Mustafa Fetouri

Last February marked 13 years since Libya was, literally, handed back to the United Nations by the U.N. itself. Many in Libya, particularly the younger generations, see the U.N.’s role to have evolved to that of a manager who has little to offer in terms of solutions, focusing, instead, on maintaining the status quo.

The U.N.’s relationship to Libya goes back to the establishment of the country as we know it today. The winners of World War II divided the colonies of the defeated countries among themselves, one of which was Libya. To settle their disagreements about the fate of this former Italian colony, the big powers decided to hand it over to the recently established U.N., which in turn led Libya to independence. 

Decades later, the U.N. once again assumed a key role in Libya’s fate. In February 2011 young Libyans took to the streets, demanding reform, better living conditions and jobs. Expectations were sky high that once the Qaddafi regime was overthrown, Libya would become paradise on the southern bank of the Mediterranean or the Dubai of North Africa. Actually, “we want Libya to be like Dubai” was the secret catch phrase spreading like wild fire across social media platforms as a call to join what was called “the 17 February Revolution”—the Libyan version of the Arab Spring. 

The role of the U.N. was intended to be limited in scope. However, it has mushroomed to touch almost every aspect of life.

By October 2011 and with helping “humanitarian” hands from NATO and others, including the United Arab Emirates (which many Libyans simply call Dubai), Col. Muammar Qaddafi was toppled and brutally murdered, and a new Libya, or so it was hoped, slowly emerged. Jubilant Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of the top humanitarian “helping” hands, laughingly commented after hearing the news of Qaddafi’s death: “we came, we saw, he died.”


Salem, a recent university graduate who is jobless, told the Washington Report that what Libyans did not realize in 2011 was that “indeed Qaddafi was gone but apparently he took the country with him.”

Today hundreds of thousands of young people, like Salem, are unemployed despite the success of The Revolution, which held promise of a leadership role for young people. 

According to the U.N., Libya has a population of around 7 million people; 1.1 million of them are between the ages of 15 and 24 years, and around 51.4 percent of individuals in that age group are unemployed.The median age in Libya is 26.8 years.

The official overall unemployment rate in the country is 19.6 percent—other sources claim it is higher than 21 percent—and it is expected to increase in the next two years.

Job creation in the country is on the increase but it is misleading because 85 percent of those who work are in the public sector. According to Libya’s finance ministry, some 2.1 million people work for the government, and their annual salaries are estimated to be 53.8 percent of the country’s budget. In neighboring Tunisia, for example, only 347,000 work in the public sector serving over 12 million people. 

Oil provides 97 percent of Libya’s revenue, but it is neither a stable commodity nor secure; it is vulnerable to closures by armed militias and tribesmen with grievances. Earlier this year, angry tribesmen blockaded the Sharara oil field in the south, one of the biggest with production capacity of 300,000 barrels/day. The standoff lasted for weeks. 


Many young people faced with the prospect of unemployment join the armed militias. Three reasons drove Hussein into one such militia: having a job, top pay and social prestige that come with having a gun and being feared by peers. Hussein (who does not want his family name published for security reasons) said he decided to leave the militia because “I found myself fighting for unworthy causes.” Instead he chose to sell carpets in his uncle’s shop south of Tripoli. He left his militia during a fight between two rival militias which erupted in Tripoli in August 2023. Since 2011 successive governments have also, indirectly, encouraged people like Hussein to join armed groups by designating some groups as legitimate governmental law enforcement bodies.     


Young Libyans have minimal participation in their country’s affairs because youth, in general, are looked upon as lacking leadership qualities and experience. Although civil organizations have mushroomed over the last decade, they are still relatively young, lack coherent strategies and are starved for funding; this forces them to accept foreign donations, risking contravening national laws that prohibit foreign funding. This, and more, make most civil organizations claiming to represent certain youth sections irrelevant, and they generally do not have a say in the country’s major issues like the transition to democracy and gender equality. Apart from the occasional events organized by the U.N. mission, young Libyans hardly appear on the national screen. Huge numbers of them find solace in venting their anger and frustration through social media; young people make up 58 percent of all users and most have more than one Facebook account. 

Most political parties fail to present any new national manifestos beyond the prevailing political polarization that tends to classify people as either “for or against the February 17 revolution,” says a social science researcher who wished to remain anonymous. This kind of “over polarized political atmosphere” denies young people the right to think freely and be creative in expressing their vision for the future. 


Libya is experiencing its worst brain drain in the last 30 years. Migration out of the country is rising among highly qualified young people, including entrepreneurs, physicians and engineers. Many had already been living abroad before the revolution because of “the oppressive nature” of the Qaddafi regime. Thirteen years after his death, they still do not want to return simply because “the country now is more oppressive and risky than it used to be,” commented a Dubai-based Libyan surgeon. 

Some studies say that 8.9 percent  of all Libyan physicians are working in the U.S., UK, Canada and the Gulf states. This amounts to a “brain drain at the time when the country needs everyone” said Tripoli-based human resources expert Ali Zeinaddin.


The country is still politically divided with two competing governments. Hopes are slim for elections this year, the reunification of government institutions and tackling youth issues. The U.N.’s mission in Libya of “stabilizing the country” seems aspirational after 13 years of work. At the same time the country’s younger generation is lost and has little hope for a better future anytime soon.

It appears the world body was more successful in helping Libya gain independence 72 years ago than it has been in trying to help it find stability since 2011.


Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He received the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize. He has written extensively for various media outlets on Libyan and MENA issues. He has published three books in Arabic.


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