Independence in the Maghreb



French West Africa’s Move Toward Independence

French West Africa was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa that existed from 1895 until 1960, when the colonies established independence from France.

Learning Objectives

Describe the move towards independence in French West Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As the French pursued their part in the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s and 1890s, they conquered large inland areas and soon dubbed them “Military Territories.”
  • In the late 1890s, the French government began to rein in the territorial expansion of the military officers in charge of these territories and transferred all the territories west of Gabon to a single governor based in Senegal.
  • These territories were formally named French West Africa.
  • Until after the Second World War, almost no Africans living in the colonies of France were citizens of France; rather, they were “French Subjects,” lacking rights before the law, property ownership rights, and the rights to travel, dissent, or vote.
  • Following World War II, the French government began extending limited political rights in its colonies, such as including some African subjects in the governing bodies of the colonies and giving limited citizenship rights to natives.
  • In 1960, a further revision of the French constitution, compelled by the failure of the French Indochina War and the tensions in Algeria, allowed members of the French Community (the successor to the French colonial empire) to unilaterally change their own constitutions, resulting in the end of French West Africa.

Key Terms

  • scramble for Africa: The invasion, occupation, division, colonization, and annexation of African territory by European powers during the period of New Imperialism, between 1881 and 1914.
  • Protectorate: A dependent territory that has been granted local autonomy and some independence while still retaining the suzerainty of a greater sovereign state.
  • French Subjects: Residents of French colonies who unlike French citizens, lacked rights before the law, property ownership rights, and the rights to travel, dissent, or vote.

French West Africa was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin), and Niger. The capital of the federation was Dakar. The federation existed from 1895 until 1960.

Background: French Colonial Empire

The French colonial empire constituted the overseas colonies, protectorates, and mandate territories under French rule from the 16th century onward. A distinction is made between the “first colonial empire,” which was mostly lost by 1814, and the “second colonial empire,” which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830. The second empire came to an end after the loss of bitter wars in Vietnam (1955) and Algeria (1962), and peaceful decolonization elsewhere after 1960.

The French colonial empire began to fall during the Second World War, when various parts were occupied by foreign powers (Japan in Indochina, Britain in Syria, Lebanon, and Madagascar, the USA and Britain in Morocco and Algeria, and Germany and Italy in Tunisia). However, control was gradually reestablished by Charles de Gaulle. The French Union, included in the Constitution of 1946, nominally replaced the former colonial empire, but officials in Paris remained in full control. The colonies were given local assemblies with only limited local power and budgets. A group of elites known as evolués emerged: natives of the overseas territories who lived in metropolitan France.

The French Union was replaced in the new Constitution of 1958 by the French Community. Only Guinea refused by referendum to take part in the new colonial organization. However, the French Community dissolved itself in the midst of the Algerian War; almost all of the other African colonies were granted independence in 1960 with local referendums. A few colonies chose instead to remain part of France under the status of overseas territories. Robert Aldrich argues that with Algerian independence in 1962, the Empire had practically come to an end, as the remaining colonies were quite small and lacked active nationalist movements.

Rights and Representation in French Territories

As the French pursued their part in the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s and 1890s, they conquered large inland areas, at first ruling them as either a part of the Senegal colony or as independent entities. These conquered areas were usually governed by French Army officers and dubbed “Military Territories.” In the late 1890s, the French government began to rein in the territorial expansion of its “officers on the ground” and transferred all the territories west of Gabon to a single Governor based in Senegal reporting directly to the Minister of Overseas Affairs. The first Governor General of Senegal was named in 1895, and in 1904, the territories he oversaw were formally named French West Africa (AOF). Gabon would later become the seat of its own federation French Equatorial Africa (AEF), to border its western neighbor on the modern boundary between Niger and Chad.

Until after the Second World War, almost all Africans living in the colonies of France were not citizens of France. Rather, they were “French Subjects,” lacking rights before the law, property ownership rights, and the rights to travel, dissent, or vote. The exception were the Four Communes of Senegal; those areas had been towns of the tiny Senegal Colony in 1848 when, at the abolition of slavery by the French Second Republic, all residents of France were granted equal political rights. Anyone able to prove they were born in these towns was legally French. They could vote in parliamentary elections, previously dominated by white and Métis residents of Senegal.

