The Arab Spring presented a series of complex and significant social, political and cultural changes in the course of a few years. However, as the world continues to make sense of the the present situations in these countries - of society, social relationships, politics and global relations, the contribution of the region's youth is something often glossed over by the international media, policy makers and by governments both in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and in and the international community at large. A domino effect sparked by a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi from the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria. Armed with nothing but their voices calling out for their freedom, the youth demonstrated a bravery that the generations before could not harness.
It is imperative to recognize that young people were not only a vital element in the popular uprisings that took the region by storm, they were actually the ones who led these historical movements; and it is precisely for this reason that youth in the MENA should not be brushed aside by those whose space in government they forged. Furthermore, the reputation of youth in MENA should be protected and misconceptions cleared.
In Libya, making up the majority of the population, young people were waking up to a world where they were not welcome. A world they knew was growing increasingly small and familiar - where globalization was driving meaningful interactions around them, simultaneously excluding them. Young people in Libya were realizing that their governments did not want to support their growth but rather stunt it in order to maintain the dehumanizing conditions that their parents had endured.
The Libyan revolution represented hope for its youth. Inspired by movements in Tunisia and Egypt before them, it signified a chance for them to put a stop to the oppression that their countrymen endured under the regime; to finally flush out and heal the wounds that only festered over time.
Before those outside the country could fathom the powerful movements surging across North Africa, what started as peaceful demonstrations in Libya quickly turned into violent crackdowns and led to a brutal seven month war costing thousands of Libyan lives all over the country before the liberation in August 2011. What may be one of the most interesting aspects of these movements was the intense region-wide and nation-wide processes and networks of organization and mobilization between Libyan youth at the forefront of the battle and the Libyan diaspora mobilizing outside the country (although in many cases members of the diaspora travelled inside the country to take part as well). Amidst all this, the youth of Libya won the support and admiration of the world, presenting something never previously associated with the country under its dictatorship: it was now a country, although long neglected, bursting with potential.
Beyond its natural resources, it was the sheer untapped potential of its youth that gained the admiration of the world (including the country's diaspora); a vibrant and curious generation with ambitions and the desire to proudly build up a country they so courageously fought for. However, since these glorious days of liberation, there has been an emergence of negative associations that have lead to the aforementioned negligence of this important and engaged demographic, each of these must be confronted.
September 11, 2012 is an important date to locate commentary on the changing perceptions towards Libyan youth. The young people previously seen as 'heroes' and 'revolutionaries' began to be interpreted by governments and the international media as armed groups, militias, and Islamists. Such an interpretation can directly impede the process and success of this demographic, deconstructing everything the revolution sought to achieve, and upholding precisely what the regime did, in suppressing and vilifying young people. The attacks on the American consulate which resulted in the death of four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens were tragic events that led the youth of Benghazi and Libya to stand up for themselves. Fearing that their revolution and reputation would be hijacked by those extremists responsible for the attacks, they immediately organized themselves in protest to express their outrage against the attacks and support and condolences to the families of the Americans lost. Libyan youth are very sensitive to their reception by the outside world after four decades of misrepresentation by the regime, and they will not let their revolution be tarnished by divisive minorities in the country.
The hope of the Libyan Revolution at its grassroots in 2011, mobilized by the hundreds of thousands of Libyan youths who fought for change, should inform the treatment of young people in the country today. The youth described wanting to live in a country where they could enjoy their basic human rights and freedoms, where they could express themselves, interact with their societies as well as the world, and the hope continues to be that they will be allowed to live up to their potential, rather than be excluded from the country's growth and development.
This is why the International Political Forum has partnered with ShababLibya on a new project called 'Libyan Youth Voices'. For the first time since the revolution, the voices of young people are being put centre-stage. In their own words, we will hear from young people across the political spectrum inside Libya, including young people who remain members of the many militias who still roam the country, and a number of young Libyans from the diaspora, telling their stories of the revolution and their hopes for the future.
The fight for Libya did not end with the death of Gaddafi. There are still many years of struggle ahead. Struggles for a new national identity, struggles for the development of new freedoms, educational systems, and of the new Libyan civil society. Over the coming months we aim to bring together young writers, photographers, film makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and academics to share their stories with the world.
The youth of Libya took the initiative to crack open the political spaces believed to belong only to the brutal regime. This illustrates the bravery and leadership they possess; allowing the youth into decision making processes and opening doors and opportunities for them rather than shutting them out will be the way forward. We hope that with this series, we will raise awareness, challenge perceptions, and show the world the extraordinary work that is happening every day in the continuing fight to create a new future for Libya.
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This article was co-written with Ayat Mneina, co-founder of ShababLibya.