Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: In theory, Libya is governed according to the “Third Universal Theory,” which Muammar al Qadhafi developed and published in his three-volume work known as the Green Book. In it, Qadhafi presented his unique vision of reconciled socialist and Islamic theories and created a new political system known as “state of the masses,” or Jamahiriya. In reality, Libya is governed by an authoritarian regime ruled by Qadhafi, a small group of his trusted advisers, and several relatives in the northern harbor town of Sirte, which is on the southern shore of the Gulf of Sidra.

Constitution: Libya has no formal constitution.

Branches of Government: Although he holds no official title, Muammar Abu Minyar al Qadhafi has been the de facto chief of state since September 1, 1969, and, in essence, heads a military dictatorship. He has sometimes been called “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” in official press releases. The General People's Congress (GPC) is both an executive and legislative body that convenes several times annually. It is the primary formal instrument of government. Its membership of more than 1,000 delegates is drawn from subnational-level people's committees, people's congresses, and revolutionary committees. The leadership of the GPC is vested in the General Secretariat, which is headed by the secretary general, the official chief of state. The national-level General People's Committee performs all cabinet functions.

The unicameral GPC—Libya’s version of a legislature—has no seats, and its members are elected indirectly. The GPC interacts with the General People’s Committee, which comprises the secretaries of about 600 local “basic popular congresses.” The GPC secretary general appoints the secretaries, and the GPC confirms the appointments. Although the secretaries are responsible for the operations of their ministries, it is Qadhafi who exercises real authority, either directly or indirectly. The GPC is essentially ineffectual.

Administrative Divisions: According to some sources, Libya is divided into 3 provinces, 10 governorates, and 1,500 administrative communes. Yet other sources describe variations of reorganizations that may or may not have occurred. One source refers to a current primary subdivision of 34 municipalities or governorates (shabiyat). According to this same source, Libya reorganized from 13 municipalities into 34 municipalities in 2001. The CIA World Factbook reports that there are 25 “municipalities” but also notes that 13 regions may have replaced the municipalities.

Provincial and Local Government: In 1992 Qadhafi reorganized Libya’s local government by creating 1,500 communes (mahallat). Each commune has a budget as well as legislative and executive powers. The communes are supervised by revolutionary committees, which are directed by secretaries, whom Qadhafi personally selects.

Judicial and Legal System: All law in Libya is based on the Koran (sharia). The court system consists of courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the final appellate level, the Supreme Court. The General People’s Congress (GPC) appoints justices to the Supreme Court. There are also revolutionary courts and military courts, which operate outside the regular court system and which try political offenses and crimes against the state. In his desire for international acceptance and economic benefits for his country, Qadhafi allowed Amnesty International into Libya in 2004. In a gesture of reform, he declared that “emergency laws,” which are enforced by the revolutionary courts and which allow arbitrary arrest without a warrant, would be abolished, adding that “normal criminal law procedure” would be followed.

Electoral System: None.

Politics and Political Parties: Political parties are illegal in Libya. However, some Arab nationalist movements as well as Islamic groups may be operating clandestinely.

Mass Media: Although the law provides for freedom of speech “within limits of public interest and principles of the Revolution,” the government strictly limits freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. All print and broadcast media in Libya are state-owned and state-controlled. No privately owned radio or television stations are permitted. More than a dozen weekly and daily newspapers are published, but opinions contrary to the government are not allowed. Foreign newspapers and magazines are limited in availability and frequently censored, and their distribution is at times prohibited. Satellite television is widespread, but it is also sometimes censored. The official news agency is Jamahiriyah News Agency (JANA). The Libyan publications law reserves all rights for publishing to the General Corporation of Press, Professional Unions and Syndicates, and the Ad dar Jamahiriya.

Foreign Relations: Libya traditionally has been a staunch proponent of pan-Arab unity, both in theory and in practice. Libyan regional policy was predicated on an intractable opposition to Israel and support of the Palestinian cause. In the 1980s, Qadhafi made a bid for worldwide recognition and Third World leadership by espousing a philosophy known as the “Third Universal Theory,” which rejects both communist and capitalist models of government and calls instead for nonalignment, “people's power,” and “new economic order” based on a more equitable division of wealth between developed and underdeveloped countries. In accordance with this ideology, Libya pursued an activist and aggressive foreign policy, which included alleged support and sponsorship of numerous terrorist and guerrilla movements throughout the world.

After Libya was implicated in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque, the murder of a British policewoman in London, and the downing of two civilian airliners, severe economic sanctions and trade embargoes were placed against the country in 1992. As these sanctions and world isolation continued, Libya’s economy declined—without spare parts and foreign contractors to provide technology support, the country’s civilian and military infrastructure steadily deteriorated, and internal opposition groups found a focal point for their attacks on Qadhafi’s regime.

