Written by Aya Besbas for our Expert Opinion series (find her bio below at the end of the article)
When the Libyan people decided that it’s time for a change, and to have their desired democratic transition, it took the hard way to change the regime in 2011. Yet, since that time, we didn’t see youth participating effectively in anything but in wars!
Now after more than eight years, we’re starting to realize that the absence of the basic awareness of a democracy prerequisites in the Libyan society, is in fact one of the main reasons to blame for the current crisis in the country, which escalated dramatically to a political division we’re witnessing since 2014. As a matter of fact, this lack of awareness of democracy education have caused the crisis to thrive, and negatively affecting most of the initiatives, and efforts put to adopt the needed peaceful democratic transition, and rule of law.
Thus, any solutions in this context have a very law possibility to reach the desired success, unless there was a level of awareness among citizens, on the practices and principles of democracy, and human rights. Which is necessary to be able to create a firm ground that we can stand upon, so we can establish a government that’s guided by the rule of law and backed up by strong civil institutions. Therefore, I must insist that this lack of awareness of how democratic processes work, does not exclude anyone from the society whether they were young or those of an older age.
If we go back to the first two years since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, it will appear to us for a moment, that the Libyan scene will witness a great wave of participation by youth in all different fields, including the civil and political life. Which for a short period of time after 2011 did reach a peak that was missing in the previous four decades. It was a peak that was going in the right direction of supporting a democratic transition, by organizing legislative, and local elections, founding different political parties and civil organizations. However, despite all of that, youth participation was still weak compared to the sacrifices were made by this group of people upon the beginning of the revolution.
There is a report (The status of Libyan youth today, their opportunities and challenges), which was published by the UNFPA, in collaboration with different Libyan and international bodies. It stated that the participation of young people (males and females) in the official and institutional political processes is relatively low, compared to the participation of their counterparts (older individuals). Furthermore, statistics published by the (High Electoral Commission), have shown the decreasing percentage of youth’s registration and involvement when it comes to voting, and running for elections. Declining percentage of young people’s participation in political parties, and legislative bodies such as the houses of representatives (or previously General National Conference), and in the local councils, had led to youth’s lack of access to all decision-making positions since 2011.
The same report by UNFPA also highlighted, the low numbers of the participation of young people in civic engagement, like reconciliation committees and movements for example. The report also listed some statistics that were published by the High Electoral Commission, showed that the percentage of youth, between the age of 18-25, who registered in the voting database for the legislative elections in 2014, reached only 28% of the total percentage of those who have the right to vote, taking into consideration that law permitting voting in elections starting from the age of 18 for both genders.
Here we ask, what is restricting youth participation?
To answer such a question, one must pay attention to the different causes, and circumstances effecting the situation. I will try to list the most direct challenges, that’s causing young people lack of participation, when it comes to their civil and political engagement, especially in peace building processes:
The lack of awareness on the importance of youth participation:
This lack of awareness is a direct result to the absence and the misunderstanding of democratic practices, mainly because we’re experiencing it for the first time. Through the four decades of Gaddafi’s regime we have been exposed to the wrong basis, and methodologies, like the concept of limiting political engagement in the country on just one group, and depriving others from forming opinions that resist the general view of things. Which made most youth would hold the belief that their engagement is of no importance, because they simply expect that it won’t change anything, even in community peace building process.
As Libya’s democratic transition phase was not as smooth as expected, until today we still face severe challenges. Perhaps the most extreme challenge is the constant armed conflict, going through wars that hasn’t stopped since 2011 for different reasons, in many cities.
Also, the spread of weapons and militias all over Libya, with the government not able to control the chaos, with failed attempts for disarmament and the rehabilitation of fighters to reintegrate them in society with what matches their capacities.
This of course left us unstable which led to decrease in the opportunities for youth to engage in civil and political life, because the safe environment needed for development is not available. This sense of insecurity has affected young women’s participation twice more, because it made their families feel more protective of them, so they don’t allow them to be members of any civil organizations or political parties, and social activities concerning for their safety.
The gap between different generations:
social bridges and talks between young people and seniors are getting weaker, which left hardly a one shared language of expression between the two, this has added more to the cultural discrimination between generations. Youth have suffered from continuously for ages, in most different civilizations.
The mainstream thinking in Libya have always underestimated the value of youth, arguing that their experiences are new, and not enough to give them the right to contribute in civil, political life, and to be in high level positions. So, there was no place for them in decision making tables to represent their generation, thinking that older generations have the capacity to understand the needs, and point of views of young people, ignoring that youth participation will benefit young individuals directly. If we put in mind that their engagement will certainly open the door for them to build their capacity, and honor their independence, so they can be active citizens, that will definitely reflect positively on their communities.
