Main languages: Arabic, Tamazight
Main religions: Sunni Islam
[Note: Reliable statistics for Libya are unavailable. Estimates for the numbers of Tamazight speakers vary between 4 and 10 per cent. The number of Tuareg is from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2009.]
The majority of Libyans are of Arab or mixed Arab-Berber descent. The Sunni branch of Islam is the official and nationally dominant political, cultural and legal force.
Imazighen, who retain the Tamazight language and customs, are indigenous to North Africa and constitute the largest non-Arab minority. They are made up of different ethnic groups, including nomadic Tuareg. Imazighen live along the Algerian border and in the oases of Ghat and Ghadamis in the west of Libya. Once traders on the north–south Sahara caravan route, the ending of this and the ‘pacification’ of the desert deprived them of their traditional way of life. Imazighen adhere to a form of Sunni Islam intermeshed with North African pre-Islamic beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. Marriages are monogamous and women have a high status in Amazigh society. Both men and women wear veils as a protection against dust storms.
Other minorities include the Arabic-speakers of West African ancestry, who inhabit the southern oases, and the Tuareg and Tebu (Toubou), who live in the south of the country. The Tuareg are nomadic, pastoralist tribes spread across the Saharan regions of Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. They speak the Tamasheq languages, which belong to same linguistic branch as Tamazight. The Tuareg population of Libya includes both the long-term inhabitants of the area, and recent immigrants who arrived from Niger and Mali beginning in the 1970s.
Though converted to Islam by Sanussi missionaries in the nineteenth century, Tebu retain many of their earlier religious beliefs and practices. Their language is related to a Nigerian language. Centred in the Tibesti Mountains and other parts of southern Libya, early Tebu economy was based on pastoralism with the margins of survival widened by caravanning, slavery and raiding. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Tebu mobility was curtailed by conquest and policing of the southern desert, first by colonial powers and later by the independent states of Libya and Chad. Since the second half of the twentieth century, Tebu have been administered from centres such as Benghazi and Baida in Libya.
Updated July 2018
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Years on from the 2011 uprising that toppled the former ruler, Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Libya’s political landscape remains fractured. The power vacuum that emerged after the fall of Gaddafi has led to the proliferation of armed groups, each fighting for pockets of control across the country. Conflict escalated into open warfare in mid-2014 and led to the establishment of two rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, the former with international recognition and backed by armed militias under the ‘Operation Dignity’ alliance, and the latter backed by ‘Libya Dawn’ militias. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), established in December 2015, is now headquartered in Tripoli.
Discord persists between Libya’s rival governments, backed by loyal or loosely affiliated militias and autonomous armed groups battling one another. After formidable territorial gains throughout 2018, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, advanced on Tripoli in April 2019 intending to capture the city from the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Haftar’s all-out push for military victory raises the stakes for all parties and risks skyrocketing casualties and other human rights abuses that have long been perpetrated by armed groups with impunity.
The continuation of fighting has seen a further deterioration of the human rights situation, as armed groups carried out violations including kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, torture and unlawful executions with impunity. Libya’s future stability hinges upon the government’s ability to establish an inclusive and functional political system: this includes taking measures to end legacies of exclusion and discrimination against Libya’s minority groups.
The state of prolonged conflict afflicting Libya has allowed extremist groups, including militias loyal to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to carve out an increasing presence in parts of the country. This has created a dangerous situation for religious minorities living in Libya. This vulnerability was demonstrated by a series of widely published murders by the group in 2015, including a video released in February that year by an ISIS-affiliated group depicting the massacre of 21 Coptic Christians, mostly Egyptian nationals, that sent shockwaves through the region. This was followed in April by another video showing the beheadings and shooting of 28 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians. In June, a further 86 Eritrean Christians were kidnapped south of Tripoli. Though it has been pushed back from its former stronghold in Sirte, the group remains active, with an attack on the country’s election commission in May 2018 that left more than a dozen dead. In May 2019, an attack on a Libyan National Army training camp in the southern city of Sebha that left nine dead was claimed by ISIS, prompting fears that the groups could exploit the country’s security vacuum to regroup there.
The situation is especially acute for sub-Saharan Africans and other migrants in the country, who can be easily targeted by militias due to their ethnicity, undocumented status or religion. The number of migrants and asylum seekers in the country is now estimated by Human Rights Watch at approximately 680,000 living in the country, with 8,000 – 10,000 others in detention centres and an unknown number held in facilities operated by smugglers or militias. These include citizens of neighbouring states such as Egypt and Syria, sub-Saharan African countries including Niger, Sudan, Nigeria and Mali, as well as countries in other regions such as Bangladesh. Widespread abuses against migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya have been documented, ranging from threats, physical assaults and theft to abduction, torture and killing. Female migrants are particularly prone to sexual exploitation. While militias and smugglers are responsible for some of these abuses, many are also perpetrated by guards in detention centres.
