The Society

Libya Table of Contents

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 Libyan sensitivities.

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 laid out.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress