History of Libya

History of Libya

In this article, we shall examine the history of Libya. We shall examine Libya history from the Ottoman Empire, as well as Italy’s colonial control of Libya from 1912 onwards. In addition, we shall examine the politics of Libya during colonialism, as well as after Italy left the country. Then, we shall discuss Libya history during the Cold War, as well as following the rule of Muammar Gaddafi in 1969. We will also discuss the uprisings in Libya, and the Libyan civil war. It is important to talk about Libya history when examining the current events in the country, and thus, we shall discuss the events that have helped shape the current situation in the country.

Libya and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was an empire that was centered primarily around modern day Turkey, and was in existence from the early 1300s (although much of their power has been noted to begin in the mid 1500s) until the end of World War I. During this time, the Ottoman Empire not only expanded their territorial control in the Middle East and Europe, but they also established holds on northern parts of North Africa. This included influence in areas such as Tripoli, as well as Tunis, Morocco, etc… In terms of Libyan history, the Ottoman Empire established control in 1551. While the leaders of the empire had political influence in North Africa in 1551, it was in 1565 that the Ottomans “governed Libya through a pasha appointed by the sultan of Istanbul. The pasha was dependent upon the janissaries, an elite military caste stationed in Libya in support of Ottoman rule…” (St. John, 2011: 31). But while the pasha and the janissaries were important to ensuring Ottoman rule in Libya and North Africa, “it was the Barbary corsairs who supplied the regency’s treasury with steady income from corsairing or privateering…” (St. John, 2011: 31). The Barbary corsairs were very important to the Ottomans, not only financially, but also in terms of military strength, as they gave the Ottoman Empire a much stronger sea presence on the Mediterranean (St. John, 2011).

But while the Ottomans maintained control of Libya until 1911, they were starting to lose power as wearily as the mid-1600s. As St. John (2011) explains:

“After 1661, Ottoman power declined and the janissaries, together with local corsairs, often manipulated the divan. The role of the pasha was reduced to that of ceremonial head of state and figurehead representative of Ottoman suzerainty, with real power in the hands of the military. In the end, the janissaries began designating a dey among themselves. Between 1672 and 1711, some twenty-four deys attempted to control the increasingly chaotic political situation in Libya. Absent firm direction from the Ottoman government in Istanbul, Tripoli lapsed into a period of military anarchy in which coup followed coup and few deys survived more than one year in office” (33).

Following the various internal power struggles, it was in 1711 that an individual named Ahmad Karamanli ousted the pasha and established what was known as the Karamanli dynasty in Libya. The relationship with the Ottoman Empire was not severed, but rather, “[o]nce he had seized control, Karamanli immediately swore allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan and purchased from the Sublime Porte his confirmation as pasha with goods stolen from Ottoman officials murdered during the coup d’etat” (St. John, 2011: 34). However, this did not mean that that Ottoman Empire had complete control of Libya. Karmanli was able to set up a great deal of autonomy within Libya (St. John, 2011). This dynasty was able to stay in power until the year 1835. It was at this time that “…the Sublime Porte overthrew the Karmanli dynasty and reestablished direct control over the formerly autonomous province of Tripoli. The restoration of Ottoman rule signaled the end of a long period of decentralized political rule under the Karamanlis and marked a turning point in Libyan history[,]” as the Ottomans tightened their control over the area (St. John, 2011: 43-44). However, as we shall see, it was within a century that another outside power, Italy, would look to control Libya.

Italy’s Control of Libya

Italy was a European that, unlike many of its more powerful neighbors in the region, did not (at the time) colonize other areas. Part of the reason was that Italy itself was only united in the mid 1800s. But since Libya was not then colonized by European states, Italy aimed to bring Libya under their control. Italy argued that it already had significant historical ties in Libya, dating back to the Roman Empire. Political leaders also tried to capitalize on this historical relationship. In fact, some “…in Rome hoped to return Italy to its formers greatness by creating a modern empire. In this regard, many Italians, believed it was an historical right, as well as an obligation, to apply Italian sovereignty to those regions once ruled by the Roman Empire” (St. John, 2011). And it was following defeats in Ethiopia at the end of the 1800s (namely 1896) that Italy began looking more seriously at colonizing Libya. And some who had traveled to Libya were saying that there were numerous economic and other benefits to overtaking Libya (St. John, 2011). In fact, many in Italy, in their mind, saw a number of reasons as to why they should take over Libya. Bruce St. John (2011) explains that

“In addition to issues of historical right and national pride, many Italians viewed overseas expansion as the best solution to a number of vexing internal problems. A the dawn of the twentieth century, a newly unified Italy still suffered from mutual suspicion and regional conflict. Italian leaders saw a foreign war as a means to divert attention away from internal divisions, unite the population, and increase pride in the homeland. Overseas expansion also offered a means to test the skills and weapons of the armed forces, highly rated at home but held in low regard throughout Europe” (58).

He goes on to say that “[o]ther Italians believed the colonization of Libya offered an ideal region to settle countrymen wishing to emigrate. Italian emigration to the United States alone exceeded 650,000 people in 1910; and in 1913, the year departures peaked, over 860,000 Italians emigrated to Europe, South America, or the United States. Nevertheless, emigration to many areas, like South America, was becoming more difficult due to the distance and expense involved. In contrast, sparsely populated Libya was close to Italy and reportedly enjoyed a pleasant climate with a favorable coastal terrain” (59). In addition, Italy hoped to use Libyan land for its resources (St. John, 2011).

And thus, in 1911, Italy told the Ottoman Empire to accept Italy’s occupation of Libya. And, it was on September 29th, 1911 that Italy invaded Libya. Then, in 1912, the Ottoman Empire entered into an agreement with Italy that they would grant sovereignty to the Libyans, but not to Italy, and in turn, Italy would annex Cyrenaica, as well as Tripoltania, knowing that it would not be fully supported by international law until 1924 (St. John, 2011: 61).