Libya

Key facts

  • Capital city: Tripoli
  • Land area: 1,759.540 sq. km
  • Population: 6,871,287
  • Population density: 3.905 per sq. km
  • Gross domestic product (GDP): 25,419,000,000 USD 
  • Gross domestic product per capita (GDP per capita): 3,699.295 USD
  • Gini index: N/A
  • Average life expectancy: 72.913 years
    • Average female life expectancy: 75.951 years
    • Average male life expectancy: 70.097 years
  • Infant mortality rate: 0.990%
    • Infant female mortality rate: 0.880%
    • Infant male mortality rate: 1.090%
  • Adult literacy rate: 86.100%
    • Adult female literacy rate:  77.800%
    • Adult male literacy rate: 93.850%

This data was last updated on 17/01/2022 and has been collated from the World Bank’s Open Data database. To submit any queries or corrections regarding this data, including any questions about how to use this data, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Background

According to Libya expert Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, ‘[t]he designation “Libya” was used during Greek and Roman times and was revived by the Italian colonialists in 1911’. We also believe that Libya’s pluralistic society and historical processes can be characterised by three major developments: Ottoman state formation, European commercial penetration and ongoing Saharan trade.

Situated at the centre of northern Africa, Libya’s landmass is equivalent to that of the UK, France and Germany combined, but with only three percent of those countries’ aggregate population. Libya is therefore mainly arid desert without major rivers, except in part of the north which benefits from Mediterranean Sea water. Thus, only about one percent of the country is arable; the remainder constituting part of the Sahara.

Rainfall is also scant and inconsistent, limiting Libya’s potential for agricultural trade and development which, ultimately, impacts the country’s unemployed youth population.

It was not until Italy’s colonial enterprise between 1911 and 1947 (inclusive) that a single political entity attempted to control more than one of Libya’s several historic regions in a centralised manner. This was achieved through the emergence of what would now be characterised as an administrative body, constituting the state, its regions and their several institutions. In our opinion, Italy’s reification of Libya into “administrative regions” did not only objectify and dehumanise local Libyan communities, but was equally designed to advance Italian colonial efforts irrespective of Libya’s nuanced demographic needs.

The protracted, psychological effects of colonialism on Libyan identity can thus be observed to this day, and we elaborate on this to a greater extent in the participant feedback subsection further below.

Cyrenaica-based Omar al-Mukhtar, who led Libya’s native guerrilla resistance against Italian colonialists, is championed until this day as a symbol of grassroots, working-class resistance to foreign-led occupation. He is an “underdog” figure like Morocco’s Abd el-Krim al-Khattabi. There have been numerous films and books produced about Omar al-Mukhtar’s life, including the 1981 film Lion of the Desert which starred Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn. The film, funded by Gaddafi, was censored in Italy by former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti as he believed that Lion of the Desert brought disrepute to the Italian army.

Omar al-Mukhtar’s identity as a working-class revolutionary, followed by Gaddafi’s reign as a self-proclaimed socialist leader, resonated with the Soviet Union, cultivating an ongoing alliance between Libya and Russia. In fact, many of the arms and armoured vehicles used by Libyan youths in the First Civil War of 2011 were sourced and purchased from post-Soviet Russia.

Following World War II (WWII), Italy renounced all claims to Libya, thus marking the end of 36 years of colonialism in the country according to the Paris Peace Treaties. In 1951, Idris I was anointed King of a newly and superficially “unified” Libya through appointment by the UK and the US; these nations evidently feared that Libya would continue to identify as a Soviet satellite-state during the Cold War and hence attempted (but later failed) to deploy an ally in the country.

The modern Libyan nation-state subsequently emerged in 1951 following the unification of Fezzan in the south-western quadrant, Tripolitania stretching from the west to Sidra on the coast and Cyrenaica covering the north-eastern and south-eastern quadrants. Over time, the various Arab, Ottoman and European encroachments bound for these territories aimed to establish trading posts whilst also aiming to tax local citizens and to extract natural resources.

