Libya Table of Contents

As of 1987, the most recent census was that taken in July 1984, but the only available data showed a provisional population figure of 3.637 million inhabitants--one of the smallest totals on the African continent. Of these, an estimated 1.950 million were men, and 1.687 million women. Having slightly more men than women in the population was characteristic of developing countries such as Libya where health practices and sanitation were fast improving but where female mortality relating to childbirth and favoritism toward male over female children caused a slight skewing of the population profile. In addition, underreporting of females is fairly common in many Muslim societies.

The 1984 population total was an increase from the 2.29 million reported in 1973 and 1.54 million in 1964. Included in the census were at least 260,000 expatriate workers, but the total number of foreigners in Libya in 1984 was unavailable. This uncertainty was in keeping with a general lack of reliable, current, social statistics for Libya in the 1980s, in marked contrast with the situation a decade earlier.

The population was exceptionally young and was growing at a rapid pace. Estimates placed those under the age of fifteen at up to half the total population. Based on results of the 1984 census, the United Nations (UN) placed the annual rate of increase for the 1980-84 period at an extremely high 4.5 percent, but the Central Bank of Libya placed the figure at 3.9 percent annually for nationals only. Official sources put the average annual growth rate for the 1970-86 period at 4 percent, a figure that agreed with World Bank data; the bank projected that this rate would prevail until the year 2000, when Libya's population would total 6 million.

This high rate of population increase reflected an official policy of fostering rapid growth to meet labor needs and to fuel economic development. It was also well above comparable rates in other Maghribi states, which had instituted family planning programs to contain their burgeoning numbers. Libya had no such national program. On the contrary, the government offered incentives to encourage births and had improved health facilities to ensure infant survivability. Libyan population policy thus emphasized growth over restraint, large families over small ones, and an ever-expanding population--luxuries Libya felt it could afford, given the vastness of its wealth in petroleum and area.

According to UN estimates for the years 1980-85, life expectancy was fifty-six years for men and fifty-nine years for women, a gain of more than ten years for each sex since 1960. The crude birth rate was 46 per 1,000, down 7 percent since 1965, while the crude death rate was 11 per 1,000, a decline of 40 percent over 20 years. The infant mortality rate had similarly declined from 140 deaths per 1,000 in 1965 to 92 in 1985, still high by Western standards but not by those of North Africa.

The population was by no means distributed evenly across the country. About 65 percent resided in Tripolitania, 30 percent in Cyrenaica, and 5 percent in Fezzan, a breakdown that had not changed appreciably for at least 30 years. Within the two northern geographic regions, the population was overwhelmingly concentrated along the Mediterranean littoral. Along the coast, the density was estimated at more than fifty inhabitants per square kilometer, whereas it fell to less than one per square kilometer in the interior. The average for the country as a whole was usually placed at two.

In the 1980s, Libya was still predominantly a rural country, even though a large percentage of its people were concentrated in the cities and nearby intensively cultivated agricultural zones of the coastal plains. Under the impact of heavy and sustained country-to-town migration, the urban sector continued to grow rapidly, averaging 8 percent annually in the early 1980s. Reliable assessments held the country to be about 40 percent urban as compared with a 1964 figure of 27 percent. Some sources, such as the World Bank, placed the rate of urbanization at more than 60 percent, but this figure was probably based on 1973 census data that reflected a radical change in the definition of urban population rather than an unprecedented surge of rural inhabitants into cities and towns. In spite of sizable internal migration into urban centers, particularly Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya remained less urbanized than almost any other Arab country. The government was concerned about this continual drain from the countryside. Since the late 1970s, it had sponsored a number of farming schemes in the desert, designed in part to encourage rural families to remain on the land rather than to migrate to more densely populated areas.

In the early 1980s, the urban concentrations of Tripoli and Benghazi dominated the country. These two cities and the neighboring coastal regions contained more than 90 percent of Libya's population and nearly all of its urban centers, but they occupied less than 10 percent of the land area. Several factors accounted for their dominance, such as higher rates of fertility, declining death rates because of improved health and sanitation measures, and long-term internal migration.

