I’ve been engaged in several youth-oriented projects in Libya lately, and I’ve come to realize several things about the oft-spoken-of-but-rarely-heard-from character that is the ‘Libyan Youth’. There is this idea of Libyan youth, an archetypal character that is almost a trope. This character is brought up by those in power, those trying to gain power or those who speak loudly of Libyan issues. The most popular platitudes include, “Youth are the flame of the revolution! Youth are the future!”
The “youth” they speak of are often characterized by the mental image of a young man in baggy clothing and a cap (I doubt very much whether anyone visualizes young women when they speak of youth) sitting in a street corner, throwing away their non-existent future while a vague dark shadow of bad influences lurks behind them. Everyone is concerned for the Youth, everyone knows they are important somehow, but this demographic is never investigated beyond the usual talking points.
To add to the unclear image, there is no national definition of who exactly qualifies as youth in Libya. 50-year old politicians like to half-joke that they, too, are part of the youth collective, because they are young at heart, and this should make them just as qualified to work on issues pertaining to youth. This kind of shameless imposition is neither uncommon or surprising; in Libya, the more labels and badges you can forcefully apply to yourself, the more you can control.
It’s very easy (and also accurate) to blame the older, aging generations for this blatant restraint and marginalization of Libya’s largest demographic. There are many factors that come into play that aid this injustice; cultural and social norms that place trust in the elderly over others, the lack of adequate education and empowerment for younger generations, and the lack of a national youth strategy or representative committee to protect youth rights. But there are other factors that contribute to perpetuating the status quo.
But this brings us back to the initial question; what is the definition of a Libyan youth?
There is no nationally agreed-upon fixed definition. Most agree that a person is a ‘youth’ by the time they’re 18. But the other side of the limit is fluid. Some youth CSOs consider 30 to be the maximum age a person can consider themselves a youth, while others go as far as 35 or 40. Many youth organizations don’t work with a fixed limit because, in their words, “we don’t want to leave anyone out.”
This is another point I’ve noticed, where youth, even when brought together and explicitly asked to discuss youth issues, will instead focus on issues of the country as a whole. They don’t see themselves as an entity separate from the rest of society, and this extends to their concerns for the country. In a workshop on the role of youth in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, two of the proposed projects focused on providing education to adult Libyans that haven’t finished schools. Let me reiterate; these are Libyan youth, concerned about the education of adults. Whether this reflects the selfless nature of the future generation, or their naïvity, is debatable.
There is a gap, in Libyan society, between the younger generation and the old. This gap became more pronounced after the revolution, especially between the generation that was hit hardest by Gadhafi’s reign of terror and the “February 17th” generation. You can hear the difference in the way they talk, see it in the way they behave, and really comprehend it when you interact with both. My generation has considerably more opportunities than their parents; things like travelling and technological access have helped Libyan youth to become relatively more open-minded and aware. (Of course, that could just be the youth in my own social circles)
This gap means that there is a difference of priorities. But the disproportionate representation and hold on power between the generations means that the priorities, concerns and aspirations of the majority of Libyans go ignored. Like most of the MENA region, Libya suffers from a chronic youth unemployment problem, which breeds more problems like militarized youth and an unsustainable economy. As you can tell from the current status of Libya today, youth issues are not exactly the first thing on the minds of our politicians. When it comes to young Libyans, the only thing the people in power seem to care about is how many they can ship to the front lines.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the elderly. Nor do I think they should all be excluded from political and social life. But the truth is there in plain sight, even if it’s an ugly one; Libya’s revolution was taken over by a power-hungry generation that granted themselves license to run the country the way they saw fit, and bought off the younger generation with empty promises and small sums of money. The exclusion of youth from the process of nation-building has had the consequences you see here today (along with other factors, of course).
This is also why our small-but-resilient civil society have such a high percentage of youth involvement. No, scratch that, youth are the fundamental component of civil society. Their efforts and energy are key to making projects successful, and the older members of civil society are very conscious of this fact.
Libyan youth are more than just a blurry, undefined component of society; they are not a vague campaign promise, and including them in the nation-building process is more than just a favour that you can grant them. Youth are literally the future of the country, so stop using that as a catch phrase and start acting on it.