Dr Mustafa Fetouri

In Libya today, according to the United Nations, there are around 1.1 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. That is some 51.4 per cent of the entire population of the North African country, estimated to be between 6.3 million and seven million people, depending on which numbers one uses.

Such figures make Libya a very young country compared even to its immediate neighbours, like Tunisia to the west, where the average age of the population is 32.3 years, while in Libya it is just 26.8 years.

The UN estimates that at least 51.4 per cent of the country’s youth are unemployed—one of the highest rates in the world in this population segment. A frightening figure when it comes to the country’s social stability, economic growth and its entire future.

These sombre numbers come just a few days before the 13 anniversary of what became known as the 17 February Revolution, or the series of events that engulfed the country, starting on 17 February, 2011, as part of what became known as the “Arab Spring”. The so called “revolution” left the country in ruins, while achieving very little in terms of creating a prosperous, free Libya—said to be the main drivers of that revolt.

I can also allege that very few people, particularly the young, will celebrate next week’s Libyan Revolution anniversary. What happened in Libya, starting on 17 February, 2011, was portrayed as a historical turn that would lead to a Singapore-like Libya or Dubai, on the southern bank of the Mediterranean Sea.  In fact the chant, “we want Libya like Dubai”, constituted a secret and emotional call to join and support the “revolution”, which ultimately led to the end of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and the murder of the man himself in one of the ugliest scenes in the country’s modern history.

By 20 October, 2011, Gaddafi was, indeed, gone but few realised the ugly underlying fact the he took the country with him, as the entire nation went up in flames and his death seems to have ushered in endless internal wars, supported and fuelled by outside powers seeking to have a share in Libya’s future. After all, Libya is a rich country with great potential and could, indeed, surpass Dubai in terms of tourism, modernity and economic development.

The country produces around 1.1 million barrels of oil everyday; it is the ninth in the world in terms of oil reserves, while it is number one in Africa. Libya’s per capita income used to be one of the highest in Africa.  However, the country has been steadily sliding into poverty after a decade-long conflict that abates a little, only to erupt again.

According to Libya’s own Human Rights Institution, the poverty rate is around 40 per cent. The UN’s 2023 figures say about 2 per cent of Libyan households (some 135,000 families) are “multi-dimensionally” poor, while another 11.4 per cent are classified as “vulnerable to multidimensional” poverty – that is, 765,000 people – which means over one in ten Libyans are poorer today than they were a decade earlier. The hardest hit population category is the youth, who are supposed to be the country’s future.

These gruesome numbers should be a nightmare for any serious politician, lawmaker and bureaucrat, prompting them to come together and find solutions to their country’s problems “before it is too late” commented Abdelsalam, a 26 year old Tripoli-based economist, who did not want his family name published. Instead, he says “they are fighting over the country’s dead corpse”.

Based on the fact that nearly three quarters of the population is under 60 years old, such numbers largely affect the youth in the country, as they are the ones who lack jobs and are forced to leave school in order to live or help their families earn enough to make ends meet.

While Libyans were promised paradise once Gaddafi was gone, they have discovered they are living rather precariously, while their country is divided and on the brink of disintegration. Between 2011 and today, Libya has had some nine governments, and counting, but none of them have managed to centrally govern over the entire vast country.

Today, there are two competing governments. The UN recognised, Tripoli based Government of National Unity. It is militia dominated and hardly able to protect itself, let alone provide the basic public services people expect. In the eastern and parts of the southern regions, there is another government, supposedly, elected by the eastern-based parliament, but dominated by the family of strongman, Khalifa Haftar.

The most common denominator between the two authorities is corruption and wasteful spending. The UN’s mediation efforts have, so far, failed to unify the country, let alone set up a nationwide government able to control the entire vast territory and organise elections since the previous attempt failed, back in December 2021.

For young Libyans, the outlook is grim and gets even grimmer in the long term. While fewer militias are around today, they have consolidated their hold on the population, leaving very little room for any of the “noble” causes of freedom, liberty and economic prosperity, all of which are seen as the causes that made young Libyans “revolt” over a decade ago. Militias are armed and well paid, therefore, joining them is financially rewarding. Faced with unemployment and poverty, many young people join different armed groups.

The current and previous Tripoli based governments have been encouraging the youth to join the militia, not only by funding them to the tune of millions every year, but also by legitimising them as legal government apparatuses, operating under either the Ministry of Interior or that of Defence. Comparatively, eastern Libya is doing a little better since the only “officially” armed group is the Libyan National Army led by Mr. Haftar. But, again, this “army” is not accountable to the eastern based government, while being “dubiously” funded and family controlled.

This inadvertently has empowered a small but noisy minority, openly calling for secession of the eastern region, historically known as Barga or Cyrenaica, into an independent country seventy two years after Libya gained independence as a united country in 1951.

In the middle of all this, young Libyans have little hope for the future and many would prefer to leave the country to seek a better life elsewhere. “We really have no place here” Salem Al-Hussein, an unemployed recent graduate who ended up working as a “taxi driver”, said.

How long this could go on is difficult to say, but indications say it could last for many more years. No elections are planned this year and, if it happens, most optimistic observers think it might come in 2025 and unlikely to lead to settling Libya, once and for all.


Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize.


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