As the capital of the country, Tripoli was the larger and more important of the two cities. Greater Tripoli was composed of six municipalities that stretched nearly 100 kilometers along the coast and about 50 inland. At the heart of this urban complex was the city of Tripoli, the 1984 population of which was 990,000 and which contained several distinct zones. The medina was the oldest quarter, many of its buildings dating to the Ottoman era. Here a traditionally structured Islamic society composed of artisans, religious scholars and leaders, shopkeepers, and merchants had survived into the mid- twentieth century. The manufacture of traditional handicrafts, such as carpets, leather goods, copper ware, and pottery, was centered in the medina.

The Italian city, constructed between 1911 and 1951 beyond the medina, was designed for commercial and administrative purposes. It featured wide avenues, piazzas, multistoried buildings, parks, and residential areas where Italian colonials once lived. The Libyan- built modern sector reflected the needs of government, the impact of large-scale internal migration, new industrialization, and oil income. Independence brought rapid rural-to-urban migration as a result of employment opportunities in construction, transportation, and municipal services, especially after the discovery of oil. This period also brought new government facilities, apartment buildings, and the first public housing projects as well as such industries as food-processing, textiles, and oil refining.

Metropolitan Tripoli sprawled in an arc around the harbor and medina. In addition to its political, commercial, and residential structures and functions, the city was a seat of learning and scholarship centered in religious seminaries, technical colleges, and a university. Planners hoped to channel future growth east and west along the coast and to promote expansion of surrounding towns in an effort to reduce urban density and to preserve contiguous agricultural zones. They also envisaged revitalization of the medina as they strove to preserve the city's architectural and cultural heritage in the midst of twentieth- century urbanization.

As a consequence of its small population and work force, Libya has had to import a large number of foreign workers. Expatriate workers, most of them from nearby Arab countries, flowed into Libya after the discovery of oil. There were about 17,000 of them in 1964, but the total had risen to 64,000 by 1971 and to 223,000 in 1975, when foreign workers made up almost 33 percent of the labor force. The official number of foreign workers in Libya in 1980 was 280,000, but private researchers argued persuasively that the true number was more than 500,000 because of underreporting and illegal entry.

The most acute demand was for managerial and professional personnel. A large percentage of the expatriates were unskilled laborers, who were widely distributed throughout the economy. On paper, there was ample legislation to ensure that foreigners were given employment only where qualified Libyans could not be found. But the demand for labor of all kinds was such that the availability of aliens made it possible for Libyans to select the choice positions for themselves and leave the less desirable ones to foreigners.

In 1980 nonnationals were found mainly in construction work, where they numbered almost 130,000 or 46 percent of those employed in that industry, according to official statistics. Their numbers in such work were expected to decline after the mid-1980s, at the same time that ever-larger numbers of foreigners were expected to fill jobs in manufacturing, where they constituted more than 8 percent of the 1980 labor force. Significant numbers of expatriates were found in agriculture (8 percent) and education (l0 percent) as well. Few were employed in the petroleum sector, however, only 3,000 or 1 percent of all foreign workers in 1980.

In 1983 there were more than 560,000 foreigners resident in Libya, about 18 percent of the total population, according to the Secretariat of Planning. By far the most numerous were Egyptians (l74,000) and Tunisians (73,600); the largest Western groups were Italians (l4,900) and British (10,700). During 1984, however, a large portion of the foreign work force departed as a result of restrictions on repatriation of earnings. In 1985, for reasons that appeared more political than economic, Libya expelled tens of thousands of workers, including 20,000 Egyptians, 32,000 Tunisians, and several thousand from Mali and Niger. This exodus continued the following year when some 25,000 Moroccans were forced to depart.

The number of resident foreigners thus declined drastically in the mid-l980s. The exact dimensions of the decline as well as its impact upon the country, however, remained unclear. Minimum estimates of the number of nonnationals still in Libya in l987 ranged upward of 200,000, a reasonable figure given Libya's dependence upon imported labor for essential skills and services.

Black Africans
Languages of Libya

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Libya.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress