News Background : One-Fourth of Libyans Live in Tripoli

Libya, which lies to the west of Egypt in North Africa, is mostly desert, with a narrow coastal strip that supports most of its population. Its capital is Tripoli, which dates back to the 7th Century BC. About one-fourth of the country’s 4 million people live in Tripoli.

Libyans are almost all Arabs, but for much of the country’s history, the land known as Libya has been occupied by people from elsewhere--Carthage, Italy, Britain. Arabic is the official language; all but a handful of the people are Sunni Muslims.

Olives, dates and grain are grown, and some textiles are produced, but the economy is based largely on oil exports, which account for much of the annual per capita income of more than $7,000.

The Italians invaded Libya in 1921 and ruled until they were driven out by the British early in World War II. German troops--Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps--then drove out the British, but they withdrew after defeat at the hands of Britain’s Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery.

Independence in 1951

Libya achieved independence in 1951. With King Idris I on the throne, it struggled in backwardness and poverty until the 1960s, when oil was found in significant quantities. Idris was overthrown in 1969 by a group of young army officers led by Col. Moammar Kadafi, a desert Bedouin with little experience of the world.

Kadafi promptly forced the British to abandon their military bases in Libya and made the United States give up Wheelus Field, the big air base it maintained outside Tripoli.

An Islamic visionary, Kadafi established what he calls the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (a coined word that means “state of the masses”). He swept away traditional government and set up a system of people’s committees that, in theory, are representative of all Libyans.

With oil money, he has acquired great quantities of arms from the Soviet Union and has accepted large numbers of Soviet advisers, along with others from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. He has also used oil money to support radical causes in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.