The Four Communes of Senegal were entitled to elect a Deputy to represent them in the French Parliament in the years 1848–1852, 1871–1876, and 1879–1940. In 1914, the first African, Blaise Diagne, was elected as the Deputy for Senegal in the French Parliament. In 1916, Diagne pushed through the National Assembly a law (Loi Blaise Diagne) granting full citizenship to all residents of the so-called Four Communes. In return, he promised to help recruit millions of Africans to fight in World War I. Thereafter, all black Africans of Dakar, Gorée, Saint-Louis, and Rufisque could vote to send a representative to the French National Assembly.

After the Fall of France during World War II in June 1940 and the two battles of Dakar against the Free French Forces in July and September 1940, authorities in West Africa declared allegiance to the Vichy regime, as did the colony of French Gabon in AEF. While the latter fell to Free France already after the Battle of Gabon in November 1940, West Africa remained under Vichy control until the Allied landings in North Africa (operation Torch) in November 1942.

A photo of a white French "Section Chief" being pushed on a rail cart by two black African workers in Mali, 1904.

French West Africa: A “Section Chief” in the building of the Dakar–Niger Railway, pushed by African workers, Kayes, Mali, 1904

Toward Independence

Following World War II, the French government began extending limited political rights in its colonies. In 1945 the French Provisional Government allocated ten seats to French West Africa in the new Constituent Assembly, called to write a new French Constitution. Of these, five would be elected by citizens (which only in the Four Communes could an African hope to win) and five by African subjects. The elections brought to prominence a new generation of French-educated Africans. On October 21, 1945 six Africans were elected: the Four Communes citizens chose Lamine Guèye, Senegal/Mauritania Léopold Sédar Senghor, Côte d’Ivoire/Upper Volta Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Dahomey/Togo Sourou-Migan Apithy, Soudan-Niger Fily Dabo Sissoko, and Guinea Yacine Diallo. They were all re-elected to the 2nd Constituent Assembly on June 2, 1946.

In 1946, the Loi Lamine Guèye granted limited citizenship rights to natives of the African colonies. The French Empire was renamed the French Union on October 27, 1946, when the new constitution of the French Fourth Republic was established. In late 1946 under this new constitution, each territory was for the first time (excepting the Four Communes) able to elect local representatives, albeit on a limited franchise, to newly established General Councils. These elected bodies had limited consultative powers, although they did approve local budgets. The Loi Cadre of June 23, 1956 brought universal suffrage to elections held after that date in all French African colonies. The first elections under universal suffrage in French West Africa were the municipal elections of late 1956. On March 31, 1957, under universal suffrage, territorial Assembly elections were held in each of the eight colonies (Togo as a UN trust Territory was by this stage on a different trajectory). The leaders of the winning parties were appointed to the newly instituted positions of Vice-Presidents of the respective Governing Councils — French Colonial Governors remained as Presidents.

The Constitution of the French Fifth Republic of 1958 again changed the structure of the colonies from the French Union to the French Community. Each territory was to become a “Protectorate,” with the consultative assembly named a National Assembly. The Governor appointed by the French was renamed the “High Commissioner” and made head of state of each territory. The Assembly would name an African as Head of Government with advisory powers to the Head of State. Legally, the federation ceased to exist after the September 1958 referendum to approve this French Community. All the colonies except Guinea voted to remain in the new structure. Guineans voted overwhelmingly for independence. In 1960, a further revision of the French constitution, compelled by the failure of the French Indochina War and the tensions in Algeria, allowed members of the French Community to unilaterally change their own constitutions. Senegal and former French Sudan became the Mali Federation (1960–61), while Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Dahomey (now Benin) subsequently formed the short-lived Sahel-Benin Union, later the Conseil de l’Entente.

The Algerian War of Independence

The Algerian War of Independence was a war between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) from 1954 to 1962, which led to Algeria’s independence from France and was infamous for the extensive use of torture by both sides.

