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Libya’s Ethnic Groups

Here’s an article about the ethnic composition of Libya from a 1998 Berkshire title, Ethnic Groups Worldwide:


The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is located in North Africa and is bordered by Egypt on the east, Chad and Niger on the south, Algeria and Tunisia on the west and the Mediterranean Sea on the north.  Because of its strategic location, Libya has a long history of contact with other nations.  Beginning in the seventh century B.C., coastal Libya has been settled or ruled by the Greeks, Carthagenians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Egyptians, Arabs, European Crusaders,  Ottoman Turks, and the Italians in the twentieth century. Libya became an independent nation in 1951.  Libya has benefitted from oil discovered in 1959 but for the last several decades has been embroiled in various disputes with neighboring and other nations who have charged the government with meddling in their affairs or with supporting international terrorism. Libya  has a population of 5.5 million which is heavily concentrated in the north. Arabic is the official language and Islam the official religion.

Ethnic Composition and Relations

Like most other North African nations, the population is composed mainly of  people of  Arab or Berber descent. Because of extensive intermarriage between the two groups and because both are mainly Sunni Muslims (97%) and speak Arabic, the ethnic composition of Libya is usually described as Arab-Berber.

Arabs are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East. They are the majority population in 15 nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Arabs first arrived in Libya in the early eighth century and within two centuries had converted most Berbers. Although Arabs never formed more than 10% of the Libyan population, their cultural dominance and the assimilation of many Berbers has made Libya and Arab nation.  The history of the emergence of Arabs as a distinct group in the Middle East is unclear, but as early as 853 B.C., the Arabic language was in use. Although being an “Arab” has different meanings in different nations, a shared Arab identity is based on a number of key elements. These include the Arabic language in its Classical form used in religion and literature and the varieties of colloquial Arabic used in daily life; a personal identity with Arab culture, history, and the Arab community; a strong value placed on children and family life; a clear division of labor based on sex; and adherence to Islam.  About 93% of Arabs around the world follow Islam, with Arabs in Libya being Sunni Muslims. Arabs live mainly in the north in the regions of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Nomadic Arabs, called Bedouin live in the desert regions and are mainly herders. Once a sizeable percentage of the Arab population, they are declining in number through  government programs to settle them in permanent communities. Family and tribal affiliations are somewhat more important for the Bedouin than for other Libyan Arabs.

Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa. Although details about their origins and where they came from are unclear, ancestors of the contemporary Berbers have lived in North Africa for at least 5,000 years.  The Berbers across North Africa are collectively referred to as Imazighen, although the names for regional groups within nations and identification with specific settlements are more salient markers of identity for most rural Berbers. About 5% of the population continue to identified as Berbers ands they live mainly in the northwest. They live in largely Berber communities, speak the Berber language, and subsist through a combination of farming and herding.  Although some Berbers resisted conversion to Islam initially, all eventually did not convert. They are Sunni Muslims like the Libyan Arabs but most subscribe to a different school of Islamic law than do the Arabs. A distinct Berber community are the Tuareg who number about 10,000 and  live in the west on the border with Algeria, where most Tuareg live. 

In the south there are several thousand  Tebu and other Africans whose main populations are across the bored in Chad and Niger. Libya also has a large immigrant population, although population estimates are uncertain and range anywhere from as low as 500,00 to as high as two million. Egyptians are the largest group and there are also Palestinians, Tunisians and Asians including Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, and South Koreans. Immigrants were first drawn to Libya for work in the oil industry and now work also mainly in low-level jobs in industry, agriculture, and the services. Their status in Libya is always uncertain and at various times the government has deported hundreds of thousands for political  reasons or because their work was deemed no longer necessary.  There are also about 25,000 Europeans in Libya–mainly Italians and British–who hold professional and managerial positions. In addition, small communities of Greeks, Maltese, and Armenians continue to live in the large cities. The large Italian and Jewish communities have now all but disappeared through immigration to Italy and Israel.

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