Libya has undergone a significant transformation since the toppling of dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. As efforts to turn the war-torn country into a flourishing democracy accelerate, young people are playing an increasingly pivotal role.
Francis Ventura, 22, a Commonwealth Correspondent based in Melbourne, Australia, asked Ms Ayat Saleh Mneina, the Founder of Shabab Libya, the Libyan Youth Movement, about the country’s future direction.
Ventura: Libyans received several benefits during Gaddafi’s rule including access to free healthcare and education – even housing money for newly-married couples. Women were permitted to drive, obtain a job and receive equal pay to men. So, why did Libyans want to be rid of him? Are you optimistic about the future of human rights, particularly for women?
The concerns of the Libyan people under the former regime spanned over four decades and encompassed every part of everyday life. If free healthcare was widely available, why did most Libyans opt to seek healthcare outside the country in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt-and even Jordan- if they could afford to do so? If energy was readily available why was it not used effectively to ensure that foundations of utilities across the country were readily established? Instead, blackouts and water cuts were a common complaint in cities and even more widespread in rural areas.
Education at a primary and secondary school level was dictated by those in line with the regime, teachers had no say in curricula and those higher up in the education hierarchy ensured that subjects such as the Green Book determined whether or not a student was to progress to the next grade while students who didn’t deserve to pass were allowed to cheat their way up. In terms of university education, when it wasn’t being held back by bureaucracy or faculty and staff aligned with the regime, employment opportunities waiting for new graduates were dismal. This was further complicated by the mandatory military service that all young men in Libya had to serve which disrupted their studies and lives sometimes permanently.
The banking system in Libya was largely inadequate with loans being introduced recently with very limited funds available. Only those with the right connections were able to get their hands on them. Women were permitted to drive and work in a society where driving was (and still is) dangerous and job availability and job security were erratic regardless of gender. In a country where the majority of the population is younger than thirty years old, growing up in a society that paid little attention to this future generation despite the country’s extensive wealth, a sense of confusion was bubbling. Furthermore, with globalization sweeping across the globe connecting global and local communities in a way never possible before, youth were being exposed to the large gaps in equity and equality that existed between them and other youth in the region and abroad.
All of this being said, criticism of the regime was not welcome in Libya. In fact, it was punishable as exemplified by the thousands of young men jailed by the regime for having dissident sentiments or an alternative opinion without being charged or tried for these ‘crimes’ which may have resulted in their long term detainment, permanent disappearance, or execution. Such were the concerns of Libyans under the former regime; socioeconomic security and basic human rights were absent in Libya.
Human rights in Libya suffered greatly under the previous regime such that most Libyans were largely unaware of what they even were as some were born and raised without such freedoms and only became aware of this through their own personal exchanges with the outside world through media (satellite television, internet). The revolution itself is a testament to the fact that Libyans will not stand for this any longer. Libyans fought for their rights which include their basic human rights as well as women’s rights. It will be difficult to ensure that human rights are respected and developed as these will be implemented from scratch. However, we are optimistic that with time human rights of Libyans regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity, will be coveted and respected. The men and women of Libya will not let these fundamental freedoms be overlooked.
You stated recently that Libya’s new foreign policy would be based on ‘fruitful cooperation without interference in the internal affairs of other countries’. Do you believe that Libya should actually intervene in the internal affairs of its neighboring states if by doing so it can prevent large scale human rights abuses?
If Libya were to reach a stage of development that it was able to prevent human rights abuses at home and in its neighbouring countries; then such ‘interference’ is welcome. The only way that Libya was able to liberate itself was through the support of its neighbouring countries. Had Egypt and Tunisia not been already liberated, it would have been highly unlikely that our own revolution would succeed. Part of being neighbours involves having strong ethics and morals and deep respect for basic human rights and ensuring that, to the best of our ability, those in our reach enjoy the same freedoms and rights.
So if in that regard, Libya was to have knowledge of large scale human rights abuses nearby and have the means to prevent them, it is Libya’s duty to act and speak out against it. That being said, political relationships are highly sensitive to such actions so that is always an element that will play a role and dictate whether or not Libya could intervene as well as the magnitude of such intervention. It must be stressed, however, that Libya would itself have to be an example of a country that covets human rights before it can lead in the region against their abuse.
The International Labor Organisation stated that Libya’s youth unemployment rate before the Arab Spring was around 22%. What programs do you believe should be implemented by the new government to increase education levels and job prospects for young people?
The new government needs to reframe the country so that it no longer runs on welfare. Gaddafi kept everyone under his thumb by making the Libyan people almost completely reliant on government subsidies. The ultimate goal to address unemployment is to make Libyans less reliant on the government and empower them with the opportunities to earn their own living. This is a multifaceted task and requires the cooperation of several sectors, actors, and takes time.
