Updated: August 2011
Libya, located on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, is the continent’s fourth largest country. It borders Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Algeria and Tunisia. Most of the country’s south is a sparsely populated desert. Libya has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.
Main languages: Arabic, Berber (Tamazight)
Main religions: Sunni Islam
Population: 6,420,000 (United Nations, 2010)
Main minority groups: Berber (Amazigh) est. 236,000 to 590,000 (4-10%), Tuareg est. 17,000 (0.3%), foreigners, 600,000 documented (10%) and 1.1-1.2 million undocumented (18-20%)
[Note: Reliable statistics for Libya are unavailable. Estimates for the numbers of Berber speakers vary between four and ten per cent. The number of Tuareg is from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2009. The numbers for foreigners are Libyan government figures cited by Human Rights Watch (HWR) in 2006.]
Demographic data for Libya is scarce, but around 90 per cent of the population belongs to the Arabic-speaking majority of mixed Arab–Berber ancestry. The Sunni branch of Islam is the official and nationally dominant political, cultural and legal force. Berbers, who retain the Berber language and customs, are the largest non-Arab minority. Libyan Berbers call themselves Amazigh (plural: Imazighen) and are one of the indigenous populations of North Africa. They are made of up of different ethnic groups, including nomadic Tuareg.
Berbers live along the Algerian border and in the Oasis of Ghat and Ghadamis in the west of Libya. Once traders on the north–south Sahara caravan route, the ending of this and the ‘pacification’ of the desert deprived them of their traditional way of life. Berbers adhere to a form of Sunni Islam intermeshed with Sudanese and West African beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. Marriages are monogamous and women have a high status in Berber society. Both men and women wear veils as a protection against dust storms.
Other minorities include the Arabic-speakers of West African ancestry, who inhabit the southern oases, and the Berber-related Tuareg and Tebu (Toubou), who live in the south of the country. Though converted to Islam by Sanussi missionaries in the nineteenth century, Tebu retain many of their earlier religious beliefs and practices. Their language is related to a Nigerian language. Centred in the Tibesti Mountains and other parts of southern Libya, early Tebu economy was based on pastoralism with the margins of survival widened by caravanning, slavery and raiding. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Tebu mobility was curtailed by conquest and policing of the southern desert, first by colonial powers and later by the independent states of Libya and Chad. Since the second half of the twentieth century, Tebu have been administered from centres such as Benghazi and Baida in Libya.
According to 2011 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics, there are 8,000 refugees in Libya, mainly from Palestine and sub-Saharan Africa.
Berbers have lived in Libya for millennia. Parts or all of today’s Libya were conquered by Phoenicia, Carthage, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire before Arabs moved into the region in the seventh century. Berbers and other indigenous peoples began adopting Islam and the Arabic language.
After centuries of continued foreign rule by Ottoman Turks beginning in 1551, followed by Italy, France and Britain, Libya gained independence in 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi led a military coup that ended the monarchy and proclaimed the Libyan Arab Republic. In 1977 the country’s official name changed to Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (state of the masses): Gaddafi has served as de facto ruler ever since.
Since 1959 petroleum and gas have financed the transformation of Libya from a poor nation at the time of independence to a rich one with vast sums to spend on social, agricultural and military development. The country is loosely governed on the basis of the Qur’an and sharia law, as well as Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’, published in 1975. The book rejects western liberal democracy, arguing instead for a form of direct democracy based on popular committees, institutions which Gaddafi subsequently created.
Gaddafi has varyingly attempted to lead pan-Arab and pan-African movements. He has provided support to rebellions across the Middle East and the African continent. This included support to the African National Congress battling Apartheid in South Africa, but more often has involved training and sponsorship of warlords and despots, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, Foday Sankoh—the former leader of Sierra Leone’s brutal Revolutionary United Front, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, and recently, the widely ostracized Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Libya’s support of international terrorism in the 1980s led to confrontation with the United States. The US bombed Libya in 1986 in response to alleged Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack in Germany that killed US soldiers. In 1992, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya over its involvement in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. In the 1990s these sanctions isolated Libya, but they were suspended in April 1999 and finally lifted in September 2003, after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. In 2003, this admission and the decision to stop developing weapon of mass destructions have improved relations with the United States and Europe (which desire access to Libya’s oil reserves). As a result of this, western politicians have visited Libya, as well as many working-level and commercial delegations, and Gaddafi made his first trip to Western Europe in 15 years, when he travelled to Brussels in April 2004.
The constitutional declaration of 1969 defines Libya as an Arab state; and authorities deny the existence of minority groups. In May 2005, a group of Libyan Berbers filed a complaint with the Working Group on Minorities of the UN Commission on Human Rights, claiming violations of their linguistic and cultural rights. The filing cited Libyan laws that prohibit use of languages other than Arabic, including bans on the use of non-Arab languages in education, media, and the courts and a prohibition on registration of newborns with Berber names. The complaint also cited the banning of the establishment of Berber cultural organizations and physical abuse, arbitrary detention, and even killing of Libyan Berbers who identify publicly with Berber identity, language, and history.
In 2006, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) expressed its concerns over the lack of measures to prohibit racial discrimination in Libya and that improvements achieved in the country in terms of access to safe water were not made available to minority groups. Since then, the UN Human Rights Bodies have repeatedly asked the Libyan government to provide information about Berbers and other minorities and to recognize their existence, together with their culture and language. But the situation remains unchanged.
Currently, Berbers who live in the south of Libya have not been granted Libyan citizenship and also face serious discrimination: they have no rights to decent housing, access to higher education, open a bank account, or get a passport. For more information listen to MRG’s interview with an Amazigh who escaped from Libya.
Tebu live in similar conditions. Amnesty International has reported that since November 2009 they have been targeted by the Libyan authorities and forcibly evicted from their homes in the city of Kufra and in the country’s south-east.
The Libyan government offers no protection to Refugees. The country has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention and in 2010, Gaddafi ordered the UNHCR to close their offices in Libya. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also accused Libya of serious abuses of the rights of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.
In February 2011, inspired by the civil society uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan protesters revolted, calling for an end to Colonel Gaddafi’s 41-year rule. The Libyan government responded violently and used the military to quash protests. The uprising developed into an armed conflict pitting rebels against government forces and drawing in a NATO-led coalition with a UN mandate to protect civilians.
The UN Security Council resolution 1973 imposed a no-fly zone to protect civilian areas from attack and authorised all necessary measures short of occupation. Civilian deaths have increased since the start of international military action, particularly in Misrata and towns on the central coast as troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi have launched fierce attempts to regain control.
Amidst the conflict, thousands of Libyans and migrant workers have fled the country. In May in 2011, according to UNHCR reports, 40,000 ethnic Berbers fled Libya’s western mountains to Tunisia after they were caught up in border skirmishes between the Libyan government and opposition forces.<
Since the early days of the Libyan uprising there have also been reports of organized racist attacks on so-called ‘Black’ Libyans and foreign workers, particularly in rebel-held areas. Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees related that refugees arriving from eastern Libya at the Egyptian border reported that armed Libyans had been going from door to door, forcing sub-Saharan Africans to leave. Tens of thousands of refugees arriving at camps in both Tunisia and Egypt have said they were accused of being mercenaries hired by the government, and told of racist killings and beatings.
In all, some 500,000 people have fled the country, a large proportion of them foreign workers. Libya has a long history of discrimination against its large population of sub-Saharan migrants, including racially-motivated killings, previously earning the censure of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.