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Geography (main)

May 31, 2009, 7:33 pm
May 25, 2012, 10:37 am
Source: CIA World factbook
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Libyan Desert. Source Roberdan/Flickr

Countries and Regions of the World Collection Eoe-globes.jpgLibya is a nation of six-and-three-quarters million people in North Africa, bordering the Mediterranean (Mediterranean Sea) Sea, between Egypt to the east and Tunisia and Algeria to the west.

More than 90% of the country is desert or semi-desert with barren, flat to undulating plains, plateaus, depressions (including the large Qattara Depression). This northern and eastern part of the Sahara Desert is known as the Libyan Desert. Libya is a significant source of crude oil for the world.



Libya's major environmental issues include:

  • desertification;
  • limited natural fresh water resources;
  • the Great Manmade River Project, which is the largest water development scheme in the world, and is being built to bring water from large aquifers under the Sahara to coastal cities.

Libya is susceptible to hot, dry, dust-laden southern wind called the sirocco or "ghibli" which lasts one to four days in spring and fall; and, from dust storms and sandstorms.

The Italians supplanted the Ottoman Turks in the area around Tripoli in 1911 and did not relinquish their hold until 1943 when defeated in World War II.

Libya then passed to UN administration and achieved independence in 1951.

Following a 1969 military coup, Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi began to espouse his own political system, the Third Universal Theory. The system was a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices and was supposed to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of "direct democracy." Qadhafi 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 addition, beginning in 1973, he engaged in military operations in northern Chad's Aozou Strip - to gain access to minerals and to use as a base of influence in Chadian politics - but was forced to retreat in 1987.

UN sanctions in 1992 isolated Qadhafi politically following the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. During the 1990s, Qadhafi began to rebuild his relationships with Europe.

UN sanctions were suspended in April 1999 and finally lifted in September 2003 after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.

In December 2003, Libya announced that it had agreed to reveal and end its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and to renounce terrorism. Qadhafi subsequently made significant strides in normalizing relations with Western nations. The US rescinded Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in June 2006. In August 2008, the US and Libya signed a bilateral comprehensive claims settlement agreement to compensate claimants in both countries who allege injury or death at the hands of the other country, including the Lockerbie bombing, the LaBelle disco bombing, and the UTA 772 bombing. In October 2008, the US Government received $1.5 billion pursuant to the agreement to distribute to US national claimants, and as a result effectively normalized its bilateral relationship with Libya. The two countries then exchanged ambassadors for the first time since 1973 in January 2009.

Libya, in May 2010 was elected to its first three-year seat on the UN Human Rights Council, prompting protests from international non-governmental organizations and human rights campaigners.

Unrest that began in several Near Eastern and North African countries in late December 2010 spread to several Libyan cities in early 2011. In March 2011, a Transitional National Council (TNC) was formed in Benghazi with the stated aim of overthrowing the Qadhafi regime and guiding the country to democracy. In response to Qadhafi's harsh military crackdown on protesters, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, which demanded an immediate ceasefire and authorized the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Libya.

After several months of see-saw fighting, anti-Qadhafi forces in August 2011 captured the capital, Tripoli.

In mid-September, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize the TNC as the legitimate interim governing body of Libya. The TNC on 23 October officially declared the country liberated following the defeat of the last remaining pro-Qadhafi stronghold and Qadhafi's death, and plans to begin a transition toward elections, the formation of a constitution, and a new government.


Location: Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Egypt and Tunisia

Geographic Coordinates: 25 00 N, 17 00 E

Area: total: 1,759,540 km2 (1,759,540 km2 land and 0 km2water)

Arable land: 1.03%
Permanent crops: 0.19%
Other: 98.78% (2005)

Land Boundaries: 4348 km. Border countries: Algeria 982 km, Chad 1,055 km, Egypt 1115 km, Niger 354 km, Sudan 383 km, Tunisia 459 km

Coastline: 1,770 km

Maritime Claims:

territorial sea: 12 nm
note: Gulf of Sidra closing line - 32 degrees, 30 minutes north
exclusive fishing zone: 62 nm

Natural Hazards: Hot, dry, dust-laden ghibli is a southern wind lasting one to four days in spring and fall; dust storms, sandstorms

Terrain: Mostly barren, flat to undulating plains, plateaus, depressions. Its lowest point is Sabkhat Ghuzayyil (-47 metres) and its highest point is Bikku Bitti (2267 metres).

