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And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

Libya: An Introduction

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Libya Coat of Arms

Just lately one country has been in the headlines more than others, Libya.  Once regarded as one of the two foremost terrorist states (the other being Cuba), it has sought to come to terms with the West.

But surprisingly little is known about the modern Libya and who it’s major players really are.  Over the next fews weeks I intend to explain, who runs the country, and what happens within this emerging state.

In this first article I would like to explain some of the history of the country up until 1969.

The central seaboard of North Africa has always been prized real estate.  It has been a base for the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, Greeks (under Alexander), the Persians who opposed him, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Turks, Italians, British and finally the Libyans themselves.

The first people to use the fertile Libyan coastal planes were the Berbers, a nomadic people.  They traveled as far as Ireland and Scandinavia before they petered out and assimilated with indigenous cultures.  The next  wave of visitors were the Phoenicians, who were a trading people.  They were very sophisticated and highly mobile people who traded far and wide.  Their sailing skills were second only to their sales and diplomacy skills.  For the time they fought remarkably few wars, preferring to buy and sell their wares.

Their greatest city, Carthage (in modern Tunisia), would become the jewel in the crown of North Africa until they fell out with some rather aggressive rivals from over the water.  At the eastern end of Libya another batch of colonizers were arriving from Greece.  The Therans (inhabitants of modern day Santorini), were commanded by the Oracle at Delphi to seek a new home in North Africa.  They founded five cities, the most important of these being Cyrene.  Collectively they were known as the Pentapolis.

Roman ruins, including a headless senator

Roman ruins, including a headless senator

It was the uncompromising Romans, who turned the Mediterranean sea into their private lake.  In fact, Rome was good to Libya, and the Libyans had a standard of living as high as Rome itself.  They left in Libya several beautiful ruins, ampitheatres and forums.  They didn’t just leave ruins, they left it in ruins when they were eventually driven out by the Vandals.

The Roman Ampitheatre

The Roman Ampitheatre

And so Libya remained for hundreds of years, until a new religion arrived in the area from the east.  It would become one of the most powerful and influencial religions of our time.  It was known as Islam.

The first Muslim leader to stake his claim in Libya was Uqba Ibn Nafi.  He entered from the east, over land, and entered Tripoli in 644 AD.  From there he worked his way along the coast all the way into Morocco  and Spain.  This early incarnation of an Islamic state gave way to the Ottoman Turks, also Islamic.

The Turks ruled through a policy of breaking down the country into three separate states.  Libya would remain in this state for centuries until, for the second time, they faced invasion from the Italian peninsular.

By the early 20th Century the Ottoman empire was a shadow of itself and rightly deserved it’s nickname, ‘the sick man of Europe’.  The Italians saw it as a soft target at a time when the whole of the African continent was being torn up by European powers.  They commenced their first attacks in 1911, using early airplanes and dirigibles.  Even so, it was a long hard campaign against determined Arab resistance.  The war ended with a costly win to the Italians.  But if the invasion was hard, the occupation was harder, on both sides.  Counter-insurgency actions gave way to full-scale acts of repression.

Benito Mussollini

The new Italian masters were led, by 1922, by the first Fascist dictator of Europe, Benito Mussolini.  It was he who violently crushed all opposition in North Africa.  Moslems and local tribesmen found themselves penned side by side in guarded camps, starving and beaten.

This unhappy state of affairs continued well into the Second World War, when, in 1940, the Italians declared war on Britain.  At the time the British were the occupiers of Egypt and had been since the late 19th century.  Their one overriding achievement in the area was the building of the Suez canal, which could cut the time of a sea voyage to the far east by half.  This narrow trench proved to be an objective of paramount importance to Britain and Italy, both countries with powerful navies.

Crusader Tank

And so it was when Marshal Graziani marched his men across the East Libyan border to fight the British and take the canal.  Unfortunately when faced with a stronger, better trained force, the Italians were no match.  The British drove them all the way back into central Libya.  They may have driven them all the way back into Tunisia if the situation had not changed dramatically.

