When Libya goes to the polls next, a key question will regard the number of youth that turn up to vote. Over a decade after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s chaos and dysfunction has resulted in interrupted lives, dashed hopes, and diminished prospects for the generation that has come of age in the post-Gaddafi period. More than half of Libya’s population is under 30 years of age. It’s a youth bulge that presents both challenges and opportunities. It’s also a demographic few Libyan political leaders have seriously engaged with up to now.
They may soon start to pay attention. Figures released by Libya’s High National Elections Commission (HNEC) show that 50 percent of newly registered voters for the country’s scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections are between 18-30 years old. The legal voting age for both men and women is 18.
This recent spike in registration stands in contrast with low youth engagement during the last legislative elections which were held in 2014, the year Libya tipped into civil conflict. That year, less than 30 percent of the total number of Libyans aged 18-29 who were entitled to vote ended up registering to cast their ballot. In comparison, 64 percent of those aged 50-59 participated in the election, which had a low overall turnout.
Few of the 98 people who have submitted candidacy papers for the presidential election — the first in Libyan history — have published manifestos or given much detail regarding their vision for the country and what they would do as President. Fewer still have put the needs and aspirations of Libyan youth at the heart of their programme (one exception is the youngest candidate for the presidency, who is in his 30s).
It would be a mistake to overlook the youth vote — and the wider youth demographic — or to take it for granted. Young Libyans generally comprise an educated cohort, yet they are the most vulnerable section of society when it comes to unemployment and economic exclusion.
Joblessness among younger generation Libyans, including among university graduates and youth with advanced qualifications, is a particular challenge as it can delay marriage and starting a family, both traditional markers of adulthood in Libyan society.
Populist measures adopted by the current Government of National Unity (GNU) aimed at addressing this issue through “marriage grants” are not a sustainable solution to what amounts to deeper, structural challenges. In fact, critics of the “marriage grant” scheme — which awards 40,000 dinars (7,750 euro) to a newly married couple — claim it is not only economically unsound, but it has also led to more teenage brides, some of them reportedly underage.
Since 2014, difficult economic conditions and the weakness of state structures have allowed corruption to grow, which has further undermined younger generation’s prospects. Moreover, young men have been drawn into fighting and, in some cases, have been drivers of conflict themselves. Libya’s younger generation has been shaped by violence, both as victims and perpetrators.
Many of the young Libyans I met in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities during the 2011 uprising told me they dreamt of their country becoming “another Dubai on the Mediterranean.” Ten years on, some are not just bitterly disappointed, they say they have lost all hope. A number have migrated, others struggle to get by at home. They complain that their peers — the young men and women who make up more than half Libya’s population — are barely involved in local or national decision-making and their needs and viewpoints are seldom addressed.
In some cases, youth have resorted to other — sometimes controversial — ways of making their voices heard. In late 2018, protests organised by the youth-driven Fezzan Anger Movement in southwest Libya ultimately led to the closure of the country’s largest oil field, denting the main national revenue stream. The protesters said they wanted the central authorities in Tripoli to address local grievances in the oil-rich yet chronically under-developed Fezzan region. It was a reminder that youth in Libya — if ignored or not engaged with — are capable of not only challenging but disrupting or even upending the status quo. The 2011 uprising, in which young Libyans played a central role, is another example.
The lessons here should be obvious for those who hope to be part of whatever new political dispensation takes shape in Libya next year. Libyans who have clamoured for the forthcoming elections say it’s time for what they call “the dinosaurs” — those who have been clinging to political power for years — to exit the stage. Any new agenda for Libya should put the youth front and centre.
If young Libyans turn out on election day in numbers that reflect their registration levels, it will show they can collectively constitute a political force to be reckoned with. What remains to be seen is which presidential candidate will benefit most from the youth vote.
Proponents of Libya's forthcoming ballot warn that not holding elections would risk a return to violence, while sceptics argue the elections themselves risk that possibility, particularly if the results are disputed given the polarised environment.
No matter what new chapter lies ahead for Libya, any future political process must tap into the potential of its youth.