Idris I was the grandson of Muhammad ibn Ali al-Senussi, the founder of the Senusiyya Sufi order, which spread in Libya in the 19th century and influenced the tribal, social fabric of the country. The Senusiyya order served as one of the main sources of opposition against Italian colonialism, particularly in Cyrenaica, hence why Omar al-Mukhtar’s resistance is also referred to as a “Senussi” resistance. This resistance is an early example of the merging of religious and political mechanisms in the country.

King Idris I ruled the tribal system for 19 years before Muammar Gaddafi instigated a coup and seized the helm in 1969. Oil was first discovered in Libya in 1959, and after Gaddafi’s successful coup, oil rents allowed him to administer his authority without involving the majority of citizens in political processes. Libya became increasingly isolationist and aimed to implement a unified secular-socialist identity by focusing on thwarting opposition through economic development and a growing middle-class, as well as through reported acts of internalised detention and torture.

As with most rentier states, Gaddafi’s regime avoided diversifying Libya’s economy from its dependency on oil whilst also failing to create the impartial and inclusive economic and political institutions that are necessary for sustainable growth and conflict prevention. Namely, a slow and considered approach to establishing the institution of free and fair presidential elections did not arrive soon enough to render Libya immune to the Arab Spring uprisings.

Gaddafi’s centralised economy focused on oil extraction, swiftly making Libya a target of foreign intervention. This in turn facilitated Gaddafi’s role as a MENA strongman opposing Western imperialism. Thus, by seeking to distance himself from Western influences, Gaddafi paradoxically attracted the attention and interference of Western nations.

Indeed, many tense situations between Gaddafi and Western nations escalated out of control, such as the unresolved 1984 murder of British police officer PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London as well as the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist attack over Scottish territory (also dubbed the “Lockerbie bombing”).

Gaddafi also notably aligned himself with the Palestinian cause in opposition to Israeli occupation. The Cold War between Libya and the West brought the country under subsequent scrutiny from foreign agencies. In spite of a growing middle-class in the country, a small inner-circle monopolising power and wealth imposed a life of poverty for significant swathes of Libya’s alienated and disenfranchised population. Therefore, we believe that Libya had been a socialist republic in name but not entirely in practice.

We recognise that Gaddafi lived through various identity roles as a leader, first as a secular republican, then as a Muslim advocate of Sharia-inspired rule, then as an African ambassador promoting unification for African countries. Underpinning these different leadership roles was Gaddafi’s manifesto – also known as The Green Book – which advocated (at least in writing) for his socialist ideals. These diverse identity markers are further reflected in the various attitudes expressed by Libya’s youth across the ages.

A spectrum of Libyans cutting across socioeconomic classes rose in opposition to Gaddafi during the 2011 Arab uprisings. The NATO military campaign provided the decisive help needed to topple the regime. With Gaddafi’s defeat, a power vacuum was created for Western institutions seeking to define the future of Libya in an increasingly US-centric international system.

Critics of Libya’s “democratisation” highlight that NATO’s intervention posed its own ethical dilemmas and resulted in indiscriminate fire and human rights abuses by NATO-backed mercenaries.

Since the Arab Spring, two contending political entities hoping to govern have emerged: the Government of National Accords currently led by Mohamed al-Menfi in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives led by Aguila Saleh Issa in Tobruk. The outcome of the Arab Spring has consequently been met with mixed emotions throughout Libya. Younger respondents of our Arab Youth Survey from Libya expressed less satisfaction with current political representation in their country compared with their older counterparts. Libyans of 35 years of age and under, who are also based in Libya, therefore express a reasonably strong desire to migrate from their country.

The cumulative decisions and experiences of the past therefore shape Libya’s future. Present-day Libya remains dependent on natural resources, with oil constituting 60% of its GDP and national infrastructure being concentrated on the cultivation of Libya’s “rentier state” economy. Despite this, Libya’s GDP per capita is about 7,686 USD (as of 2019), which we recognise as relatively low compared with other MENA nations.

Furthermore, income inequality plagues present-day Libya, where health infrastructure is also inadequate. Contrastingly, literacy rates among Libya’s younger segments of society are notably high, with a literacy rate of over 99% for both males and females between and including the ages of 15 and 24 years old (according to 2004 data).

A high literacy rate among Libyan youths becomes even more impressive when understanding Libya’s demographic breakdown, which favours a high youth population almost equally split in numbers among the country’s two recognised genders.

