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Where is Libya?

Libya is an enigma. Based theoretically on the principle of popular control over all aspects of political life, its system of government looks little different from most of the Arab world’s military-backed dictatorships. Its leader, Muammar Qadhafi, is one of the world’s best-known and most-disparaged heads of state. And yet, although long singled out for punishment by the US in particular, Libya remains a relatively prosperous country with a system of political institutions which, on the face of it, allow its citizen population a fair degree of involvement in the running of the country.

But Libya is a difficult place to understand. For sure, it is one of the most thinly populated countries in the world, with around 5.5 million people inhabiting some 685,000 square miles, almost all of it semi-desert. It is a vociferous member of the League of Arab States and the Organization of African Unity.

It was taken over by Italy after the defeat of its Turkish masters in World War One and freed by the allies during World War Two. A king was appointed by Britain and France in 1951 and overthrown by a military coup in 1969 led by Colonel Qadhafi. He transformed Libya into a radical, pro-Soviet Arab Socialist state. By 1977 the ‘Cultural Revolu-tion’ which Qadhafi proclaimed as the vehicle for putting his philosophy into practice had brought about the disbanding of the country’s political institutions and their replacement by a pyramid of People’s Committees.

The new political structures, according to many Libyans, gave people a say in political affairs, at least at the parochial level. They also gave Qadhafi and his inner circle a tighter grip on the machinery of state. Much of Libya’s political class was alienated from the regime as a result. There is no doubt either that opposition was not well regarded. Imprisonment and the death penalty continue to be meted out to opposition activists in Libya. There is a significant émigré community which, with a good deal of American support, has campaigned actively and loudly against Qadhafi. Nor has the regime shied away from hunting down its political opponents abroad.

Qadhafi seems to operate on the sophisticated premise that his enemies’ enemies are his friends. At one time or another he has extended support – sometimes only vocal, sometimes practical – to the likes of Idi Amin, Mobutu, the IRA and Louis Farrakhan. But there is a consistent thread underlying all this: support for liberation movements and perceived anti-imperialist forces, exemplified by steadfast support for the African National Congress.

Whatever one makes of Libya’s foreign policy, it has paid dearly for it. It was bombed in 1986 by the US, with British support, for no apparent sensible reason; effectively framed – many now believe – for the murder of a police officer in London two years earlier; and finally blamed for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 and subjected to both UN and US unilateral sanctions.

Nonetheless, thanks to oil, Libyans enjoy the highest standard of living in Africa. Developed from the mid-1950s, production of high-grade Libyan crude passed one million barrels per day in 1982. Its reserves are estimated at over 20 billion barrels, enough to last over 40 years at present rates of extraction. Diversification into other areas has been slow, however. And the country relies very heavily on imports in virtually every other sphere. Its economy appears to be managed well enough to stave off the popular discontent and resultant pressure on the regime that it was expected sanctions would cause.

Steve Sherman


Leader: Muammar Qadhafi.

Economy: GNP per capita estimated at $5,500 (Aotearoa/New Zealand $14,340).
Monetary unit: Dinar = 1,000 dirhams.
Main exports: oil, natural gas and derivatives; gypsum.
Main imports: nearly everything else.

People: 5.5 million.

Health: Infant mortality 50 per 1,000 live births (Aotearoa/New Zealand 7 per 1,000 live births).

Culture: Mostly Arab; much of the population is urban, with peasant farmers in the north and nomadic cattle and camel breeders in the south and east.
Language: Arabic, except for small Berber groups scattered around the country.
Religion: Sunni Muslim.

Sources: The World Guide 1997/1998; The State of the World’s Children 1998.

Previously profiled November 1987


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Figures are hard to come by, but there is little conspicuous sign of either great wealth or substantial poverty.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No really marked improvement, at 76% (Canada 97%).
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Very heavy reliance on imported goods.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Ostensibly, political institutions exist to allow people a say in running their lives. But the reality is less impressive.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Better than most in the Arab world.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
At 65 years (Canada 79 years) improving along with worldwide trends.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
For all its ostensibly democratic mechanisms of government, and for all the terrible press the country gets, it is ruled by an autocratic and unpredictable man who clearly has no intention of putting his rule to the test of public opinion.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 304 magazine cover This article is from the August 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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