Climate: Mediterranean along coast; dry, extreme desert interior\

Ecology and Biodiversity

  1. Mediterranean woodlands and forests
  2. Mediterranean dry woodlands and steppe
  3. North Saharan steppe and woodlands
  4. Saharan halophytics
  5. [[Sahara] desert]
  6. West Saharan montane xeric woodlands
  7. Ribesti-Jebel uweinat montane xeric woodland

See also: Libyan Desert

People and Society

Population: 6,733,620 (July 2012 est.)

Libya has a small population in a large land area. Population density is about 50 persons per sq. km. (80/sq. mi.) in the two northern regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but falls to less than one person per sq. km. (1.6/sq. mi.) elsewhere. Ninety percent of the people live in less than 10% of the area, primarily along the coast. More than half the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. Thirty-three percent of the population is estimated to be under age 15.


Source: World Wildlife Fund

Native Libyans are primarily a mixture of Arabs and Berbers. Small Tebou and Tuareg tribal groups in southern Libya are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Among foreign residents, the largest groups are citizens of other African nations, including North Africans (primarily Egyptians and Tunisians), West Africans, and other Sub-Saharan Africans.

Ethnic groups: Berber and Arab 97%, other 3% (includes Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians, and Tunisians)

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 32.8% (male 1,104,590/female 1,057,359)
15-64 years: 62.7% (male 2,124,053/female 2,011,226)
65 years and over: 4.6% (male 146,956/female 153,776) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 2.007% (2012 est.)

Birth Rate: 23.47 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 3.41 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: 0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Urbanization: 78% of total population growing at a 2.1% annual rate of change (2010-15 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 77.83 years

male: 75.5 years
female: 80.27 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 2.9 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Arabic, Italian, English, all are widely understood in the major cities

Literacy: 82.6% (2003 est.)


The archaeological record shows that from at least the eighth millennium BC. Libya's coastal plainexhibited a Neolithic culture, with domestication of cattle and cultivation of crops, common to the whole Mediterranean (Mediterranean Sea) littoral. To the south, in what is now the Sahara Desert, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a far, well-watered savanna that abounded in game and provided pastures for their stock. Their culture flourished until the region began to desiccate after 2000 BC. Scattering before the advancing desert and invading horsemen, the savanna people migrated into the Sudan or were absorbed by the Berber people.

The origin of the Berbers somewhat obscure. Archaeological and linguistic research indicates southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers began their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium BC. Over the succeeding centuries they extended their range from Egypt to the Niger Basin. Caucasians of predominantly Mediterranean stock, the Berbers presentreflect a gamut of physical characteristics and speak a variety of mutually unintelligible dialects that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They did not develope a firm sense of nationhood and have historically identified themselves in terms of their tribe, clan and family. Collectively, Berbers refer to themselves simply as imazighan, to which has been attributed the meaning free men. Egyptian Inscriptions dating from the Old Kingdom (around 2700–2200 BC) are the earliest known recorded evidence of the Berber migrations and also the first written note of Libyan history.

For most of their history, the peoples of Libya have been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines ruled all or parts of Libya. Although the Greeks and Romans left impressive ruins at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha, little else remains today to testify to the presence of these ancient cultures.

The Arabs conquered Libya in the seventh century A.D. In the following centuries, most of the indigenous peoples adopted Islam and the Arabic language and culture. The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in the mid-16th century. Libya remained part of their empire, although at times virtually autonomous, until Italy invaded in 1911 and, in the face of years of resistance, made Libya a colony.

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, which consisted of the Provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, led Libyan resistance to Italian occupation between the two world wars. Allied forces removed Axis powers from Libya in February 1943. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica came under separate British administration, while the French controlled Fezzan. In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal in 1947 of some aspects of foreign control. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.

