The Society and Its Environment
LIBYAN SOCIETY IN the late 1980s was in a state of transition
from one set of structures and values to another. For nearly two
decades the country's leader, Muammar al Qadhafi, had sought to
transform Libya from an underdeveloped backwater into a modern
socialist state compatible with the dictates of the Quran and
the heritage of Islam. The regime's policies and goals often aroused
controversy as the country moved away from the Libyan-Arab mold
of the past in which heredity and patronage determined social
distinction and toward the new egalitarian society that was the
Qadhafi regime's ideal.
The changes the society was undergoing were made possible in
large measure by petroleum wealth, which had converted the country
from one of the world's poorest at the time of independence in
1951 to one of the most prosperous. By the 1980s, most Libyans
enjoyed educational opportunities, health care, and housing that
were among the best in Africa and the Middle East. Responsibility
for the care of the old and the needy had been largely shifted
from the extended family to a comprehensive system of social security.
Education and medical care were free, and when necessary the state
subsidized housing and other necessities. Life expectancy, perhaps
the ultimate measure of living standards, had lengthened by ten
years since 1960, and social mobility was much improved.
In 1984 the population reached 3.6 million and was growing at
about 4 percent a year, one of the highest rates in the world.
Unlike its neighbors, the Libyan government welcomed this rate
of growth, which it hoped would eventually remedy the country's
shortage of labor. The population was overwhelmingly concentrated
along the Mediterranean coast, much of it around Benghazi and
Tripoli. Villagers and rural tribesmembers continued to migrate
to cities and towns, seeking better-paying jobs in industry or
in the service sector of the modern economy. The number of jobs
far exceeded the number of qualified Libyans; consequently, the
population included at least 260,000 expatriate workers who were
essential for the functioning of the economy.
Roughly one-half of the population was under the age of fifteen.
The prospects for future employment and a fruitful life were such
that Libyan youth for the most part were not the discontented
lot found elsewhere in North Africa.
The status of women continued to undergo modification at the
behest of the revolution's leaders. Especially in urban areas,
women in ever- greater numbers were entering schools and the universities
and finding employment in professions newly opened to them. Although
tradition remained quite strong, the role of women was in the
midst of what was for Libya a remarkable transformation.
In spite of the gains of the revolution, however, Libyan society
was deeply divided. Little sense of national unity, identity,
or purpose had developed, and the old ethnic and geographic divisions
among Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania were still very evident.
Alienation from the Qadhafi regime and its policies was widespread,
a sentiment reinforced by shortages of consumer goods and by persistent
exhortations to participate in governing the country. Whole segments
of the populace were so disaffected that they either did not participate
or did so only minimally, retreating into apathy and private matters.
Qadhafi's campaign to discredit Islamic authorities and creeds
and to enlist young women in the armed forces similarly offended
Most foreign observers believed that the regime faced a difficult
task in convincing the majority of Libyans of the need for further
social change. In the 1980s, Libyan society remained profoundly
conservative and resistant to the impulses for change that emanated
from its leaders. The wisdom of current social policies was being
questioned, and it was obvious that many Libyans were not enthusiastic
about the course of action that the revolutionary government had
Data as of 1987