The majority of Libyans are Arabs, but there are small minorities of mainly Berber peoples. The number of residents has increased from less than 3 million in the early 1980s to over 6 million today. Most Libyans live on the coast, where cities have grown rapidly. Just over a quarter of the population is under 15.
Arab-speaking Muslims of mixed Arab and Berber descent now comprise over 90 percent of the population. These Libyans see themselves as Arabs. Those who speak different Berber languages amount to about 5 percent. Most live in the northwest, in the Nafusa mountains and in the coastal city of Zuwara near the border with Tunisia. Inland there are still nomads and half-nomads: Arabs in the central and eastern parts, Tuaregs (a Berber people) in the southwest and Tubu (also known as Tebu, a black people who speak the language of the day) furthest south.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Key populations estimated size and data of Libya, including population density of how many people per square mile. Also included are facts for population and language.
Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader 1969–2011, denied that the Berber minority exists as a people separate from the Arabs, but towards the end of his reign, the unauthorized view of Berber culture somewhat relaxed. In 2006, the ban on officially using other than Arabic names was lifted and the following year, for the first time, a Barbican congress could be held in Tripoli. During the revolution against Gaddafi in 2011, the Berber areas quickly joined the uprising.
Most of the heavier and low-paying jobs are done by guest workers from other Arab or African countries. In bad economic times, riots against African immigrants have demanded deaths, and large groups of immigrants have been expelled. The figures are uncertain, but at the beginning of 2011, according to various sources, there were between 1.5 million and 2.5 million foreigners in Libya, including both guest workers and other migrants. The rebellion against Gaddafi hit the guest workers and migrant population hard. Hundreds of thousands of guest workers and migrants fled Libya.
The fighting that continued after Gaddafi’s death has created great difficulties both for the Libyans themselves and for the many migrants, most from countries further south in Africa, who, through Libya, tried to reach Europe. Since Italy and Libya signed an agreement in 2017 that boats with migrants should be prevented from traveling across the Mediterranean, tens of thousands of migrants have been trapped on Libyan soil, under difficult conditions. An offensive eastbound against Tripoli in 2019 has led some to evacuate the fighting (see Calendar).
Tribal and family ties have always been important in Libyan politics, more than in most other countries in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi placed members of his own clan, Gadadfa, on strategically and militarily important positions. However, the Gadad solid tribe, from central Libya around Sirte and Sabha, is quite small. The regime was therefore considered partly based on an alliance between Gadadfa and two major tribes from western Libya, Warfalla and Magarha. Warfalla, gathered around the city of Bani Walid, is considered Libya’s largest tribe with about one million members. The 2011 uprising hit many members of these tribes severely, with prolonged and bloody battles in, for example, Sirte, Sabha and Bani Walid. The focus of Libyan politics then shifted eastward. The temporary council, which took over the rule of the country, consisted largely of people from the eastern areas and the tribes that dominate there. Among the more important tribes in the east are, for example, Awaqir, Obeidat and Zawiya.
Tribal affiliation is still important, but at the same time one should not overstate its importance. Conflicts between different ethnic groups often take place at a lower level than the tribe, for example between sub-clans, large families or villages.
The spoken Arabic in Libya differs from the Arabic in neighboring countries and varies within the country. The language taught in the schools in Libya, as well as throughout the entire Arab world, is the so-called modern standard Arabic (fusha), which is based on the classical Arabic of the Qur’an. It is used throughout the Arab world as written language, for example in the media, and on formal occasions, but not in daily speech.
Italian is used in some contexts as a business language and English has also become more common since the 1990s, despite the fact that the Gaddafi regime has long sought to halt the use of foreign languages.
FACTS – POPULATION AND LANGUAGE
Arab, Berber, Tuareger, Tubuer
Number of residents
Number of residents per square kilometer
Percentage of residents in the cities
79.8 percent (2017)
Nativity / birth
19.7 per 1000 residents (2016)
Mortality / mortality
5.2 per 1000 residents (2016)
1.3 percent (2017)
2.3 number of births per woman (2016)
Percentage of women
49.6 percent (2017)
72 years (2016)
Life expectancy for women
75 years (2016)
Life expectancy for men
69 years (2016)
- The minority languages Nafusa, Zuwara and Awjilabara (Berber), Tamahaq (Tuareg), Tedaga (Tubu)