moammar gadhafi, muammar gaddafi
Libyan Leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi

Libyan History and the 2011 Protests

February 26, 2011 07:00 AM
by James Sullivan
Libya is experiencing violent upheaval as rebels attempt to end the decades-old rule of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. To understand how Libya has arrived at its present crossroads, one must explore the history of conflict that has shaped the country.

A Crucible of Unrest

The territory of present-day Libya changed hands many times during the ancient era, falling under control of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines. In the 7th century A.D. the Arabs conquered Libya; during their rule, the majority of Libya’s people “adopted Islam and the Arabic language and culture,” writes the U.S. State Department.

During the mid-16th century the Ottoman Turks won control of Libya. Despite the foreign control, Libya experienced great autonomy during this period. According to Britannica, a significant event during the Ottoman rule was “the foundation in 1837 of the Sanūsiyyah, an Islamic order, or fraternity, that preached a puritanical form of Islam, giving the people instruction and material assistance and so creating among them a sense of unity.”

Following the Young Turk Revolution, which destabilized the Ottoman Empire, the Italians invaded Libya in 1911 and met little resistance. According to the State Department, “In 1934, Italy adopted the name ‘Libya’ (used by the Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony.” During Italian rule, roughly 150,000 Italians migrated to Libya, making up roughly 20 percent of the colony’s population.

World War II caused the destruction of much of the infrastructure created during Italian rule. The Italians lost control of Libya to Allied forces in 1943 and officially ceded control of the country in a 1947 peace treaty.

Libya went under UN administration, and gained independence in 1951. The State Department explains, “Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy under King Idris,” a leader of the resistance against Italy.

The next major event to occur in Libya’s history was the discovery of significant commercial oil reserves in 1959. According to the State Department, this allowed Libya to go from being one of the poorest country’s in the world by per capita GDP to being quite wealthy. However, income from oil sales was going predominantly to the country’s elite.
In 1969 Col. Moammar Gadhafi seized the country in a bloodless military coup, overthrowing King Idris. At 28 years old, Gadhafi would retain power in Libya through the present day. Gadhafi’s regime was ruled by the Revolutionary Command Council (RRC).

The “RCC’s motto became ‘freedom, socialism, and unity,’” writes the State Department. “It pledged itself to remedy ‘backwardness,’ take an active role in the Palestinian cause, promote Arab unity, and encourage domestic policies based on social justice, non-exploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.”
The CIA describes Gadhafi’s Third Universal System as “a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices and is supposed to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of ‘direct democracy.’ … He used oil funds during the 1970s and 1980s to promote his ideology outside Libya, supporting subversives and terrorists abroad to hasten the end of Marxism and capitalism.”

In 1970, Gadhafi expelled 20,000 Italians from Libya, straining relations with the country’s former colonial power. In recent years, the two countries have worked toward shedding the burden of their pasts.
Gadhafi has had a tumultuous relationship with the United States. The bombing of a Berlin nightclub popular among U.S. soldiers led to a retaliatory bombing of Tripoli by President Reagan in 1986.

In 1988 a Pan Am passenger plane was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Libyan agents were determined to have orchestrated the bombing. This lead to stiff sanctions against Libya imposed by the UN Security Council. The BBC offers a timeline of events in the relationship between Libya and the United States.

Libya Now

Today, Libya is undergoing revolutionary change. Protesters have been clashing with government-sponsored mercenaries in their search for an end to government corruption. To follow the protests in Libya, visit Al Jazeera’s Libya Live Blog. The blog features a collection of breaking news items, photos, videos, Tweets, quotes and analysis.

You can also follow the unrest in Libya at the Guardian.

The Washington Post offers a curated list of Twitter updates emerging from Libya.

On Feb. 22, 2011, Gadhafi addressed the protests in an appearance on state TV. Amy Davidson for the New Yorker summed up her feelings following Gadhafi’s rambling, 70-minute speech, by saying “a great many lives are in the hands of a man who may be not only megalomaniacal and deluded but actually deranged.” Watch a translation of his speech at the New Yorker.

Studying and Celebrating Conflict in Libya

In 2008 London-based architecture collective Metropolitan Workshop won the right to design a “Museum of Conflict” in the Libyan capitol Tripoli.

Jonathan Glancey’s reporting on the museum ends with these poignant words: “Work is due to start next year and the project is to be completed by 2011 in time for Libya’s hopefully peaceful 60th anniversary.”

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