Independence for businesses is key to addressing the youth’s unemployment rate. Businesses were largely crippled by the regime’s absorption of all ownership rights of businesses in the 1970’s. Increasing wages for all professions is a must in order for those employed to support themselves effectively and contribute to the local economy in turn employing others.
The new government must focus on developing schools, universities, and hospitals so that staff, patients, and students can all enjoy safe and healthy working environments. Recruiting nationals to work in the service sector as engineers, electricians, IT specialists, craftsmen in order to simultaneously restore Libya’s infrastructure and employ its youth and fill a void that is largely filled by hiring foreign workers. This goes hand in hand with providing the youth with the right training in order to gain the technical proficiency and skills to serve in this sector through the establishment of vocational schools all over the country, allowing for Libyan youth to train and work locally.
Apart from technical programs, English and language programs should also be implemented making youth even more employable. The secondary and post-secondary educational systems should be strengthened to ensure that graduates hold the necessary skills to join the work force immediately. Opportunities for skills development and continuing education should also be made available to allow employees to continue to strive for excellence and efficacy in their field.
During the immediate phase that the government will endure when they begin to address unemployment, expertise and training opportunities should be harnessed from abroad by sending Libyans to be trained, to temporarily hosting experts in Libya until facilities are made available at home.
Of course, these all must take place in synchrony with the establishment of a new government complete with a constitution, the rule of law and its enforcement, and the guarantee of security and sanctity of basic human rights.
Libya’s Mufti Sadok Gueryarni said that corruption, property theft, illegal drugs, weapons and human trafficking are now ‘rampant’ in Libya. As you mentioned recently, the continued presence of lawless and heavily-armed militias threaten the rule of law and stability. How can they be encouraged to disband and what additional factors are hindering unity in post-Revolution Libya?
We believe that those who continue to wield their weapons in Libya and exercise the use of weapons as a means of communication when expressing their complaints or dissatisfaction with the current state in Libya-on various levels-are largely individuals without a real set agenda to cause instability or hinder progress. However, we do believe that they wish to see some promise for themselves in Libya, that they will be heard, their basic needs met, and a bright future ahead.
To their credit, the Libyan government has not yet been able to produce any of these results, thus preventing those holding weapons from putting them down. Until they are promised security, they will continue to let their weapons speak on their behalf. Militias, on the other hand, pose a more serious risk as they act collectively and thus require a more comprehensive solution. Their needs which vary depending on motive-good and bad-must be met with strict words and actions on the part of the government which needs to absorb most if not all militias to serve the national army, police force, and border security.
Once that has been aptly developed, any militia not absorbed, should be considered outlaws and pursued as criminals where they should be tried and brought to justice. This step, however, needs law and order to be quickly developed and enforced. If these steps are vigourously pursued, addressing crime including the issues illegal drugs, theft, and human trafficking would hopefully fall into place. The main priority now is to differentiate between criminals and citizens by establishing an army for those who want to use weapons (alternatively, register these weapons for personal use) and a police force to begin to address crimes and issues of national security.
Thinking ahead, where would you like to see Libya in ten years’ time with regards to its political, economic and social progress?
In ten years time, we envision a Libya which has sufficiently developed itself with a fully functioning government, complete with the guarantee of basic human rights and freedoms for all, effective law and order, security, and ample opportunity for Libyans-young and old- to prosper. We hope to see a Libya with a vibrant and diverse economy, well established health and education systems, and social support programs for those who need it. We want to see a Libya that is well liked by its neighbours with strong ties in the region as well as positively received by the international community. We hope for a Libya that is a leader in some respects, that is welcoming, that is always persevering to improve and excel.
If you could send a message out to other young people around the world who are suffering under tyranny, poverty and war, what would that message be?
Organize yourselves and raise your voices. Young people are the future and it is never too early to begin working for what you want to achieve. Raise awareness on your plight, highlight your strengths, show the world that you matter, that you strive for the same things that everyone strives for and that you deserve to be heard.
The world is always listening and there are people out there who do want to help and can help, you just need to reach out to them. We would also like to invite anyone interested in collaborating with us in the future to help highlight issues, accomplishments, and struggles of young people to get in touch.
We want to interact with the world, now more than ever as we begin to rebuild Libya, and continue to develop ourselves as young people and make a place for all young people in the world.
Picture: Libyan Youth Movement logo
G’day! My name is Francis Ventura and I am currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Melbourne. I am also the youth director of the Australian Republican Movement.
As Melbourne is the sporting capital of the nation, I have a keen interest in cricket and Australian Rules football. I also love exploring Australia’s beautiful environment. After my studies I would like to dedicate my life to human rights, with a focus on protecting civilians living in war zones or under totalitarian regimes.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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