Political polarization and lack of trust in the other:
Whoever follows the news of Libya, realizes that since 2011, many different political and ideological movements have appeared in the Libyan social, and political scene. The spread of weapons influencing those differences negatively and feeding them with arms had led to dividing people and labeled people according to their opinions and backgrounds. Naturally, this planted more fear, widened the space between individuals, and made interactions more awkward when it comes to sharing of different views.
The experience of young civil movements in Libya:
As mentioned previously in this article about the peak of civil life in Libya that matched no other time in the first two years after 2011, and how the idea of finding and contributing to civil society foundations of different fields, have become more spread, and accepted. Youth became suddenly exposed to a positive space where they discovered their abilities. This sparked many ideas and gave them new knowledge and mindset to work on different initiatives, despite the fact it was a new experience, and sometimes even random.
Moreover, democratic practices became more relevant and understandable among youth who became involved in civil work. The level of capacity was increased in many organizations, which pushed many of them to continue their work stubbornly despite the hard circumstances endured for 8 years.
However, the participation of young people is still limited, yet I think this is natural part of the process. My experience in civil society, which focused on supporting democratic transition process, and implementing a culture of political, and civil engagement, it would be early to talk about solid results of the public awareness in our society, when it comes to such concepts, and practices, after it was absent from our lives for decades.
I also find that working on developing the person, and raising their level of awareness, and making them understand the principles of human rights, and the concept of active and responsible citizenship, needs patience, time, and effort. We shouldn’t rush in results, instead we must keep real faith in the political transformation, that’s the way we can by it restore stability in Libya, in my opinion. That can guide us to having social harmony and cohesion with sustainable peace which will make Libya stronger.
What does the civil movement of young people need in Libya?
As young people what we need is more structural organization to form strong institutional work rather than random work. We need to double our efforts, and collaborations among us as youth, through their different organizations. We should find a language of expression to reunite our goals based on different participation, to make sure we make the desired change, rather than wasting energies. We need more confidence as youth in our capacities, and awareness, because this an important phase in Libyan history, by engaging effectively in political, and social talks, of different levels, and practices to build peace in Libya.
It’s clear that despite the challenges, young people managed to start many initiatives for national reconciliation to resolve the conflict. These initiatives started throughout different cities and areas, such as campaigning for awareness, advocating for young people’s issues to be addressed in the constitution. Also, encouraging young voters to take an advantage of their right to vote, like recently in the local elections for municipal councils, which were in their second run, March/ April this year, and many other efforts in this context.
Despite the logistic, and financial support available and offered by many international organizations like the UNSMIL, and the different bodies of the UN, that designed a variety of programs to advocate for democratic transformation, stability, and security in Libya, as well as encouraging civil society youth-led organizations to run projects and initiatives, they were excluded from formal peace building processes. The reality is that even when the UN facilitated the Libyan political dialogue after the political, and institutional division in 2014, the UNSMIL forgot to save a spot for young people in this dialogue. Even though it included most important categories in society from politicians, military and community leaders, how could someone not consider youth as they will be affected by any agreements that comes out of these talks. We’re one of the first people who get affected from wars, and with the economic challenges this resulted youth exploitation as a fuel to this war only.
I must insist that we as a young people are responsible to help our society, and raise awareness on the importance of our participation, and representation in political decision making first of, along with every other field. We must think of the representatives of this category as equal and important citizens, to decrease the gap between generations and create a positive model that encourages young people to work and be active. This will send the message that there are open opportunities for youth, and they are welcome to engage. This will only come when we reunite our forces, and double our efforts, to gain the respect and trust from society, like how other youth did in many countries recently.
It’s obvious enough that excluding young people would make them take alternative ways to solve their problems. Those ways could only feed more into the conflict and the chaos we are witnessing as a result to the feeling of injustice. Hence, there should be no tolerance anymore when it comes to excluding youth, we want to be present in our journey to a new Libya.
- Bachelor of Law from the University of Tripoli – Libya, interested in the Department of International Law and Human Rights.
- Experience of more than 8 years of civil work in support of democratic transition in Libya, since 2011, with H2O organization to support democratic transition.
- Received the management of the H2O (Active Citizenship) Civic Awareness Program in 2017-2018.
- A blogger about the social, political and intellectual situation in the region.