Early History: Until Libya achieved independence in 1951, its history was essentially that of tribes, regions, and cities, and of the empires of which it was a part. Derived from the name by which a single Berber tribe was known to the ancient Egyptians, the name Libya was subsequently applied by the Greeks to most of North Africa and the term Libyan to all of its Berber inhabitants. Although ancient in origin, these names were not used to designate the specific territory of modern Libya and its people until the twentieth century, nor indeed was the whole area formed into a coherent political unit until then. Hence, despite the long and distinct histories of its regions, modern Libya must be viewed as a new country still developing national consciousness and institutions.
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Geography was the principal determinant in the separate historical development of Libya's three traditional regions: Tripolitania, the northwestern part of the country; Fezzan, the southwestern part; and Cyrenaica, the largest of the three regions, occupying the entire eastern half of Libya. Cut off from each other by formidable deserts, each retained its separate identity into the 1960s. At the heart of Tripolitania was its metropolis, Tripoli, for centuries a terminal for caravans plying the Saharan trade routes and a port sheltering pirates and slave traders. Tripolitania's cultural ties were with the Maghrib (Maghreb), of which it was a part geographically and culturally and with which it shared a common history. The Maghrib is the western Islamic world of northwest Africa, which usually includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania. Tripolitanians developed their political consciousness in reaction to foreign domination, and it was from Tripolitania that the strongest impulses came for the unification of modern Libya.
In contrast to Tripolitania, Cyrenaica historically was oriented toward Egypt and the Mashriq (Machrek). The Mashriq refers to the eastern Islamic world (the Middle East). With the exception of some of its coastal towns, Cyrenaica was left relatively untouched by the political influence of the regimes that claimed it but were unable to assert their authority in the hinterland. An element of internal unity was brought to the region's tribal society in the nineteenth century by a Muslim religious order, the Sanusi, and many Cyrenaicans demonstrated a determination to retain their regional autonomy even after Libyan independence and unification.
Fezzan was less involved with either the Maghrib or the Mashriq. Its nomads traditionally looked for leadership to tribal dynasties that controlled the oases astride the desert trade routes. Throughout its history, Fezzan maintained close relations with sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the coast.
Libya was controlled and influenced to various degrees by many diverse empires and nations, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Vandals, and Byzantines. Between the seventh and twentieth centuries, Muslim Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Italian military forces all made their mark on Libya. After World War II, Libya—then an Italian colony—was occupied by the allied British and French forces until the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a resolution affirming that Libya should gain its independence before January 1, 1952. Libya declared its independence as a constitutional, hereditary monarchy under the Sanusi leader Said Muhammad Idris (King Idris I) on December 24, 1951, thus becoming the first country to gain its independence through the UN. In 1959 major oil reserves were discovered in Libya, transforming it into a wealthy country and marking the beginning of anti-Western sentiment.
The 1969 Revolution and Qadhafi: On September 1, 1969, a bloodless, military coup d’état took place, and a new Libyan Arab Republic was declared. The leader of this coup d’état, Muammar al Qadhafi, was born in 1942 and came from a relatively small tribe of mixed Berber and Arab ancestry. Qadhafi studied at the British Military Academy at Benghazi and joined the Libyan army in 1965. Libya’s new regime was to be governed by the Revolutionary Command Council, but Qadhafi became the de facto head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. To this day, Qadhafi maintains absolute power as the head of a military dictatorship. In the years since 1969, Qadhafi has established himself as a somewhat flamboyant and at times unpredictable leader, but one who is always pragmatic. The Qadhafi regime made the first real attempt to unify Libya's diverse peoples and to create a distinct Libyan state and identity. It created new political structures and made a determined effort at diversified economic development financed by oil revenues. The regime also aspired to leadership in Arab and world affairs.
Terrorism and Sanctions: By the 1980s, however, Qadhafi’s confrontational and somewhat erratic foreign policies, his developing relationship with the Soviet Union as a primary arms supplier, and his involvement with terrorism had antagonized the West and eventually Libya’s neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East. As a result of the murder of a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, outside Libya’s embassy in London in 1984, the United Kingdom severed all diplomatic relations. In 1986 economic sanctions were imposed on Libya by the United States—Libya’s largest single customer for crude oil—after the Qadhafi regime was implicated in the terrorist bombing of a West Berlin discotheque frequented by American military personnel. The UN imposed sanctions on Libya in 1992–93 after it was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, with the loss of 270 lives, and the bombing of a French flight over Niger in 1989, with the loss of 177 lives.
Economic Decline and World Isolation: The 1990s were years of political and economic isolation and decline for Libya. The sanctions and trade embargoes brought about rising import costs and inflation in Libya’s domestic economy, resulting in a deteriorating standard of living for most of its citizens. Militant Islamist opposition groups, using the declining economic conditions as their focus, executed several attacks against the government, including a number of attempts to assassinate Qadhafi. An army-led coup attempt took place in 1993, but the coup leaders and the Islamist opposition groups were easily suppressed. In 1995–97 Qadhafi carried out a military crackdown in Cyrenaica, which was the center of much of the opposition. During this period of isolation, Qadhafi attempted to improve Libya’s relations with many of its neighbors. He eventually turned his back on the Arab world, which chose not to challenge the UN sanctions and instead concentrated his efforts on establishing closer relations with sub-Saharan African countries. Although he found only a lukewarm reception there, Qadhafi tried to promote his idea of a “United States of Africa.” To date, there has been little progress toward his goal of establishing a pan-African parliament.
Rejection of Terrorism and a New Role for Libya: During the period 1999–2003, Qadhafi, ever the pragmatist, eventually fulfilled all the terms of the UN Security Council resolutions required to lift the sanctions against Libya. He accepted responsibility for the actions of his officials and agreed to provide financial compensation to the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. As a result, the UN sanctions were lifted on September 12, 2003. In December 2003, Qadhafi publicly announced that Libya was ridding itself of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile development programs, and fully cooperated with the United States, the United Kingdom, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Through these actions and decisions, Qadhafi brought Libya back into the world community. In March 2004, the British prime minister visited Tripoli for the first time since 1969. Between February and September 2004, the United States lifted all trade, commercial, and travel sanctions against Libya. In September 2004, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Shalghem in New York, the first meeting between top officials of the United States and Libya in more than 25 years.