Libyan youth in limbo: Coming of age in conflict

The full research paper on “Libyan Youth in Limbo” can be found through the PDF link on the right.

Libyan youth with a precarious truck on a sand dune. © Aydoğan Kalabalık/AA

Executive Summary

This study seeks to understand how the transition to adulthood for Libyan youth has been impacted by the context of the past 10 years in conflict. Through in-depth qualitative research carried out with 75 Libyan youth in 2020-2021, the study explores decision-making processes and the types of opportunities and constraints that youth face in terms of education and livelihood, the impact of war on their political beliefs and participation, their understandings of peace and security, and the ways in which war has changed gender norms and relations.

The study finds that 2014 represents the pivotal year in terms of their personal trajectories, their critical understandings of dynamics of war and peace, and their own personal sense of wellbeing and hope for the future. With regards to livelihood and employment paths, youth trajectories reveal a complicated dynamic, where opportunities come at a price or with consequences that are counterproductive. On one hand, the conflict in Libya has dismantled old repressive structures, and in the absence of that, there are chances of more independent and ingenious efforts to improve livelihoods. For nearly all participants, for example, the preferred choice of study actually expanded as a result of the opening of society and the political sphere in 2011. Likewise, dynamics of necessity since 2011 have seen the emergence of a new culture for entrepreneurship that is innovative and resilient. Yet at the same time, the destruction of war means that education pathways have been cut short and that the infrastructure needed to make entrepreneurship sustainable for young people, such as a strong financial system and operating legal framework, does not exist.

In regards to political beliefs and participation, many youth attest that the 2011 uprising served as a political awakening of sorts, creating new interest in politics and political processes. However, the descent into war has had an almost universally negative impact on their view towards politics and politicians. Deep distrust in politics and a widespread belief in the systemic depths of corruption translates to pervasive apathy for formal political processes and participation. Yet at the same time, Libyan youth who have come into adulthood in a context of conflict have nuanced views regarding how peace can be constructed and the responsibilities required for this peacebuilding process at different levels. This includes the necessity of rehabilitation and the promotion of tolerance, respect for differences, and values of coexistence – all of which must be carried out both by the State, but also critically by communities themselves. For peace to truly exist, though, youth insist on the necessity for justice as a prerequisite.

With regards to social relations and gender norms, the conflict has had a dualistic impact on both challenging and reinforcing traditional tropes of masculinity and femininity. Because of extreme loss of economic wellbeing, women youth have found themselves in new jobs, with new responsibilities, and in new public spaces that sometimes break away from traditional gender norms. Yet at the same time, the conflict has also reinforced norms regarding masculinity and the role of men in the family and society. As a result, while youth participating in this study do acknowledge profound shifts in the gender roles and gender relations, the extent to which this is viewed as something positive to be maintained in the post-conflict period is much less certain.

Overall, the study finds that youth, facing important psychological trauma and in a perpetual state of uncertainty and instability, have little hope for the future and little ability to plan for their lives. The most reliable strategy they have adopted is that of flexibility and adaptability, with most viewing life outside of Libya as the only real option for the future. In other words, young people are seeking to build their lives elsewhere. Their lack of trust in politics and in the ability that they have to effect change means that core issues related to the resolving conflict and building peace, such as economic and political reform, will continue to be a problem without the younger generation taking active part in contributing to rebuilding of the country. This new generation no longer has the mentality of relying only on the State, but believes instead on pursuing good educational and work opportunities that are more personally fulfilling. They are also acutely aware of the extremely difficult environment in which they try to study or work in, as well as the lack of a broader context that can support them. For youth in Libya today, the pervasive feeling is that they are not safe and cannot set deep roots for fear everything will collapse.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.