Learning Objectives

Argue for and against the tactics used by the FLN in order to gain independence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1834, Algeria became a French military colony and, in 1848, was declared by the constitution of 1848 to be an integral part of France.
  • The Algerian War was fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) between 1954 and 1962 and was characterized by complex guerrilla warfare and the extensive use of torture by both sides.
  • The conflict started in the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, when FLN guerrillas attacked military and civilian targets throughout Algeria in what became known as the Toussaint Rouge (Red All-Saints’ Day).
  • The FLN turned to killing civilians during the Philippeville Massacre, which brought on harsh retaliation by the French army.
  • After major demonstrations in favor of independence from the end of 1960 and a United Nations resolution recognizing the right to independence, De Gaulle decided to open a series of negotiations with the FLN, which concluded with the signing of the Évian Accords on March 1962.

Key Terms

  • “scorched earth”: A military strategy that targets anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. Specifically, all of the assets that are used or can be used by the enemy are targeted, such as food sources, transportation, communications, industrial resources, and even the people in the area.
  • guerrilla warfare: A form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants such as paramilitary personnel, armed civilians, or irregulars use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility to fight a larger and less-mobile traditional military.
  • Pieds-Noirs: A term referring to Christian and Jewish people whose families migrated from all parts of the Mediterranean to French Algeria, the French protectorate in Morocco, or the French protectorate of Tunisia, where many lived for several generations before being expelled at the end of French rule in North Africa between 1956 and 1962.

Overview

The Algerian War, also known as the Algerian War of Independence or the Algerian Revolution, was a war between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (French: Front de Libération Nationale – FLN) from 1954 to 1962 and led to Algerian independence from France. An important decolonization war, this complex conflict was characterized by guerrilla warfare, maquis fighting, and the use of torture by both sides. The conflict also became a civil war between loyalist Algerians supporting a French Algeria and their Algerian nationalist counterparts.

Effectively started by members of the National Liberation Front on November 1, 1954, during the Toussaint Rouge (“Red All Saints’ Day”), the conflict shook the foundations of the weak and unstable Fourth French Republic (1946–58) and led to its replacement by the Fifth Republic with Charles de Gaulle as President. Although the French military campaigns greatly weakened the FLN’s military, with most prominent FLN leaders killed or arrested and terror attacks effectively stopped, the brutality of the methods employed by the French forces failed to win hearts and minds in Algeria, alienated support in metropolitan France, and discredited French prestige abroad.

After major demonstrations in favor of independence from the end of 1960 and a United Nations resolution recognizing the right to independence, De Gaulle decided to open a series of negotiations with the FLN, concluding with the signing of the Évian Accords on March 1962. A referendum took place on April 8, 1962 and the French electorate approved the Évian Accords. The final result was 91% in favor of the ratification of this agreement and on July 1, the Accords were subject to a second referendum in Algeria, where 99.72% voted for independence and just 0.28% against.

The planned French withdrawal led to a state crisis, various assassination attempts on de Gaulle, and attempts at military coups. Most of the former were carried out by the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), an underground organization formed mainly from French military personnel supporting a French Algeria, which committed a large number of bombings and murders both in Algeria and in the homeland to stop the planned independence.

A photo of several French solders standing around the dead bodies of Algerian rebels.

Algerian War: French forces killed Algerian rebels, December 1954

Philippeville Massacre

The FLN adopted tactics similar to those of nationalist groups in Asia, and the French did not realize the seriousness of the challenge they faced until 1955 when the FLN moved into urbanized areas. An important watershed in the War of Independence was the massacre of Pieds-Noirs civilians by the FLN near the town of Philippeville (now known as Skikda) in August 1955. Before this operation, FLN policy was to attack only military and government-related targets. The commander of the Constantine region, however, decided a drastic escalation was needed. The killing by the FLN and its supporters of 123 civilians, elderly women, and babies, including 71 French, shocked Governor General Jacques Soustelle into calling for more repressive measures against the rebels. The government claimed it killed 1,273 guerrillas in retaliation; according to the FLN and to The Times, 12,000 Algerians were massacred by the armed forces and police as well as Pieds-Noirs gangs. Soustelle’s repression was an early cause of the Algerian population’s rallying to the FLN. After Philippeville, Soustelle declared sterner measures and an all-out war began. In 1956, demonstrations by French Algerians caused the French government to not make reforms.