Two events happened almost simultaneously.  The German dictator, Adolf Hitler, decided to bail out his flagging Italian allies on two fronts.  First he invaded Greece, the plucky little country that had out-fought the Italians in Albania.  This demanded a huge transfer of resources overseas.  The second was the arrival of a new German force, the Afrika Corps and their impetuous General, Erwin Rommel.


This highly trained force hit the British hard and drove them back into Egypt.  For nearly two years these opposing sides fought a see-saw battle along the north coast, both constantly out flanking each other by driving south, around the end of the other’s defenses.

Eventually it was another new arrival, British General Bernard Montgomery, who first held the line near Cairo.  While it held he re-trained and re-armed his forces.  Then when he was good and ready he pushed the Germans and Italians right back into Libya.  They might have held on there but they were dangerously low on supplies.  To add to their problems a new Allied army had just landed in Algeria and Morroco and was pushing hard eastwards.

The Italians and Germans abandoned Libya in early 1943, and when the British marched into Tripoli, they found it virtually abandoned.  The battered country, strewn with wreckage, was now in British and French hands.  Although fre they were very poor and the new occupiers were too busy fighting a war in Italy to pay them too much attention.

It wasn’t until after the end of the war in 1945 that the British found time to sort out the Libyan affairs.  First, in 1947, they forced Italy to relinquesh all claims on Libyan terratory.  Then, on 24th December 1951, Libya became the United Kingdom of Libya, as a constitutional monarchy.  The new king would be a tribal chief called Idris I

King Idris

At first things went well, Libya was admitted at a member of the league of Arab states in 1953 and still mantained a pro-western stance.  British and American military bases were mantained.  Aid was provided and agriculture began to prosper.

Then, in 1959, to everybody’s delight, oil was discovered.  Lots of it, and good quality too.  Libya soon metamorphasized into a modern, well heeled country, far from it’s long, impoverished past.  It’s new federal government proved less effective than promised and it was dropped in favour of a single party monarchy ruled by the king and his closest ministers.  The three main provinces of Libya were replaced by ten new regions, each with their own autocratic Governor.

For many years Libya led a the good life, it had no border disputes, it’s people had a high standard of living and they were floating on oil.   To their east, in the recent decade, Gamal Abdul Nassar, had proclaimed himself the liberator of Egypt from the British.  He became the advocate of hardline Arab nationalism, and fearlessly counter-attacked Israel.

Six Day War

The six-day war that followed aroused something new and powerful.  Even though Egypt lost this brief war, they had captured the imagination of Arabs everywhere with their daring attack.  Riots and demonstrations took place outside the British and American embassies.

Idris saw this new nationalism may one day be a problem.  He instituted a policy of Libyan nationalism based on the monarchy, with only mixed results.  The problem was that it looked too much like a personality cult, and he was at heart a country boy, with simple pleasures.  He was ill at ease in the newly cosmopolitan Tripoli.  He liked the British and Americans who had fought with him against the Italians.  And he lacked the ambitions of the new Arab Governments aligning against the west.  Within the armythe Free Officers Movement were biding their time.

In 1969 Idris left Libya for surgery in Greece, leaving his nephew Hasan ar Rida, in charge of the country.  In the middle of the night, and virtually out of nowhere, army trucks began to surround the palace and Government buildings.  Early the next morning Hasan ar Rida appeared on television to renounce his claim to the throne and pledged his support to the new Government.  He soon dissappeared from public view.

Instead the new faces in Government were the Libyan Army Officer Movement.  And at their head was a dashing young Colonel, Mummar al-Gaddafi.

Gaddafi after coup


Written by Nick Gilmartin

September 9, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Posted in in the news

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One Response

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  1. “He soon dissappeared from public view.”

    Of course Crown Prince Hassan disappeared from public view, since he and other members of the Libyan Royal Family were put in jail. Only in 1984 Hassan was allowed to fly to London for mediacal treatment. He died in 1992.


    September 10, 2009 at 10:48 am

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