This situation has only worsened as Libya has continued to attract large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants who make up the majority of the tens of thousands of people who attempt the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean towards Europe each year. Increasingly draconian border control, led by European countries with the support of Libyan authorities, have reduced the volume of people leaving Libya: in 2017, 120,000 people opted for the so-called ‘Central Mediterranean’ migration route (largely via Libya), down from 180,000 in 2016. Despite the heightened risks now facing migrants making the journey – according to UNHCR, the risk of dying at sea during the crossing had risen to 1 in 18 in 2018, up from 1 in 42 for 2017 – many continue to attempt it to escape the extreme dangers they face in Libya or under coercion from human smugglers. Europe’s imposition of tougher policies to contain migrant crossings from Libya has not only raised the number of fatalities at sea, but also reportedly increased the levels of abuse suffered by sub-Saharan migrants in Libya itself.
Black migrants and Libyans alike have also been targeted by rebels due to the perception that they fought on Gaddafi’s side in the uprising, based on claims that he used African mercenaries during the conflict. Following the stationing of government forces in Tawergha in 2011, rebel forces retaliated against the town, forcing as many as 40,000 residents to flee and leaving it a ghost town. Ever since, the majority of Tawerghans have been forced to live in displacement camps scattered across the country and face ongoing harassment. While a return and reparations agreement was finally signed in March 2017, followed by a December 2017 government decree to initiate the process, families who have attempted to return were reportedly prevented from doing so – meaning that many continued to live in a state of protracted displacement. Following a June 2018 reconciliation memorandum between representatives of Tawergha and the neighbouring town of Misrata, where many of the fighters responsible for the attacks were based, a few hundred of former residents have reportedly returned to Tawergha.
While Libya’s fledgling democracy has struggled to establish a stable transition after Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule, there have nevertheless been some positive developments for the country’s minority and indigenous communities, specifically in terms of securing recognition of their distinct cultural identity and language rights. This is particularly the case for the Imazighen (Berbers; singular Amazigh), long marginalized under the Gaddafi regime. For decades, the existence of the Imazighen as a distinct indigenous people was denied: the Tamazight language could not be taught in schools, children could not be registered with non-Arab names and books written in Tamazight were destroyed. Since the fall of Gaddafi, bolstered by Amazigh activism, there has been a revival in use of the language as schools offering Tamazight lessons have been established, language textbooks have been printed and Tamazight media outlets have flourished.
Other ethnic minorities have also become more active and begun to assert an independent voice after decades of marginalization under the Gaddafi regime. This includes Tuaregs, who are nomadic pastoralist tribes living along Libya’s western border, and black African Tebu tribes inhabiting southern Libya. Nevertheless, relations between minorities have at times turned violent. In the southern town of Awbari, where Tuareg and Tebu live side by side, conflict that began in September 2014 culminated in the displacement of 18,500 people, most of whom were women, children and the elderly. The conflict was driven by disputes between Tebu and Tuareg militias, who overlap in Awbari, over oil and water resources, as well as control of the lucrative smuggling trade in arms, drugs and migrants. Although a ceasefire was negotiated with the help of Qatar in November 2015, it was only in May 2017 that the conditions were activated in practice, with both sides agreeing to remove their fighters from the town. While tensions between Tuareg and Tebu have persisted, reports in early 2019 suggested they had come together under the GNA to counter the LNA’s military advances in the south.
Updated June 2019
Libya, located on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, is the continent’s fourth largest country. It borders Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Algeria and Tunisia. Most of the country’s south is a sparsely populated desert. Libya has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.
Berbers have lived in Libya for millennia. Parts or all of today’s Libya were conquered by Phoenicia, Carthage, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire before Arabs moved into the region in the seventh century. Berbers and other indigenous peoples began adopting Islam and the Arabic language.
After centuries of continued foreign rule by Ottoman Turks beginning in 1551, followed by Italy, France and Britain, Libya gained independence in 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi led a military coup that ended the monarchy and proclaimed the Libyan Arab Republic. In 1977 the country’s official name changed to Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (‘state of the masses’): Gaddafi served as ruler until his overthrow in 2011.
From 1959 petroleum and gas financed the transformation of Libya from a poor nation at the time of independence to a rich one with vast sums to spend on social, agricultural and military development. The country was loosely governed on the basis of the Qur’an and Shari’a law, as well as Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’, published in 1975. The book rejected western liberal democracy, arguing instead for a form of direct democracy based on popular committees, institutions which Gaddafi subsequently created.
Gaddafi varyingly attempted to lead pan-Arab and pan-African movements during his decades-long rule. He provided support to rebellions across the Middle East and the African continent. This included support to the African National Congress battling apartheid in South Africa, but more often involved training and sponsorship of warlords and despots, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, Foday Sankoh—the former leader of Sierra Leone’s brutal Revolutionary United Front, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, and the widely ostracized Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Libya’s support of armed groups in the 1980s led to confrontation with the United States. The US bombed Libya in 1986 in response to alleged Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack in Germany that killed US soldiers. In 1992, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya over its involvement in the Lockerbie airliner bombing in 1988. In the 1990s these sanctions isolated Libya, but they were suspended in April 1999 and finally lifted in September 2003, after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. In 2003, this admission and the decision to stop developing weapon of mass destructions improved relations with the United States and Europe. As a result of this, western politicians visited Libya, as well as many working-level and commercial delegations, and Gaddafi made his first trip to Western Europe in 15 years, when he travelled to Brussels in April 2004.
