Libya is the fourth-largest nation in Africa in area, but the least populated. Population is concentrated along the narrow coastline while most of the rest of the country is desert. The modern state of Libya is a recent creation forged from the colonial union of three geographically distinct Ottoman provinces: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Although the term “Libya” dates back to classical antiquity, Italians used the name to legitimize a colonial conquest that began as a trumped-up war in 1911 but did not end until the last resistance was brutally crushed in 1932. This article traces the political transitions and controversies surrounding the origins of the modern Libyan nation, from the Ottoman conquest in 1551 to the Libyan revolution of 2011. Due to the lack of sustained scholarly work on the early Ottoman period, most of the article will treat events from the 18th century forward, when the three provinces formed a loose federation of Ottoman governorates. Geography determined the social, political, and economic institutions that developed in each province. Tripolitania had a large urban capital that was an entrepôt for Mediterranean shipping, corsairing, and trans-Saharan caravan trade from the southern province of Fezzan. The eastern province, Cyrenaica, was the seat of the Sanusiyya movement that, with its networks of desert lodges, resisted colonial conquest until Italian forces routed the rebels, deporting populations and placing others in concentration camps. Italy lost its colony when the European powers of Great Britain, France, and the United States defeated the Axis powers in a desert campaign waged on Libyan soil. When the victorious powers failed to agree on a workable political solution to their competing claims over Libya, the United Nations stepped in and proclaimed a federated kingdom with King Idris, who had ties to the Sanusis, at its helm. The discovery of oil in 1959 transformed Libya from a nation with a 90 percent illiteracy rate and a $35 per capita income into one of Africa’s largest petroleum exporters. Libya’s monarchical experiment lasted until 1969 when a group of twelve officers led by a young Colonel Muammar Qadhafi conducted a bloodless coup, followed by a revolution based on Arab nationalism, socialism, and anticolonialism. This article covers the political, economic, and social experiments that ensued during Qadhafi’s forty-two-year tenure to forge the Jamahiriyya, or state of the masses, culminating in the revolution of 2011. To complement information on nation-state politics, the article also covers arts, culture of Libya, information on minorities, gender, Islam, and oil.
The readings in this section are divided into two groups: works with a broad, regionally geographical focus and those with a narrower country or national focus, emphasizing the unfolding internal development. The states of the Maghreb are modern creations, but are they the sole result of imperial domination and the experience of colonialism (including both adaptation to European tutelage and resistance to it) or precolonial attempts at reform, based on the changing power dynamics in the Mediterranean region? Abun-Nasr 1987 offers a comparative and narrative history of North Africa as a whole from the Muslim conquest, but its main focus is on ruling elites and politics at the state level, leaving out social history. Regional history has been carved up into precolonial, colonial, and nationalist eras indicating implicit adherence to Eurocentric models of change. Morsy 1984, however, stresses indigenous processes and includes both Egypt and the Sudan in a comparative approach to the history of North Africa as a geopolitical unit. Morsy alters analytical frames between the nation-state imposed by colonialism and religiously based trading networks crisscrossing the region’s seas and deserts. In Martel 1991, the author’s essay answers the question regarding the origin of nationalism by focusing on the second Ottoman occupation and its impact on Libyan national identity. Anderson 1986 combines both a geographic and a temporal approach in its longue durée comparison of the regencies that would become Tunisia and Libya, claiming the impact of colonialism was decisive on the kind of nationalist state that emerged. By contrast, Ahmida 2011 traces the development of a centralized state and finds its origins in precolonial economic structures heavily influenced by climate, social practice, and geography. Both St. John 2008 and Wright 1982 are introductory narrative texts suitable for undergraduates, but of the two, St. John covers the colonial period and subsequent political transitions with more analytical thoroughness. Vandewalle 2006 focuses on the institutions and ideology of the modern Libyan state in the Qadhafi era.
Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Classic narrative work in English contextualizing and comparing the history of North Africa, defined as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance. 2d ed. SUNY Series in the Social and Economic History of the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
Analyzes economic structures, tribal social forms, and state formation prior to Italian occupation. Using Marxist framework, traces the influence of geography on socioeconomic formation, emphasizing the importance of local factors responsible for transformation to the nation. Resistance to colonialism and collaboration with Italians worked in tandem. Ideology of religiously based resistance conditioned by local factors such as kinship, tribe, trade, and livelihood.
Anderson, Lisa. The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830–1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Longue durée study of consequences on social structures of Libya and Tunisia, with an emphasis on state formation, state-led reform programs, and centralization on nationalism. Advances thesis that Italians destroyed indigenous administration without putting anything in its place, resulting in renewed valorization of kinship ties/tribal structures as a mode of political organization.
Martel, André. La Libye, 1835–1990: Essai de géopolitique historique. Perspectives Internationales. Paris: PUF, 1991.
Posits that prior to nationalism, identity was anchored in Ottomanism and Islam. Ottoman imperial subjects in the territory did not become “Libyans” by resisting or reacting to the Italian occupation, but because between 1918 and 1924 once the caliphate fell, they had few remaining “points of reference” for anchoring political identity (i.e., there was no sultan or caliph, or Ottoman army, and the administration of holy sites was taken over by Western powers).
Morsy, Magali. North Africa, 1800–1900: A Survey from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic. London: Longman, 1984.
Political and social history of the region, bold in its inclusion of Sudan and Egypt in North Africa. Offers thirteen clearly printed historical maps and thirty-three dynastic charts, chronologies, and tables of data. For an example of trans-Saharan trade routes, see page 54.
St. John, Ronald Bruce. Libya: From Colony to Independence. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.
Introductory narrative text of Libyan history covering major events, suitable for undergraduates.
Vandewalle, Dirk. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Focused mostly on the Qadhafi era and its pursuit of a “stateless society,” which the author calls a deliberate and strategic failure to create structures of a modern state.
Wright, John L. Libya: A Modern History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Introductory text written by a BBC journalist, chronicling the history of Libya’s political transformations from Ottoman to Italian colony, to independence. Seven of the twelve chapters are devoted to Libya under Qadhafi. Plays down claims of genocide in Cyrenaica.
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