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Libya - History & Background

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Libya is the fourth largest Arab nation in the world. It is 1.7 million square miles in area, making it larger than the U.S. state of Alaska. It is known to Libyans as the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Republic). Libya's population is nearly five million people. Its population is growing at 2.4 percent, and 97 percent of Libyans are Sunni Muslims. Over half of all Libyans are less than 15 years of age. Education, especially free education, is a major issue for this youthful population. Ninety-seven percent of Libyans are Berber and Arab in ethnic makeup; the remaining population is Tuareg and indigenous African. The average life expectancy is 74 years for men and 78 years for women. There is 1 doctor for every 948 people, and, since most people live in cities, hospitals and doctors are within easy reach. Education is free and compulsory between the ages 6 and 15 years of age. It is free if students decide to continue their studies thereafter. Adult literacy is high at 76.2 percent; this approaches levels seen in developed nations. The capital Tripoli has a population of 1.6 million people. Roughly one out of every four Libyans lives in the capital city.

Libya is a highly urban society in which 86 percent of its citizens live in cities along the Mediterranean coast. The north is cool and provides many employment opportunities, while the south is hot and dry, sparsely populated, and offers few jobs. Libya is a largely barren, flat, undulating land. It has flat plains and plateaus, as well as depressions. Fertile oases punctuate this landscape that is dry and, in most places, extreme desert. There is a long Mediterranean coast along which most Libyans live. The Cyrenaica province is one of three major provinces that divide Libya. Like the other two provinces, Tripolitana and Fezzan, it has a narrow coastline behind which rises a plateau called the Jabal al-Akhdar or "Green Mountain." Here lies the city of Benghazi, one of Libya's largest cities. This is an industrial seaport. Libya's coast has 13 other major cities. Libya is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa and the Middle East. This province shares its eastern border with Egypt. On the west lies the province of Tripolitana, which is anchored by the city of Tripoli, Libya's capital. Sandwiched between these two great provinces lies the province of Fezzan and Libya's rich, low sulfur oil fields. Here also lie the country's rich uranium fields that extend into neighboring Chad. This province also borders Algeria, Niger, and the Sudan. Libya is the largest producer of oil in Africa, and one of the largest producers in the world. Oil income has transformed Libya from a poor nation into a rapidly developing nation. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. The principal languages are Arabic, English, and Italian.

Before the 1969 revolution almost 40 percent of Libyans lived in tents or shanty towns. There were 300,000 houses and 365,000 families. Thus, 65,000 families were homeless and an additional 120,000 lived in caves and shacks. Between 1969 and 1974 over 110,000 new homes were built.

Early History: Until recently Libya had no separate identity. It had always been part of some other nation or empire, except in ancient times when Libyans warred with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Many foreigners, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Italians, British, and the French have dominated Libya. The Tripoli Tania province has always looked seaward to the north for salvation, trade, and cultural ties with Europe. The Cyrenaica province has always looked east for trade and cultural ties with Egypt and the Arab world. The Fezzan is African and looks south for trade, political and military links, and African cultural influences. Before the 1969 revolution, these provinces looked outward more than inward. This made national unity difficult and foreign influence great. Libyan fear of external domination is firmly rooted in experience and justified by their history with outsiders.

Having been divided often, Libya had little sense of a common national identity until 1951. The Sanusiya movement unified eastern Libya. This was a movement dedicated to purifying and reforming Moslems and leading its followers back to a simple community of faith ruled by just leaders. Of all of Libya's invaders, the Arabs have had the most enduring influence by forcing their religion onto Libyan culture. This movement began in the nineteenth century.

History of Education in Libya: The Ottoman empire encouraged Koran schools from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries in Libya. Small kuttabs, or Arab Koran schools, were affiliated with mosques and taught children to read the holy Koran and write Arabic script. Higher order religious training was available through institutes, such as Murad Pasha and Darghut Pasha. Here students could also study law (figh). Zawiya stressed the study of astronomy, science, geography, history, mathematics, and medicine, as well as religion. Some zawiya also taught military arts to defend the faith.

Italy expanded educational opportunities as compared with the Ottomans. By 1939, Libya had 93 Italian schools. However, these were for the exclusive education of Italian settlers and children of administrators. These schools rivaled schools in Rome, but Arabs and Bedouins could not attend them. In addition to the Italian schools for Italian youth, there were 16 Jewish schools, 1 Greek school, and 418 Arab schools, which were religious schools or Kuttabs for the most part. Libyans graduating from these kuttab schools were not able to compete with Italians. The only secondary schools in the country were built to educate Italian children; Arabs and Bedouins were again not allowed to attend.

Under Italian rule, Libyans were denied education beyond the fourth grade and discouraged from learning either the Bedouin or Arabic language. They were taught Italian, to love Italy, and not to trust Arabs or Bedouins. Poor Italians did menial labor, semi-skilled, and skilled work. Little was left for the Libyans.