On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. King Idris I represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. When Libya declared its independence on December 24, 1951, it was the first country to achieve independence through the United Nations and one of the first former European possessions in Africa to gain independence. Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy under King Idris.

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled what had been one of the world's poorest countries to become extremely wealthy, as measured by per capita GDP. Although oil drastically improved Libya's finances, popular resentment grew as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. This discontent continued to mount with the rise throughout the Arab world of Nasserism and the idea of Arab unity.

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 28-year-old army officer Mu'ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi staged a coup d'etat against King Idris, who was subsequently exiled to Egypt. The new regime, headed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. Qadhafi emerged as leader of the RCC and eventually as de facto head of state, a political role he played until the February 17, 2011 uprising. The Libyan Government asserted that Qadhafi held no official position, although he was referred to in government statements and the official press as the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution," among other honorifics.

An early objective of the Qadhafi regime was withdrawal of all foreign military installations from Libya. Following negotiations, British military installations at Tobruk and nearby El Adem were closed in March 1970, and U.S. facilities at Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli were closed in June 1970. That July, the Libyan Government ordered the expulsion of several thousand Italian residents. By 1971, libraries and cultural centers operated by foreign governments were ordered closed.

In the 1970s, Libya claimed leadership of Arab and African revolutionary forces and sought active roles in international organizations. Late in the 1970s, Libyan embassies were re-designated as "people's bureaus," as Qadhafi sought to portray Libyan foreign policy as an expression of the popular will. The people's bureaus, aided by Libyan religious, political, educational, and business institutions overseas, attempted to export Qadhafi's revolutionary philosophy abroad.

Qadhafi's confrontational foreign policies and use of terrorism, as well as Libya's growing friendship with the U.S.S.R., led to increased tensions with the West in the 1980s. Following a terrorist bombing at a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American military personnel, in 1986 the U.S. retaliated militarily against targets in Libya, and imposed broad unilateral economic sanctions.

After Libya was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, UN sanctions were imposed in 1992. UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs) passed in 1992 and 1993 obliged Libya to fulfill requirements related to the Pan Am 103 bombing before sanctions could be lifted. Qadhafi initially refused to comply with these requirements, leading to Libya's political and economic isolation for most of the 1990s.

In 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the UNSCR requirements by surrendering two Libyans who were suspected to have been involved with the bombing for trial before a Scottish court in the Netherlands. One of these suspects, Abdel Basset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, was found guilty; the other was acquitted. Al-Megrahi's conviction was upheld on appeal in 2002. On August 19, 2009, al-Megrahi was released from Scottish prison on compassionate grounds due to a terminal illness and returned to Libya. In August 2003, Libya fulfilled the remaining UNSCR requirements, including acceptance of responsibility for the actions of its officials and payment of appropriate compensation to the victims' families. UN sanctions were lifted on September 12, 2003. U.S. International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)-based sanctions were lifted September 20, 2004.

On December 19, 2003, Libya publicly announced its intention to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)-class missile programs. Subsequently, Libya cooperated with the U.S., the U.K., the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons toward these objectives. Libya has also signed the IAEA Additional Protocol and has become a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. These were important steps toward full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Libya.

Nationwide political violence erupted in February 2011, following the Libyan Government’s brutal suppression of popular protests against Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi. Opposition forces quickly seized control of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, as well as significant portions of eastern Libya and some areas in western Libya. Drawing from the local opposition councils which formed the backbone of the “February 17” revolution, the Libyan opposition announced the formation of a Transitional National Council (TNC) on February 27, 2011. The Council stated its desire to remove Qadhafi from power and establish a unified, democratic, and free Libya that respects universal human rights principles.

On October 23, 2011, 3 days after Qadhafi’s death, the TNC officially declared Libya liberated. The TNC subsequently moved from Benghazi to Tripoli and formed a transitional government (i.e., an executive branch). On February 7, 2012, it approved an election law, and the Supreme Election Commission has started preparing for June elections for the General National Conference, to consist of 200 elected representatives.