Since 1999, Qadhafi has made a series of shrewd and pragmatic decisions. He admitted civil responsibility for the downing of a civilian aircraft, paid US$27 billion in compensation, and later renounced weapons of mass destruction. Qadhafi turned his back on the Arab world when it chose not to challenge the United Nations sanctions on his behalf. Qadhafi instead worked to improve bilateral relations with some of Libya’s close neighbors: Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. He made efforts to expand Libya’s influence in the African world by providing financial aid or granting subsidies to several countries, including Niger and Zimbabwe. He facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Darfur refugees in Chad. He has been working toward new relations with Europe, especially the European Union’s cooperation program for southern Mediterranean countries. On March 26, 2005, it was reported that Qadhafi, apparently no longer intractably opposed to Israel, proposed at an Arab summit the idea of a “con-federal arrangement between Israel and Palestine.” With the gradual lifting of UN and U.S. sanctions and embargoes between 1999 and 2004, and the normalization of Libya’s international relations, its economic activity has become revitalized. As of 2003, Russian defense companies were seeking new contracts with Libya. European business delegations have been competing for more than US$14 billion in contracts in Libya’s energy, infrastructure, and transportation sectors.

Major International Memberships: Libya is a member of the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies—such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization—and numerous other international and regional organizations. Some of the memberships include the African Development Bank, African Union, Arab Maghreb Union, Arab Monetary Fund, Community of Sahel and Saharan States, Council of Arab Economic Unity, Economic Commission for Africa, Food and Agriculture Organization, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Development Association, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Telecommunication Union, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, Islamic Development Bank, Non-Aligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the Islamic Conference, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Universal Postal Union, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and World Tourism Organization.

Major International Treaties: Libya is a party to numerous international conventions, such as those on Rights of the Child, Discrimination against Women, Biological Diversity, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, and Desertification. It also has also signed a number of conventions on such environmental issues as climate change, transportation of hazardous substances, the use of pesticides, and nuclear safety. Libya has signed the Law of the Sea, but has not yet ratified it. Libya is a state party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Partial Test Ban Treaty, Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, Chemical Weapons Convention, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and Geneva Protocol. Libya signed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreement and the IAEA Additional Protocol. With regard to terrorism, Libya is a state party to the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection, Against the Taking of Hostages, Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation, Protocol on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation, Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf, and Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents.


Armed Forces Overview: Libyan armed forces consist of an army (Armed Peoples on Duty), air force, Air Defense Command, and navy. The Compulsory Military Service Statute of 1978 made all eligible males between the ages of 17 and 35 subject to a draft commitment of three years of active service in the army or four years in the air force or navy. A 1984 statute mandated compulsory military training for all Libyans coming of age, whether male or female, to achieve total mobilization of the population in the event of national emergency. The law strengthened the People's Militia (formerly known as the Popular Resistance Force) into a 40,000-member paramilitary force. To this day, all forces are under the control of Qadhafi in his role as commander in chief of the military establishment.

Foreign Military Relations: After his 1969 coup, Qadhafi closed U.S. and British military bases in Libya. Although he rejected Soviet communism, he established a relationship with the Soviet Union through large arms purchases from the Soviet bloc. From the 1970s on, nearly 60 percent of Libya’s military imports were from the former Soviet Union as well as other communist countries. In 1984 Libya and the Soviet Union issued a joint declaration of a treaty of friendship and cooperation that would obligate the Soviet Union to aid Libya if attacked, but the treaty was never concluded. According to an August 2004 report of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Libya had security agreements with Algeria (2001), Italy (2003), and Tunisia. Libya intervened militarily in a potential coup situation in the Central African Republic in 2001, deploying 200 of its soldiers to act as a presidential guard. Arms transfers took place in 2003 and 2004 between Libya and Canada, Jordan, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Uganda, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, and Yugoslavia.

External Threat: In the realm of external opposition, Qadhafi's relations with the moderate Arab states, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states, have been strained at best. He has frequently also been at odds with his North African neighbors, whom he antagonized by supporting opposition elements or by direct military action. Despite these sources of domestic and foreign opposition, foreign observers doubt that Qadhafi would be ousted from his pivotal position in Libya, short of a successful military coup.

Defense Budget: Various sources have estimated Libyan defense expenditures as follows: US$545 million in 2002 and US$742 million in 2003; US$1.3 billion for 1999 and 2000, US$1.2 billion for 2001 and 2002, and US$1.4 billion for 2003; and US$1.3 billion in fiscal year 1999, representing 3.9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product for that year.