Guerrilla Warfare

During 1956 and 1957, the FLN successfully applied hit-and-run tactics in accordance with guerrilla warfare theory. Whilst some was aimed at military targets, a significant amount was invested in a terror campaign against those deemed to support or encourage French authority. This resulted in acts of sadistic torture and brutal violence against all, including women and children. Specializing in ambushes and night raids and avoiding direct contact with superior French firepower, the internal forces targeted army patrols, military encampments, police posts, and colonial farms, mines, and factories, as well as transportation and communications facilities. Once an engagement was broken off, the guerrillas merged with the population in the countryside, in accordance with Mao’s theories. Kidnapping was commonplace, as were the ritual murder and mutilation of civilians. At first, the FLN targeted only Muslim officials of the colonial regime; later, they coerced, maimed, or killed village elders, government employees, and even simple peasants who refused to support them. Throat slitting and decapitation were commonly used by the FLN as mechanisms of terror. During the first two-and-a-half years of the conflict, the guerrillas killed an estimated 6,352 Muslim and 1,035 non-Muslim civilians.

Although successfully provoking fear and uncertainty within both communities in Algeria, the revolutionaries’ coercive tactics suggested they had not yet inspired the bulk of the Muslim people to revolt against French colonial rule. Gradually, however, the FLN gained control in certain sectors of the Aurès, the Kabylie, and other mountainous areas around Constantine and south of Algiers and Oran. In these places, the FLN established a simple but effective—although frequently temporary—military administration that was able to collect taxes and food and recruit manpower, but was unable to hold large, fixed positions.

Photo of several civilians laying dead across a road.

Guerilla Warfare: Muslim civilians killed by the FLN, March 22, 1956

French Use of Torture

Torture was used since the beginning of the colonization of Algeria, initiated by the July Monarchy in 1830. Directed by Marshall Bugeaud, who became the first Governor-General of Algeria, the conquest of Algeria was marked by a “scorched earth” policy and the use of torture, e legitimized by a racist ideology. The armed struggle of the FLN and of its armed wing, the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) was for self-determination. The French state itself refused to see the colonial conflict as a war, as that would recognize the other party as a legitimate entity. Thus, until August 10, 1999, the French Republic persisted in calling the Algerian War a simple “operation of public order” against the FLN “terrorism.” Thus, the military did not consider themselves tied by the Geneva Conventions, ratified by France in 1951.

Violence increased on both sides from 1954 to 1956. In 1957, the Minister of Interior declared a state of emergency in Algeria, and the government granted extraordinary powers to General Massu. The Battle of Algiers from January to October 1957 remains to this day a textbook example of counter-insurgency operations. General Massu’s 10th Paratroop Division made widespread use of methods used during the Indochina War (1947–54), including systematic use of torture against civilians, a block warden system (quadrillage), illegal executions, and forced disappearances, in particular through what would later become known as “death flights,” in which victims are dropped to their death from airplanes or helicopters into large bodies of water. Although the use of torture quickly became well-known and was opposed by the left-wing opposition, the French state repeatedly denied its employment, censoring more than 250 books, newspapers and films (in metropolitan France alone) which dealt with the subject and 586 in Algeria.

Moroccan Independence

France’s exile of Sultan Mohammed V in 1953 to Madagascar and his replacement by the unpopular Mohammed Ben Aarafa sparked active opposition to French and Spanish rule and led to Moroccan independence in 1956.