Libya’s total population tallies to around seven million people, with most of the population living in the coastal cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata. The vast majority also identifies as Arab or Arab-Amazigh and follows Sunni Islam, although there are between 300,000 and 400,000 Ibadi Libyans in the country (primarily concentrated in the Nafusa Mountains, in Tripoli and in Zuwara).

About half of Libyans are females, and stratifying Libya’s demography by age groups reveals how youthful Libyan society is: according to UNICEF’s statistics for 2012, 17.8% of Libya’s population is between 10 and 19 years of age (inclusive).

Our Arab Youth Survey focus group participants from Libya report that many Libyans continue to battle with the aftermath of conflict, which includes disruption to public facilities such as electricity, water and impaired public health infrastructure, as well as wide-spread government corruption.

Thus, a decade on, Libya faces a series of obstacles that affect the country’s entire population: young and old. First is regional security, prompted by militant Islamist organisations situated in the southern frontiers who have sought to take advantage of the Arab Spring. Next is the challenge of diversifying the economy away from oil, especially considering the accelerating global trend orientating away from fossil fuels and towards renewables; interestingly, survey respondents of our Arab Youth Survey from Libya scored environmental culture “very unfavourably” overall.

The most immediate concern for the future for many Libyans, however, is reaching a stable resolution to the ongoing conflict between the various factions and governments that have succeeded Gaddafi. During the recent “second wave” of violence in Libya, conflict escalated between the UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the pro-revolution west and the head of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in the pro-Gaddafi east.

It should be noted that Haftar also played a role in assisting Gaddafi’s 1969 coup against King Idris I, as well as commanding a Libyan army to support Egypt during the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973.

Foreign patrons such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have naturally sought to capitalise on the recent power contest in Libya, further complicating and undermining any potential for pan-Arab, sustainable development that ARAB would like to see in the MENA region. Therefore, Moroccan-brokered negotiations between Libya’s factions have failed to fully mitigate against the conflict.

One potential yet controversial solution to prevent further conflict from emerging in Libya would be to increase federalisation across the country, but the secession of eastern Libya from the rest of the country could conversely result in protracted violence and the division of Libyan families across the northern coast.

Economy

Despite possessing the largest oil reserves on the African continent, Libya’s economy lingers well below its potential and is obstructed by continuing violent conflict and political uncertainty. The population’s vulnerability is unveiled by its poor economic performance, driving social and economic problems and inequalities. Libya’s role as a primary exporter to the regional economy has halted as oil revenues decreased by 92% in the last year alone. We believe that this undermines both civic peace and public confidence in the state and relegates Libya to increased dependency on foreign humanitarian and development aid.

Libya faces a liquidity crisis that will likely continue to escalate the country’s general financial crisis. Confidence in banks will remain low and the core objectives of the recent official decision to devalue the Libyan currency require time to be accomplished. Inflation is accelerating and the activities of currency traders double as smugglers of foreign currency flourish on the black market. This means that Libya’s youth are facing a crisis of both high inflation and high unemployment. This is unfortunate to say the least as the private sector holds the potential to undermine poverty and secure investment in infrastructure to achieve sustainable development goals, particularly in a Libya that is now more integrated with the current world order.

Recently, the fraudulent use of the Letters of Credit system run by the Central Bank of Libya has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars a year. The absence of a clear strategy against money laundering contributes to the emergence of a “contagion” effect linking the UK banking system to Libyan financial crimes; money laundering is probably exacerbated by pro-Gaddafi assets frozen by the UK and others in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Financial crime in Libya is unsurprising due to the country’s position amongst the most corrupt states in the world, ranked 173 in Transparency International’s report, but the web of financial crime linking with Western institutions does not aid in “selling” a more Western capitalist vision of the future to Libya’s youth. Therefore, financial and administrative corruption comprise some of Libya’s greatest challenges, inflicting damages to the country’s economy, the labour market and attitudes held by Libyan youths towards their future socioeconomic prospects.

Educational progress is always contingent on socioeconomic and political factors alongside general stability. Education in Libya shifts and aligns with its political circumstances: namely, the agenda of the ruling elite and how the elite class perceive wider educational needs. Although the country’s literacy rates are high, more nuanced public awareness could emerge in Libya that identifies and responds to institutional discrimination, nepotism, injustice and corruption.

