Because of its relative isolation in the past few decades, not many people know or understand the history of Libya. They think of it as some strange, archaic backwater with that one crazy guy. Oh and don’t forget that Lockerbie thing. This is such a shame as Libyan culture is ancient and vast.
From seizing control of ancient Egypt in 950BC to the current struggle for democracy, it’s time we all start recognizing this country and it’s people independent of Gaddafi’s maligned reputation.
Libya first existed really as a territory of Berbers. Their exact origins are somewhat of a mystery but their language is that of numerous dialects from the Afro-Asianic family. Berbers also varied similarly when it came to appearance, with some appearing as Caucasian and others clearly migrating in from sub-Saharan Africa. They existed in tribes and clans and referred to themselves collectively as imazighan, which can be best translated as “free men.” It was during this ancient time that one Berber, Shishonk I, seized control of Egypt and ruled as a Pharaoh. His successors helped create the Libyan Dynasties which remained in place from around 945-730BC. In this same period, ancient Greeks thought of Libya as the entire continent of Africa to the West of Egypt. Herodotus even announced that there were only two types of Libyans in this continent: North Africans and Ethiopians.
Enter the Romans (because of course they were bound to show up). At this point in time Libya was split into three regions: Tripolitania, Cirenaica and northern Fezzan. In this period of time Libya enjoyed prosperity and all the luxuries of modern Roman life. From baths to administrative affairs, this area of the world was known to rival Alexandria and Carthage, and explorers discussed it with a sort of starry-eyed romanticism because while under Roman rule, most residents were still able to keep their local culture alive and well.
Then came the Islamic invasion. It went really well! Then not so well. Then things looked better as a level of independence was gained and the Aghlabid emirs took over. Serious rule was created and technology and prosperity came back to the region. But then as history so often goes Banu Hilal, and a number of invading tribes beat a path in through Egypt and ruined everyones party. Then came some invasions from Spain, boatloads of pirates, and the Ottoman takeover. The next few hundred years would see pashas, land divisions, Barbary Wars, and then just as the Ottoman’s were collapsing, Italy came strolling on in.
In the year 1911 the Italians came to Libya. The next ten years would be a battle for Italy to actually gain substantial control throughout Libya. Numerous uprisings by Libyans, led mostly by the Senussi in Cyrenaica kept the Italians sheltered near the ports. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1920s that Italy was able to seize full control of Libya. Meanwhile there was a large migration of hundreds of thousands of Italians into Libya. By the mid 1930s Libya was fully pacified and fascism was fully underway. New integration rules were put in place to create a more equitable society (although naturally one that was fairly segregated) and Libya actually saw an incredible boom in infrastructure and agriculture.
However, the advent of WWII saw Libya turn into a battleground. Mussolini used the territory to invade Egypt, which prompted British and Allied invasions that eventually drove the German’s and Italians from Libya. From there the English and French occupied Libya for a period. Then on December 24th 1951, Libya declared its independence in concert with the United Nations.
Idris as-Senussi became the representative and leader of Libya. After declaring independence Libya had a bit of a shaky start, as is normal for a country that has been ravaged by war and colonization. But by the mid 1950s oil was discovered and Libya’s finances improved greatly. A number of cities throughout Libya were bustling marketplaces with modern conveniences and the people of Libya were protected under a well-rounded Constitution and Parliment. Then, September 1st, 1969, while Senussi was undergoing treatment in Turkey, a young man by the name of Muammar al Gaddafi, with the aid of other military officers, staged a coup d’Ã©tat. The country was renamed the Libyan Arab Republic (and later renamed the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya).
Like many Arab leaders of the time, Gaddafi promised to help build new infrastructure, distribute wealth and create a state that belonged to Arabs alone. He gave the U.S. military a timeline to pack up and leave, and styled himself under a new pan-African approach. Gaddafi was often deemed eccentric and paranoid, sometimes weakening his own army in unnecessary conflict to preempt any coups he saw fermenting. He was also known for his use of public executions of political prisoners to keep tight control. Gaddafi kept strong ties with the Soviet bloc, and made no secret about funding numerous terrorist ventures, the most famous of which being the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in the Lockerbie bombing.
In 1985 Gaddafi also publicly supported bombings in Rome and Vienna airports which killed 19 and wounded over a hundred. Just a few months later Libyan agents set off a bomb in a German nightclub, killing three. This prompted President Reagan to order the bombing of Libya. This raid failed to kill Gaddafi but did provoke international ire and condemnation. In 1993, sanctions on Libya were imposed along with a failed assassination attempt. This was about the same time the world saw Gaddafi change his international approach. His dealings and rhetoric with the West became fairly harmless and oil revenue began to take precedence.
In 2008 Libya agreed to pay the United States $1.5 billion to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, the UTA flight 772 bombing, the German nightclub bombing and the Libyan victims in the 1986 US bombing. Because of this agreement, President George W. Bush signed The Libya Claims Resolution Act that gave the Libyan government immunity from terror-related lawsuits and it dismissed any previous compensation owed to the United States. Of course none of this toned down Gaddafi, who continued his bombastic language and impugning of U.S. law and military action as “similar to al Qaeda.”
It is through this lens that we must now view the uprisings of 2011. What started as a peaceful protest and grew into military defections, tribal affiliations, and now an entire system of governance and organized list of grievances. Since Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 there have been numerous uprisings but they have all been squashed mercilessly with advocates of freedom publicly slaughtered as a warning to all. This has been the first real revolution that has seen the unequivocal demand of Gaddafi’s departure. As the opposition continues to hold it’s own on the battlefield, and organizes themselves into a regimented army, it’s difficult to imagine Gaddafi maintaining his hold much longer. Which makes way for the newest chapter of Libyan history to begin. Perhaps this time with the type of independence and freedom the people of Libya deserve.