The country known today as Libya, after being part of the Roman Empire, was conquered by the Arabs (647 A.D.), who introduced Islam and the Arabic language.  After a brief occupation by the Normans (1146), Libya became an Ottoman vassal state until 1911.  The Italian invasion in 1911 was long and bloody and led to a revolt headed by Omar al-Mukhtar.  While an extremely brutal crackdown by the Italians resulted in the surrendering of Tripoli and its surrounding areas to Italy in 1912, complete control was not gained until 1931.  This control was brief as Libya’s three main territories (Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania) were divided between Britain and France after Mussolini’s defeat in World War II.  Libya remained under allied control from 1943 to 1951, when Libya became an independent state under King Idris I – leader of Libyan resistance between World War I and World War II[1].  Libya was the first state to achieve independence through the United Nations as the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in favor of Libya’s independence by 1952 in November 1949.[2]

Oil has been a central feature of Libyan development since independence and has freed the country’s regimes from burdens other countries face during the state-building process.  For instance, Libyan rulers faced fewer burdens of taxation and accountability.  What makes the role of oil particularly interesting in Libya, however, is that under both King Idris I and Qaddafi’s regime, choices were made to systematically reduce and severely limit the construction of a modern state and institutions.[3]

Qaddafi, inspired by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideas of pan-Arabism and socialism, launched a coup d’etat in 1969 against King Idris I.  The coup resulted from King Idris I’s ineffective ruling and handling of oil money as well as rampant corruption.  The new regime, known as the Revolution Command Council (RCC), worked to purge the former regime’s elite and named the RCC the highest political authority.  By 1970 every top position, except the Ministry of Oil, was filled by an RCC member.  The regime also worked to reduce the power to traditional identities and institutions by installing a controlled system of mobilization.[4]

Qaddafi had a tumultuous relationship with some members of the international community.  In 1970 British and American military bases were closed by Qaddafi and in 1972 the U.S. broke diplomatic relations based on suspected terrorist activities.  Suspected involvement in terrorist activities also led the United Nations to impose sanctions in 1978 and 1993 and the imposition of a U.S. embargo on March 6, 1982.  In April 2000, Qaddafi made some ground by handing over two Libyan suspects to the International Criminal Court in the bombing of a passenger plane over Lockberie, Scotland on December 21, 1988.  In response, the UN suspended its sanctions prohibiting air travel to and above Libya, and retracted its steps to freeze Libyan assets abroad.[5]

The current Libyan crisis began when protesters demanding the release of a jailed human-rights lawyer on February 26, 2011 clashed with the regime’s security forces.[6]  This led to continued protests across the country who demanded that Qaddafi step down in order to have a freer Libya that respects human rights. As it became clear to the international community that Qaddafi would not step down and that he would continue to use violence to protect his position, the United Nations decided to take action in order to prevent the deaths of innocent Libyans.  The result was the imposition of a no-fly-zone over Libya on March 17, 2011 by NATO.[7]  As violence in the region continued, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court sought arrest warrants for Qaddafi.[8]  The EU gave long-term support for democracy on May 22, 2011 via economic and personnel aid[9].  Russia added itself to the list of states supporting the opposition in the removal of Qaddafi on May 27, 2011.[10]  All states intervening in the crisis committed financial support on June 9, 2011, pledging up to $1 billion in support for the opposition.[11]  However, as the crisis drags on several questions remain unanswered.  When will Qaddafi finally run out of resources?  Will the opposition government be able to successfully run a country?  Is the international community providing the right support or enough support?  What will happen to Qaddafi and his inner circle when they no longer are in power

Jennifer Bubke

Spring and Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

[1] See Note 1 & North, Andrew. “History through Libyan Eyes.” BBC News. March 28, 2011.

[2] See Note 2

[3] Vandewalla, Dirk. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[4] See Note 3

[5] Hanley, Delinda C. “A Snapshot History of Libya.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 20.2 (2001): 71. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 20 June 2011.

[6]Walt, Vivienne. “ Democracy Protests Reach Libya, But Gaddafi Feels Secure”. Time Magazine. Feb. 16, 2011.,8599,2049665,00.html

[7] Williams, Abiodun. “The United Nations in Libya”. United States Institute of Peace. April 2011.

[8]Simons, Marlise. “International Court Seeks Warrant for Qaddafi”. New York Times. May 16, 2011.

[10]Fisher, Max. “Surprise Turn Against Qaddafi is Russia’s Latest Westward Step”. The Atlantic. May 31, 2011.

[11] Meyers, Steven Lee. “$1 Billion Is Pledged to Support Libya Rebels”. New York Times. June 9, 2011.

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