Our Arab Youth Survey respondents from Libya report a “very unfavourable” view of police and justice institutions in their country, highlighting the levels of corruption they continue to experience in Libya during the focus group discussion.

Relative to the size of the country, the Libyan population is small, and its growth is slow. This impacts the local economy and labour market, making the crackdown of corruption especially pressing as Libya looks towards a new era of economic identity. In an ideal situation, small business loans and effective business incubators would improve economic and private incentives for local youths, but the issues relating to corruption and asset seizures need to be addressed in order to release more liquidity that can be used to subsidise the prospects of young Libyans. If this does not happen, Libya may need to continue to rely on foreign aid, making it increasingly “subordinate” to the influence of foreign agencies, some of whom may not have Libya’s best interests at heart.

Human rights

Libyan democracy is under assault. Inequalities are continuously rising and the linkages between expertise and policymaking are weak due to nepotism in the wider employment process. Despite international interventions, the crisis is yet to be resolved.

The perpetual suffering endured by ordinary Libyans is prolonged by the persistence of instability, radical militancy and a dramatic increase in illegal human trafficking. There have been many recorded incidents of Libyan and other African nationals drowning at sea, seeking to flee conflict in the region, with a recent incident involving the corrupt involvement of a senior Libyan immigration official.

Like the case of Morocco, sexual violence becomes an intersectional issue for human trafficking in Libya:

“Amnesty International spoke to 15 women most of whom said they lived in perpetual fear of sexual violence along the journey to the Libyan coast. Many said rape was so commonplace that they took contraceptive pills before travelling to avoid becoming pregnant as a result of it.”

Due to its geographic centrality, the ongoing instability in Libya impacts the security of the nation’s neighbours both in Africa and across the Mediterranean. Levels of violence have generally abated since the Second Civil War. Yet, the drivers of this conflict and their political divides persist. The security sphere remains fragmented which in turn impacts civilian safety, and our Arab Youth Survey focus group participants from Libya report that insufficient effort has been made towards disarmament activities in their country.

Unfortunately, human rights violations are not unknown to Libyan society. Under Gaddafi, there had been numerous reports of domestic and foreign attacks that have indiscriminately harmed civilians. These include alleged extrajudicial torture, detention and solitary confinement for government critics. Supporters of Gaddafi often counter that, whilst these human rights violations occurred under Gaddafi, they were not necessarily ordered by Gaddafi himself.

Another Gaddafi-era scandal that had directly impacted Libyan families involved the pardoning of eight Bulgarian medics who had negligently infected hundreds of children with HIV. Many child prisoners also reside in Libya; many of them are the progeny of ISIS insurgents who sought to take advantage of the country’s First Civil War.

Improvements to border control are vital yet remain highly challenging due to various complexities: southern Libya has been subjected to numerous conflicts during the past several years and we believe that the region requires continuous stabilisation efforts that address the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs).

With regards to sub-Saharan refugees residing in Libya, the absence of precise legislation to define their status as migrants deprives these people of job opportunities and other basic human rights. Migrants moving through Libya can find themselves caught in detention centres that have abysmal conditions and provide very limited sanitary services, helping COVID-19 to quickly spread. Many migrant children find themselves caught in these detention centres, and young men and boys have been subjected to sexual violence under detention.

The radicalisation of some of these groups coincides with the widespread rejection within Libya of their permanent settlement status, illustrating the complex dynamic of dealing with ISIS-linked prisoners in detention centres. As such, inadequate anti-terrorist efforts have failed to control radicalisation in the country; terror activity in Libya evidently undermines the sense of collective security experienced by Libya’s European neighbours on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Today, Libya falls prey to a variety of criminal activities and sporadic conflicts while simultaneously facing a ‘’water war” due to resource shortages. Our Arab Youth Survey focus group participants from Libya claimed that they have experienced daily water and electricity outages over the past several years. Imagine the impact that these outages hold on logistics, communications and education services.

