arabic countries of the Maghreb, especially Algeria and Tunisia.
In the late 1980s the U.S. took action against Libya for its backing of terrorist activities against U.S. citizens, including an air strike (1986) on Qaddafi's residence and other sites in Libya. In 1992 the UN Security Council accused Libya of supporting state terrorism and called for a ban on air flights and arms sales to it unless suspects in the Lockerbie and another airplane bombing were turned over to the U.S., Britain, and France. Libya's foreign assets were also frozen. In Apr. 1999, Libya handed over the suspects in the Lockerbie crash to the UN, which lifted its sanctions, but those imposed by the United States remained in place.
In Dec., 1999, Qaddafi pledged not to aid or protect terrorists. Libya agreed in 2003 to a $2.7 billion settlement with the families of the victims. and that and a revised settlement for viction of the UTA bombing led the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions imposed more than a decade earlier. In December, after negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, the government renounced the production and use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and agreed to submit to unannounced international inspections. Subsequently (Mar., 2004), Libya acknowledged that it had produced and had stockpiles of chemical weapons. As a result of these events, the United States lifted most sanctions and resumed diplomatic relations with Libya.
Copyright (c) 2003 Columbia University Press.
Used by permission of Columbia University Press.
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- The Last Jews of Libya By and for the entire community of Jews of Libya
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- Medusa Libyan Travel & Tourism Offer services for group and individual tours in Libya
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- Tripoli Apartments A fully furnished luxury self-catering studio apartment that is available for short-term rent at very affordable prices
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