Major Military Units: The total number of active armed forces is about 76,000: 45,000 army (Armed Peoples on Duty), 8,000 navy, and 23,000 air force personnel, as well as a small, unspecified number of paramilitary (customs and coast guard) personnel. Libya also maintains a reserve of 40,000 in the People’s Militia. The army is organized into one elite brigade (a regime security force); 10 tank, 10 mechanized infantry, 18 infantry, 6 paratroop/commando, 22 artillery, and 7 air defense artillery battalions; and 4 surface-to-surface missile brigades. The major naval bases are located at Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, and Al Khums. Darnah, Zuwurah, and Misonhah serve as minor bases. The air force is composed of seven commands, two missile commands, as well as an air defense command.

Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 500 main battle tanks with some 1,040 more in storage, 50 reconnaissance vehicles, 1,000 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 750 armored personnel carriers, some 647 towed artillery, 444 self-propelled artillery, an estimated 830 multiple rocket launchers, some 500 mortars, 125 surface-to-surface missile launchers (with an estimated 450–500 missiles), 3,000 antitank guided weapons, 600 air defense guns, and an unspecified number of rocket launchers, recoilless launchers, surface-to-air missiles, and surveillance equipment. The navy has one submarine, one frigate, one corvette, eight missile craft, nine patrol and coastal combatants, two mine warfare ships, and nine support and miscellaneous ships. The naval aviation command is composed of seven armed helicopters and one SSC-3 battery. The air force has 380 combat aircraft and 60 armed helicopters.

Military Service: Libya has selective conscription for 3–4 years. According to 2004 data, of the 76,000 active personnel, an estimated 38,000 are conscripts. The estimated military manpower availability for males age 15–19 is 1,588,533.

Paramilitary Forces: The Libyan paramilitary consists primarily of customs and a coast guard, under naval control, with an unspecified number of patrol craft and armed boats. Other security forces include the People’s Militia, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Jamahiriya Security Organization (Hayat Ann al Jamahiriya). According to a 2004 estimate, Libya has more than 40,000 active reserve personnel, with recent army training, in the People’s Militia. The militia patrols rural areas and desert regions. It is primarily considered to be a means of involving Arab tribes with the regime and is not an effective form of border defense. The Revolutionary Guards Corps is composed of an estimated 3,000 trained personnel and seems to be the real frontier protection force. They have access to main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters, and possibly also to antiaircraft artillery and guided weapons. A unit from the Guards serves as Muammar al Qadhafi’s bodyguards. This unit is composed solely of ideologically reliable female soldiers known as the “Green Nuns.”

Foreign Military Forces: There are no foreign military forces in Libya.

Military Forces Abroad: There were reports of about 200 Libyan soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic at the end of 2001. Additional, more recent information on Libyan forces deployed abroad was unavailable.

Police: The Libyan police force has an estimated 10,000 policemen. Called the “People’s Security Force,” the police perform such usual functions as investigating crime, arresting criminals and maintaining public order, but they also are responsible for the administration of prisons and assisting with passports and identity cards. Special police units are assigned to counterespionage duties.

Internal Threat: Sporadic clashes between Islamic militants and Libyan security forces occurred from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. In 1995–97 Libya launched a military offensive in Cyrenaica, the center of much of the opposition. Since 1998 little or no evidence of any continuing Islamist insurgency has been reported.

Terrorism: In the early 1970s, Libya backed numerous international terrorist and national liberation insurgent groups, providing them with funding, small arms, and training facilities in the desert. These groups included European anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Palestinian, Southeast Asian, Latin American, West African, and Sahelian groups. In 1981 the United States banned Libyan crude oil imports, and by 1986 all U.S. trade with Libya was suspended. In 1992, after Libyan implication in several major terrorist actions, the United Nations (UN) placed severe economic sanctions on Libya. The ensuing world isolation and significant economic decline that Libya suffered led Qadhafi to the recognition that assisting terrorist groups was antithetical to Libya’s interests. By the late 1990s, Qadhafi began to change his policies, and in August 2003 he renounced terrorism in a letter to the UN Security Council. As of 2004, it appears that no terrorist groups are trained or based in Libya.

Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report for 2004, Libya’s authoritarian regime continued to have a poor record. Some of the numerous and serious abuses on the part of the government include poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, prisoners held incommunicado, and political prisoners held for many years without charge or trial. The judiciary is controlled by the state, and there is no right to a fair public trial. Libyans do not have the right to change their government. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion are restricted. Independent human rights organizations are prohibited. Domestic violence against women appears to be widespread, and there have been reports of trafficking in persons. Ethnic and tribal minorities suffer discrimination, and the state continues to restrict the labor rights of foreign workers. One of the more problematic issues is that of six foreign health workers (five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor) who were accused of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV-tainted blood in a hospital in 1999. On May 6, 2004, a Libyan court sentenced the workers to death. International observers have expressed concerns over the confessions of the health workers, which appear to have been forced.

Index for Libya:
Overview | Government


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