We therefore believe that maintaining peace and security, as well as imposing law and order, necessitates disarming and demobilising combatants as well as re-integrating potential combatants into civilian life. Indeed, Arab, Amazigh, Tuareg and Toubou groups in Libya had played different roles during both recent civil wars in the country. During the First Civil War, pro-Gaddafi groups were, for instance, often reported to have hired Toubou militia groups originating from Chad.

Gender-based inequalities equally continue to pervade Libyan society. Despite civil society efforts, women remain marginalised, and this is amplified by the ongoing cultural and political conflict in the nation. In spite of high literacy rates for females, the women’s unemployment rate in Libya is approximately 25% (2020), which means that Libyan women have the potential to work but are not being afforded such opportunities to any optimal degree. This demonstrates a need to encourage the inclusion of women in the labour market to promote gender equality and to fulfil Libya’s economic potential in the post-Gaddafi era.

As a result of a controversial law, Libyan women married to foreign nationals do not enjoy free education, health care, the right to nationality and several other civil and political rights. It is therefore also vital to introduce laws that protect these women’s rights, including the right for Libyan women to grant Libyan citizenship to their children irrespective of whom these women decide to marry. Our Arab Youth Survey focus group participants from Libya hope that legislators will work to protect the rights of these women and their children.

It is finally worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed major unforeseen consequences in Libya. Weak governments and poor leadership increase the risks of impoverishment and instability in the country. Libyan society has suffered under these circumstances. Pessimism persists as the pandemic exerts additional strain on the country’s already fragile institutions and services.

Focus group feedback

As mentioned above, our Arab Youth Survey respondents from Libya of all age groups view police institutions “very unfavourably”, with focus group participants highlighting the corruption and lack of justice implementation that they believe occurs in Libya on a day-to-day basis. Other issues highlighted during the focus group discussion were bribery and bureaucracy among Libya’s police ranks.

Libyans of 35 years of age and under have a worse perception of police institutions in their country compared with Moroccan, Egyptian and Palestinian youths in the same age group. On average, Libyan youths view police institutions almost 50% less favourably than youths from other focus countries from our Arab Youth Survey.

Attitudes towards police and justice have effects on the way in which Libyan youths view employment opportunities in their country. Interestingly, Libyans of 35 years of age and under scored employment opportunities in their country “slightly unfavourably”, whereas Libyans over 35 years of age scored employment opportunities in Libya “very unfavourably”.

This relative optimism among youths towards employment opportunities in their country is a trend that was additionally observed among survey respondents from other Arab Youth Survey focus countries. This relative optimism could be the result of the psychological tendency for young people to view their futures more positively compared with older subjects.

Due to corruption and limited employment prospects in their country, Libyans of 35 years of age and under view their life prospects, as well as the life prospects of the next generation, “slightly unfavourably”. Contrast this with Moroccan youths who scored their life prospects as well as the life prospects of the next generation “slightly favourably”.

It is worth emphasising that all Libyans who participated in our Arab Youth Survey identified as Arab, and that non-Arab Libyan youths – such as Black, Amazigh and/or Tuareg youths – would likely view their life prospects even more unfavourably due to the discrimination that they face in the Libyan workplace, which includes a reported lack of basic workers’ rights. Identifiable non-Arabs additionally face a relatively harder time entering employment in the first instance compared with the other “typical” Arab-Amazigh Libyan demographic.

Survey respondents rate women’s opportunities in Libya “slightly favourably”, perhaps as a result of their high literacy rates, but employment data explored further above indicates that females in Libya are more affected by nepotism that excludes them from labour market participation. As such, Libyan females of 35 years of age and under believe they can influence their futures “only a little” whereas their male counterparts stated that they can influence their futures “a reasonable amount”.

All Libyans of 35 years of age and under express a reasonable desire to emigrate from their country, painting a negative perception of the status quo in the country.

It is subsequently unsurprising that all survey respondents from Libya bar one viewed human rights in Libya “very unfavourably”. There were, however, mixed views among respondents on religious freedoms in the country, which is probably partly due to the different benchmarks for religious freedom in the MENA region as well as the different lived experience of various demographic groups assessing religious rights in their country. Testament to this is the perception of Libyans who live outside of Libya who regard religious freedoms in their country of origin “slightly unfavourable”. This contrasts with the “very favourable” view of religious freedoms expressed by Libyans based in Libya.

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