Learning Objectives

Order the events that led to Moroccan independence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The French Protectorate in Morocco was established by the Treaty of Fez in 1912.
  • Between 1921 and 1926, a Berber uprising in the Rif Mountains led by Abd el-Krim led to the establishment of the Republic of the Rif; the rebellion was eventually suppressed by French and Spanish troops.
  • In 1943, the Istiqlal Party (Independence Party) was founded to press for independence with discreet US support; that party subsequently provided most of the leadership for the nationalist movement.
  • France’s exile of Sultan Mohammed V in 1953 to Madagascar and his replacement by the unpopular Mohammed Ben Aarafa sparked active opposition to the French and Spanish protectorates.
  • France allowed Mohammed V to return in 1955, and the negotiations that led to Moroccan independence began the following year.
  • In March 1956 the French protectorate was ended and Morocco regained its independence from France as the “Kingdom of Morocco.”

Key Terms

  • Rif War: Also called the Second Moroccan War, this war was fought in the early 1920s between the colonial power Spain (later joined by France) and the Berbers of the Rif mountainous region.
  • Atlantic Charter: A pivotal policy statement issued on August 14, 1941, that defined the Allied goals for the post-WWII world, including no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people; self-determination; restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force, as well as disarmament of aggressor nations.
  • protectorate: A dependent territory that has been granted local autonomy and some independence while retaining the suzerainty of a greater sovereign state. Unlike colonies, they have local rulers and experience rare cases of immigration of settlers from the country it has suzerainty of.

French and Spanish Rule in Morocco

As Europe industrialized, North Africa was increasingly prized for its potential for colonization. France showed a strong interest in Morocco as early as 1830, not only to protect the border of its Algerian territory but also because of the strategic position of Morocco on two oceans. In 1860, a dispute over Spain’s Ceuta enclave led Spain to declare war. Victorious Spain won a further enclave and an enlarged Ceuta in the settlement. In 1884, Spain created a protectorate in the coastal areas of Morocco.

In 1904, France and Spain carved out zones of influence in Morocco. Recognition by the United Kingdom of France’s sphere of influence provoked a strong reaction from the German Empire, and a crisis loomed in 1905. The matter was resolved at the Algeciras Conference in 1906. The Agadir Crisis of 1911 increased tensions between European powers. The 1912 Treaty of Fez made Morocco a protectorate of France, triggering the 1912 Fez riots. From a legal point of view, the treaty did not deprive Morocco of its status as a sovereign state as the Sultan reigned but did not rule. Spain continued to operate its coastal protectorate. By the same treaty, Spain assumed the role of protecting power over the northern and southern Saharan zones.

Tens of thousands of colonists entered Morocco. Some bought large amounts of the rich agricultural land, while others organized the exploitation and modernization of mines and harbors. Interest groups that formed among these elements continually pressured France to increase its control over Morocco – a control which was also made necessary by the continuous wars among Moroccan tribes, part of which had taken sides with the French since the beginning of the conquest. Governor General Marshall Hubert Lyautey sincerely admired Moroccan culture and succeeded in imposing a joint Moroccan-French administration while creating a modern school system. Several divisions of Moroccan soldiers served in the French army in both World War I and World War II, and in the Spanish Nationalist Army in the Spanish Civil War and after. The institution of slavery was abolished in 1925.

Moroccan Resistance

Sultan Yusef’s reign from 1912 to 1927 was turbulent and marked with frequent uprisings against Spain and France. The most serious of these was a Berber uprising in the Rif Mountains called the Rif War, led by Abd al-Karim who at first inflicted several defeats on the Spanish forces by using guerrilla tactics and captured European weapons and managed to establish a republic in the Rif. Though this rebellion originally began in the Spanish-controlled area in the north of the country, it reached the French-controlled area until a coalition of France and Spain finally defeated the rebels in 1925. To ensure their own safety, the French moved the court from Fez to Rabat, which has served as the capital of the country ever since.

Photo of Abd el-Krim boarding a train in Fes on his way to exile.

Rif Rebellion: Abd al-Karim boarding a train in Fez on his way to exile after the Rif Rebellion was defeated in 1925.

In December 1934, a small group of nationalists, members of the newly formed Moroccan Action Committee, proposed a Plan of Reforms that called for a return to indirect rule as envisaged by the Treaty of Fez, admission of Moroccans to government positions, and establishment of representative councils. The Action Committee used moderate tactics to suggest reforms including petitions, newspaper editorials, and personal appeals to French. Nationalist political parties, which subsequently arose under the French protectorate, based their arguments for Moroccan independence on World War II declarations such as the Atlantic Charter.

