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Libya: the missing voices of young people

Christine Petré's picture
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Tripoli - World Bank l Eric ChurchillFour years after the fall of Libya’s former ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, the post-revolutionary conflict in the country continues. And, as it does, young people—like all Libyans—struggle to make their voices heard. What do they want to say?

Activism is one thing on their minds. “Any sort of civil activism or political gathering is very young in Libya,” says Suad Iagtaa’, a 25 year-old assistant university lecturer from Gmata, east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. “Our society needs years of experience [in it].”
 
During the 42 years of Gaddafi’s regime, it was near impossible for people to speak out without risking imprisonment, or worse. Libya’s political, and legal, framework prevented civil society activity; it also stopped the growth of a free press, trade unions and organized political opposition. For decades, Libya went without political institutions. After Gaddafi was toppled in early 2011, the country was left building institutions from scratch.
 
Today, fighting continues among different militia groups despite ongoing negotiations hosted by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Most Libyans, like Mohamed Eljarh, age 28, are not very optimistic about the UN-led talks. “There are more actors, inside as well as outside of Libya, working against the dialogue than working for it,” he argues.
 
Libya is split up by different armed administrations. Up to one third of its population of 6.5 million has fled to live in neighboring Tunisia. Eljarh, a political analyst, says his country faces more challenges each day that passes by. Key actors—such as the leadership of the alliance in control of Tripoli, Libya Dawn, and the leader of the Libyan National Army forces that oppose it from the east, General Khalifa Haftar—will have the final say on the ground. So far, UNSMIL has failed to get them to commit to a peace agreement. 
 
Warring parties aside, most people agree that—for peace to stick—young Libyans should be given a say in their country’s future. Iagtaa, the assistant lecturer from near Tripoli, supports this. “I feel that those who are negotiating Libya’s future don’t have that much weight inside Libya itself,” she says. “For negotiations to be fruitful, they must include every side, including the Islamic parties and tribal leaders. They must be free of regional pressures.” 
 
Another Libyan, a 31 year-old civil society activist from Tripoli (who withheld his name because of the nature of his work), says he wants to see more training and education programs in Libya to give young Libyans the skills they need to re-build the country. Many can’t go elsewhere to get them. “A large number of Libyans, [including those] who are well funded, have been refused visas to Western countries as they are seen as potential immigrants,” he says. “The international community must show more flexibility towards Libyan university students.”
 
Despite the lack of resolution to the Libyan conflict, young people try to remain positive. “There is hope,” says Iagtaa’, and she mentions “Peace Now”, a conference to promote peace and national unity, organized in Tripoli by a group of young Libyans. “There are slow steps in the right direction,” she adds.
 
At a similar initiative, “Finding Our Future”, Libyan civil society leaders and activists thrashed out the contents of a preliminary proposal for a new constitution, drafted by Libya’s Constitutional Drafting Assembly. “In my view, it was a success,” Eljarh, the political analyst, says of the meeting, which took place in neighboring Tunisia, “and resulted in some concrete demands and amendments to the constitutional proposals.”
 
“It was very good,” says the second young Libyan who wished to remain unnamed for security reasons. She said their aims were simple: to encourage members of the assembly to take young people’s opinions into account and raise them with the assembly as a whole.
 
The process of drafting the constitution, Eljarh argues, could be a good opportunity for young Libyans to get more involved in peace building, as well as politics. Inside Libya, more conflict has delayed the constitutional process, and the drafting assembly’s initial three month mandate has been extended. Lack of trust is the main issue facing the peace building process, argues Eljarh. “The international community should focus more efforts on conflict resolution and peace building at the local level,” he adds.
 
It is also important to include young people in all parts of the political process, argues Libyan student Asma Khalifa. But in order for the international community to support Libyan youth, she insists, more emphasis should be put on local activists as well as providing protection and security.
 
Young Libyans may be involved in the conflict, but they do not see themselves as its main protagonists. “The youth are not part of the current political polarization, but they are inevitably part of the conflict,” says the civil society activist from Tripoli. “Both as actors and victims.”
 

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