Italian schools continued to function, but Libyan Arab education was added. Textbooks and syllabi were rewritten in Arabic. Government primary and secondary schools were built throughout Libya and it reopened Koran schools that had closed during the independence struggle. This gave education a strong religious element. A shortage of qualified Libyan teachers led to rote learning, rather than reasoning. Despite these limitations, school enrollments rose rapidly, especially primary education. Jewish schools declined and closed as Jews migrated to the new state of Israel. Vocational education was added, and Libya's first university was opened in 1955 at Benghazi. Women began to attend school in growing numbers, and adult education was added to the system. Total school enrollment at the end of the colonial era was 34,000. Between 1951 and 1962 enrollment increased to 150,000 and by 1969, just before the revolution, enrollment had increased to 360,000 students. Mobile classrooms became common, as did prefabricated classrooms. Classes were even held in tents in desert oases. Through these efforts, enrollments totaled 1.2 million students by 1986. There were 670,000 males (54 percent) and 575,000 females (46 percent). One third of the Libyan population was enrolled in school or in some other form of educational endeavor. Between 1970 and 1986, Libya built 32,000 new classrooms for primary, secondary, and vocational schools. The number of teachers rose from 19,000 to 79,000 during the same time period. The student teacher ratio also rose and the quality of education suffered.

In 1951, about 10 percent of Libyans were literate. At that time there were no female teachers. Secondary school teachers numbered 25, and only 14 Libyans held university degrees. A national education system was built virtually from scratch. By 1977, literacy rose to 51 percent. The literacy rate for women during the same time-frame rose from 6 percent to 31 percent. By the late 1980s more than 70 percent of men were literate as compared to 35 percent of women.

In the early twenty-first century, education at all levels is free, and university students are given very generous stipends to encourage them to pursue higher education and modernize the workforce. For students ages 6 through 15 years of age, education is compulsory. Roughly 8 percent of Libya's entire budget is dedicated to supporting education up through university level. The revolutionary regime has considerably expanded the educational system that it inherited from the monarchy. All types of education are seen as equal, since human knowledge is viewed as inherent to building a modern civilization. Many schools are needed to fulfill these aims.

Libya still suffers from a shortage of qualified Libyan teachers at all levels, and female attendance at the secondary and higher levels is low. Attempts to close all private and religious schools since 1970 has created problems. Vocational and technical training lag the rest of the system. In 1977, fewer than 5,000 students were enrolled in 12 technical high schools. By 1990, most doctors, dentists, and pharmacists were expatriates, despite having nearly 17,000 Libyan students studying for degrees in these disciplines. Libyan youth avoid scientific and technical training, preferring white-collar jobs associated with prestige and high social status. Reliance on foreign technicians will characterize Libya's economy well into the foreseeable future.

From 1981, compulsory military education for males and females formed part of the curriculum for all secondary schools and universities. Male and female students must wear uniforms to class and attend daily military exercises and physical training. University students are not forced to wear uniforms, but they must attend military camps for training. Females are encouraged to attend special female military academies. These measures are not popular, especially among the families of many females. A backlash might be expected in the future. The increase in female enrollment is remarkable, considering the fundamentally conservative and religious nature of Libya society on gender issues.

Libya's first university was founded at Benghazi in 1955, and it had a branch in Tripoli. These two campuses became separate universities in 1973. In 1976, they were renamed Gar Yunis University and Al Fatah University, respectively. A technical university, specializing in engineering and petroleum, opened at Marsa al Burayqeh in 1981. Al Fatah added schools of nuclear engineering, electronic engineering, and pharmacy during the 1980s. An agriculture college was constructed at Al Bayda and technical institutes exist at Birak, Hun, and Bani Walid. The expansion of opportunities in higher education is seen as vital to meeting personnel requirements by the revolutionary regime. Eventually, many secondary schools will be converted into special training institutes whose curriculums dovetail with those of vocational, technical, and universities.

Technically trained students are compelled to work in the areas of their training, which causes some discontent. The idea is to end dependence on foreign technical workers, but this is unlikely in the near future, especially in light of recent cutbacks in spending on technical education. Enrollment trends for higher education have moved steadily upward from independence to the present. There were 3,000 university students in 1969. By 1975 this number increased to 12,000, and by 1980, it reached 25,000. In 1992, this figure soared to 72,899, of whom 46 percent were female. The increase in female university enrollment is especially impressive, considering that in 1970 females were only 9 percent of the university student population.

Libya formerly paid totally for students to attend foreign universities and, by 1978, some 3,000 Libyans were studying in America. But in 1985, Libya cut back on fellowships for foreign study, forcing many Libyan students to continue their education locally. University students were among the few groups to openly express dissatisfaction with that. Students feel that university education is the path to personal and social advancement best left free from government interference. They resent constant efforts to control their thought and to politicize education at every level. For example, in 1976, university students mounted violent protest in Benghazi and Tripoli over compulsory military training. Students studying French and English at Al Fatah University frustrated efforts to close their departments and destroy their libraries.

Libya - Constitutional Legal Foundations [next]

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over 7 years ago

Very interesting. I know that oil was discovered in the 1950's. At this point I understand Libya was controlled by tribes. I would like to learn more about how Gadhafi was able to take over.

Thank you for the info. I feel people should learn more about this situation.

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over 6 years ago


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over 1 year ago

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over 4 years ago