Toward Independence

During World War II, the badly divided nationalist movement became more cohesive, and informed Moroccans dared to consider the real possibility of political change in the post-war era. However, the nationalists were disappointed in their belief that the Allied victory in Morocco would pave the way for independence. In January 1944, the Istiqlal Party, which subsequently provided most of the leadership for the nationalist movement, released a manifesto demanding full independence, national reunification, and a democratic constitution. The sultan approved the manifesto before its submission to the French resident general, who answered that no basic change in the protectorate status was being considered.

The general sympathy of the sultan for the nationalists was evident by the end of the war, although he still hoped to see complete independence achieved gradually. By contrast, the residency, supported by French economic interests and vigorously backed by most of the colonists, adamantly refused to consider even reforms short of independence. Official intransigence contributed to increased animosity between the nationalists and the colonists and gradually widened the split between the sultan and the resident general.

Mohammed V and his family were transferred to Madagascar in January 1954. His replacement by the unpopular Mohammed Ben Aarafa, whose reign was perceived as illegitimate, sparked active opposition to the French protectorate both from nationalists and those who saw the sultan as a religious leader. By 1955, Ben Arafa was pressured to abdicate; consequently, he fled to Tangier where he formally abdicated. The most notable violence occurred in Oujda where Moroccans attacked French and other European residents in the streets. France allowed Mohammed V to return in 1955, and the negotiations that led to Moroccan independence began the following year. In March 1956 the French protectorate was ended and Morocco regained its independence from France as the “Kingdom of Morocco.”

A month later, Spain ceded most of its protectorate in Northern Morocco to the new state but kept its two coastal enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla) on the Mediterranean coast. In the months that followed independence, Mohammed V proceeded to build a modern government structure under a constitutional monarchy in which the sultan would exercise an active political role. He acted cautiously, with no intention of permitting more radical elements in the nationalist movement to overthrow the established order. He was also intent on preventing the Istiqlal from consolidating its control and establishing a one-party state. In August 1957, Mohammed V assumed the title of king.

Image of the Moroccan flag, which is red with a green star in the center.

Flag of Morocco: Morocco gained independence from France and Spain in 1956 and became the Kingdom of Morocco, a constitutional monarchy led by King Mohammed V.

The Libyan Arab Republic

A military coup in 1969 overthrew King Idris I, beginning a period of sweeping social reform led by Muammar Gaddafi, who was ultimately able to fully concentrate power in his own hands during the Libyan Cultural Revolution, remaining in power until the Libyan Civil War of 2011.

Learning Objectives

Explain Libya’s transition to authoritarian rule under Gaddafi

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • From 1911-1943, Italy colonized and ruled over the territory of modern-day Libya, first as known as Italian North Africa and then as Italian Libya.
  • Toward the end of WWII, the allied forces took Libya from Italy and occupied it until 1951, when it became an independent kingdom ruled by King Idris I.
  • On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’état against King Idris, giving rise to a period of social reform under the authoritarian rule of Gaddafi.
  • Gaddafi’s rule was highly controversial, both praised for his anti-imperialism and criticized for his repressive treatment of citizens; his regime was known for executing dissidents publicly, often rebroadcast on state television channels.
  • Gaddafi ruled until 2011, when he was deposed during the Libyan Civil War.

Key Terms

  • Nasserism: A socialist Arab nationalist political ideology based on the thinking of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president and one of the two principal leaders of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Spanning the domestic and international spheres, it combines elements of Arab socialism, republicanism, nationalism, anti-imperialism, developing-world solidarity, and international non-alignment.
  • Bedouin: A recent term in the Arabic language that is used commonly to refer to the people (Arabs and non-Arabs) who live or have descended from tribes who lived stationary or nomadic lifestyles outside cities and towns.
  • 2011 Libyan Civil War: An armed conflict in 2011 in the North African country of Libya, fought between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and those seeking to oust his government.
  • Muammar Gaddafi: A Libyan revolutionary, politician, and political theorist. He governed Libya as Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977 and then as the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011. A controversial and highly divisive world figure, he was decorated with various awards and lauded for both his anti-imperialist stance and his support for Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism. Conversely, he was internationally condemned as a dictator and autocrat whose authoritarian administration violated the human rights of Libyan citizens and supported irredentist movements, tribal warfare, and terrorism in many other nations.