However, Gaddafi’s long rule came abruptly to an end when, in the wake of protests in Tunisia and other countries at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Libyan revolution began with protests in the eastern city of Benghazi on 15 February 2011. Like the other Arab Spring uprisings, these caught most observers by surprise, but by late February opposition to Gaddafi’s 42-year rule had transformed into an armed struggle that spread across the country. The opposition formed the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi. On 17 March, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973, which paved the way for the imposition of a no-fly-zone against Gaddafi’s forces, led by NATO. The Libyan capital, Tripoli, eventually fell to rebel forces in late August 2011, and Gaddafi was captured and killed on 20 October 2011 in the city of Sirte. On 16 September, the UN General Assembly recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of Libya.
The effect on minorities since the end of the conflict has been mixed. While Libya’s Amazigh indigenous community, also known as Berbers, liberated their lands from Gaddafi’s hold and were able to enjoy freer cultural and linguistic expression, sub-Saharan Africans and Libyan Tawerghans have suffered severe discrimination and violence at the hands of the former rebels and many continue to be detained. According to rights groups, rebel fighters killed and detained black Libyans and sub-Saharan African migrant workers, claiming they were pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. However, allegations that Gaddafi employed many Africans from neighbouring countries such as Chad, Nigeria and Sudan as mercenaries appeared to have been heavily exaggerated.
The transitional General National Congress (GNC) was elected in 2012, taking over from the TNC. Following elections in June 2014 for a new House of Representatives, the GNC refused to recognize the results, prompting the creation of two rival governments. This only exacerbated the chaos and insecurity created by a proliferation of militias, including ISIS-affiliated groups, in many areas. A video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS in February 2015 underscored the organization’s ruthlessness, as well as the vulnerability of migrants caught up in the turmoil – particularly those belonging to minorities. The following day, Egyptian air force jets retaliated by bombing ISIS targets in Derna. While the situation stabilized to some extent when a Government of National Accord was established in March 2016, its authority remains contested by some factions and to date authorities have failed to re-establish the rule of law in large parts of Libya.
Before 2011, political parties were banned and civil and political rights largely repressed. Since the fall of Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Libya has struggled to establish unified governing structures able to exert effective control over the country. The first governing authority to take control after the fall of Gaddafi was the National Transitional Council (NTC), initially formed in February 2011. In August 2011, the NTC released a Constitutional Declaration declaring Libya as a democracy founded on the rule of law and respect of human rights, and providing an outline for transition to a presidential republic.
In July 2012, elections were held for a 200-member General National Congress (GNC), which replaced the NTC. Prime Minister Ali Zidan formed a new government, which was approved by the GNC in October. Zidan attempted to forge a broad coalition by including liberals and Islamists in his cabinet. In April 2013, the GNC passed an anti-discrimination law that strengthened protections for ethnic minorities, and in June took the symbolic step of electing an Amazigh as its president. The GNC then embarked on the task of establishing a constituent assembly to draft a new Constitution for Libya, holding elections for that purpose in February 2014.
In June 2014, elections were held to form a House of Representatives, which was intended to take over from the GNC. However, when Islamist candidates performed poorly in the elections, the GNC refused to recognize the results. Conflict escalated into open warfare and led to the establishment of two rival governments: the internationally recognized House of Representatives, forced to operate from Tobruk, and a new GNC, based in Tripoli. The former was backed by armed militias under the ‘Operation Dignity’ alliance, and the latter backed by ‘Libya Dawn’ militias.
In December 2015, the two factions reached a political agreement to establish a unity government. In March 2016, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. On 30 March, seven out of nine Presidency Council members arrived in Tripoli by sea to assume their positions. The House of Representatives remains in existence as a legislative body. Although the GNA enjoys a fairly high degree of popular support, it has not managed to cement its legitimacy and authority over the entire country. In Tobruk, militias under the banner of the so-called Libyan National Army, allied to General Khalifa Haftar, refuse to recognize the GNA. Libya remains in a state of chaos, with a plethora of armed groups acting with impunity over the country.
Updated July 2018
Libya Watch for Human Rights (UK)
Libyan Union for Human Rights Defenders (Holland)
Libyan Working Group
News and updates
- Quiet returns: Reporting from the places where migrants come back (14 January 2021)
- ISIS now active in seven states in Middle East, but threat to populations still greatest from government forces – 2015 Peoples under Threat survey on risk of mass killing (18 May 2015)
- Risk of mass killing rises in African countries following foreign military intervention – 2013 Peoples under Threat global survey (10 July 2013)
- South Sudan faces threat of more killings as country jumps in ‘Peoples Under Threat’ 2012 ranking (24 May 2012)
- Minorities face attack as revolutions sour in Middle East and North Africa, says new global Peoples Under Threat survey (24 May 2012)
- Afghanistan most significant riser in global Peoples under Threat 2011 survey (12 May 2011)
- Concerns raised over situation of minorities in Middle East and North Africa (16 March 2011)
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