Government Type: operates under a transitional government

The TNC released a constitutional document in August 2011 describing its plans for a democratic transition. The release helped address concerns about the TNC’s authority as an unelected organization and tied the beginning of the transition in February 2011 to the official declaration of liberation in October 2011. The constitutional declaration is divided into five chapters, with 37 articles, and addresses (1) general national principles; (2) rights and public freedoms; (3) transition to an interim government; (4) judicial guarantees; and (5) the status of existing laws. The document affirmed the TNC as the sole governing authority of Libya until the “announcement of liberation” and the formation of the executive branch, which took place in November 2011. The form of government and political conditions are still taking shape as the interim government works to pass a law governing political parties, form electoral districts, and register voters.

Qadhafi-Era Political System
The former system was in theory based on the political philosophy in Qadhafi's Green Book, which combined socialist and Islamic theories and rejects parliamentary democracy and political parties. In reality, Qadhafi exercised near-total control over major government decisions. During the first 7 years following the 1969 revolution, the Revolutionary Command Council, which included Colonel Qadhafi and 12 fellow army officers, began a complete overhaul of Libya's political system, society, and economy. In 1973, Qadhafi announced the start of a "cultural revolution" in schools, businesses, industries, and public institutions to oversee administration of those organizations in the public interest. On March 2, 1977, Qadhafi convened a General People's Congress (GPC) to proclaim the establishment of "people's power," change the country's name to the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and to vest, theoretically, primary authority in the GPC.

Qadhafi remained the de facto head of state and secretary general of the GPC until 1980, when he gave up his office. Although he held no formal office, Qadhafi monopolized power with the assistance of a small group of trusted advisers, who included relatives from his home base in the Sirte region, which lies between the traditional commercial and political power centers in Benghazi and Tripoli.

Capital: Tripoli - 1.095 million (2009)

Independence Date: 24 December 1951 (from UN trusteeship)

Legal System: Based on Italian and French civil law systems and Islamic law; separate religious courts; no constitutional provision for judicial review of legislative acts; has not accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdiction

The Libyan court system is currently being reconstituted. Under the Qadhafi regime, it consisted of three levels: the courts of first instance; the courts of appeals; and the Supreme Court, which was the final appellate level. The GPC appointed justices to the Supreme Court. Special "revolutionary courts" and military courts operated outside the court system to try political offenses and crimes against the state. "People's courts," another example of extrajudicial authority, were abolished in January 2005. Libya's justice system was nominally based on Shari'a law.

Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal and compulsory

International Environmental Agreements

Libya is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands. It has signed, but not ratified the international agreement known as the Law of the Sea.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 0.6 cu km (1997)

Freshwater Withdrawal: Total: 4.27 cu km/yr (14% domestic, 3% industrial, 83% agricultural). Per capita: 730 cu m/yr (2000)

See: Water profile of Libya


Agricultural Products: wheat, barley, olives, dates, citrus, vegetables, peanuts, soybeans; cattle

Irrigated Land: 4700 sq km (2003)


Natural Resources: Petroleum, natural gas, gypsum, aluminum


See: Energy profile of Libya

Energy in Libya
Production Consumption Exports Imports Reserves
Electricity 26.95 billion kWh
(2008 est.)
22.89 billion kWh
(2008 est.)
117 million kWh (2008 est.) 77 million kWh (2007 est.)
Oil 1.789 million bbl/day (2010 est.) 289,000 bbl/day (2010 est.) 1.58 million bbl/day (2010 est.) 575 bbl/day (2009 est.) 46.42 billion bbl
(1 January 2011 est.)
Natural Gas 15.9 billion cu m
(2009 est.)
6.01 billion cu m (2009 est.) 9.89 billion cu m (2009 est.) 0 cu m
(2011 est.)
1.548 trillion cu m
(1 January 2011 est.)
Source: CIA Factbook


International Disputes: Libya has claimed more than 32,000 sq km in southeastern [[Algeria] and] about 25,000 sq km in the Tommo region of Niger in a currently dormant dispute; various Chadian rebels from the Aozou region reside in southern Libya

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Refugees (country of origin): 8000 (Palestinian Territories) (2007)