Italian Libya

The Italo-Turkish War was fought between the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the Kingdom of Italy from September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. As a result of this conflict, Italy captured the Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet province and turned it into a colony. From 1912 to 1927, the territory of Libya was known as Italian North Africa. From 1927 to 1934, the territory was split into two colonies, Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania, run by Italian governors. Some 150,000 Italians settled in Libya, constituting roughly 20% of the total population.

In 1934, Italy adopted the name “Libya” (used by the Ancient Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony (made up of the three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan). Omar Mukhtar was the resistance leader against the Italian colonization and became a national hero despite his capture and execution on September 16, 1931. His face is currently printed on the Libyan ten dinar note in recognition of his patriotism. Idris al-Mahdi as-Senussi (later King Idris I), Emir of Cyrenaica, led the Libyan resistance to Italian occupation between the two world wars. Ilan Pappé estimates that between 1928 and 1932, the Italian military “killed half the Bedouin population (directly or through disease and starvation in camps).” Italian historian Emilio Gentile estimates 50,000 deaths resulting from the suppression of resistance.

In June 1940, Italy entered World War II. Libya became the setting for the hard-fought North African Campaign that ultimately ended in defeat for Italy and its German ally in 1943.

From 1943 to 1951, Libya was under Allied occupation. The British military administered the two former Italian Libyan provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaïca, while the French administered the province of Fezzan. In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal of some aspects of foreign control in 1947. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.

Kingdom of Libya

On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. Idris represented Libya in the subsequent UN negotiations. On December 24, 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris, Libya’s only monarch.

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled one of the world’s poorest nations to establish an extremely wealthy state. Although oil drastically improved the Libyan government’s finances, resentment among some factions began to build over the increased concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of King Idris. This discontent mounted with the rise of Nasserism and Arab nationalism throughout North Africa and the Middle East, so while the continued presence of Americans, Italians, and British in Libya aided in the increased levels of wealth and tourism following WWII, it was seen by some as a threat.

Libyan Revolution: Gaddafi

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by 27-year-old army officer Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’état against King Idris, launching the Libyan Revolution. Gaddafi was referred to as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” in government statements and the official Libyan press.

On the birthday of Muhammad in 1973, Gaddafi delivered a “Five-Point Address.” He announced the suspension of all existing laws and the implementation of Sharia. He said that the country would be purged of the “politically sick.” A “people’s militia” would “protect the revolution.” There would be an administrative revolution and a cultural revolution. Gaddafi set up an extensive surveillance system: 10 to 20 percent of Libyans worked in surveillance for the Revolutionary committees, which monitored place in government, factories, and the education sector. Gaddafi executed dissidents publicly and the executions were often rebroadcast on state television channels. He employed his network of diplomats and recruits to assassinate dozens of critical refugees around the world.

In 1977, Libya officially became the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Gaddafi officially passed power to the General People’s Committees and henceforth claimed to be no more than a symbolic figurehead, but domestic and international critics claimed the reforms gave him virtually unlimited power. Dissidents against the new system were not tolerated, with punitive actions including capital punishment authorized by Gaddafi himself. The new “jamahiriya” governance structure he established was officially referred to as a form of direct democracy, though the government refused to publish election results. Gaddafi was ruler of Libya until the 2011 Libyan Civil War, when he was deposed with the backing of NATO. Since then, Libya has experienced instability.

A photo of Muammar Gaddafi with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to his left and Syrian President Nureddin al-Atassi to his right, shortly after the coup that brought him to power.

Libyan Revolution of 1969: Muammar Gaddafi at an Arab summit in Libya in 1969, shortly after the September Revolution that toppled King Idris I. Gaddafi sits in military uniform in the middle, surrounded by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (left) and Syrian President Nureddin al-Atassi (right).