The Qadhafi regime dominated Libya's socialist-oriented economy through control of the country's oil resources, which account for approximately 95% of export earnings, 80% of government receipts, and 65% of gross domestic product. Oil production, previously constant at just below Libya’s Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota of 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd), ground to a halt following the outbreak of political violence in February 2011. However, Libya has exceeded all expectations in this area and may meet or even exceed pre-revolution oil production levels by the end of 2012. Oil revenues constitute the principal source of foreign exchange. Much of the country's income over the years has been lost to waste, corruption, conventional armaments purchases, and attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, as well as to large donations made to developing countries in attempts to increase Qadhafi's influence in Africa and elsewhere. Although oil revenues and a small population have given Libya one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa, the previous government's mismanagement of the economy led to high inflation and increased import prices. These factors resulted in a decline in the standard of living from the late 1990s through 2003, especially for lower and middle income strata of the Libyan society.

On September 20, 2004, President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order ending economic sanctions imposed under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Under the 2004 order, U.S. persons were no longer prohibited from working in Libya, and many American companies in diverse sectors actively sought investment opportunities in Libya. In 2008, the Qadhafi-led government announced ambitious plans to increase foreign investment in the oil and gas sectors to significantly boost production capacity from 1.2 million bpd to 3 million bpd by 2012, a target that the National Oil Corporation later estimated would to slip to 2017. In February 2011, the U.S. and UN imposed sanctions on Libya following the outbreak of political violence, most of which have now been lifted. Many U.S. companies, particularly in the oil sector, have resumed their operations in Libya.

The government had been pursuing a number of large-scale infrastructure development projects such as highways, railways, air and seaports, telecommunications, water works, public housing, medical centers, shopping centers, and hotels. The current government has put most of these projects on hold until the elected government has taken office after the projected June 2012 elections. Despite Qadhafi regime efforts to diversify the economy and encourage private sector participation, extensive controls of prices, credit, trade, and foreign exchange constrained growth. Import restrictions and inefficient resource allocations caused periodic shortages of basic goods and foodstuffs. Most goods and foodstuffs are now readily available following the cessation of hostilities. Climatic conditions and poor soils severely limit agricultural output, and Libya imports about 75% of its food. Libya's primary agricultural water source remains the Great Manmade River Project, but significant resources have been invested in desalinization research to meet growing water demands. Government officials have also indicated interest in developing markets for alternative sources of energy, pharmaceuticals, health care services, and oil production byproducts.

GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): $89.03 billion (2010 est.)

GDP (Official Exchange Rate): $77.91 billion (2010 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $13,800 (2010 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 3.6%
industry: 56.7%
services: 39.7% (2011 est.)

Population Below Poverty Line: About one-third of Libyans live at or below the national poverty line

Industries: Petroleum, petrochemicals, aluminum, iron and steel, food processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement

Exports: Crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas, chemicals

Export Partners: Italy 40.6%, Germany 12.2%, US 7.4%, Spain 7.4%, France 6.3% (2006)

Imports: Machinery, semi-finished goods, food, transport equipment, consumer products

Import Partners: Italy 18.9%, China 10.54%, Turkey 9.92%, Germany 9.78%, France 5.63%, Tunisia 5.25%, South Korea 4.02% (2009)

Currency: Libyan dinar (LYD)

Ports and Terminals: As Sidrah, Az Zuwaytinah, Marsa al Burayqah, Ra's Lanuf, Tripoli, Zawiyah

Further Reading

  1. Jean-Louis Ballais. 2000. Conquests and land degradation in the eastern Maghreb. Chapter 7. In Barker, Graeme and Gilbertson, David (2000) The Archaeology of Drylands: Living at the Margin Routledge, London, Volume 1, Part III - Sahara and Sahel, pp. 125-136, ISBN 978-0-415-23001-8
  2. Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. 1987. Tripolitania and the Phoenicians, U.S. Library of Congress.
  3. Phillip Chiviges Naylor. 2009. North Africa: a history from antiquity to the present. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292719221


Agency, C., Fund, W., & Department, U. (2012). Libya. Retrieved from