In the basement of a converted villa, a group of youth activists have been gathered together to talk about crisis management. The crisis in question is not a theoretical one, but the conflict that has gripped Libya for the past few months. These activists are from Benghazi, one of the cities most affected by the violence. "What has been your reaction to the crisis?" the moderator asks, and several hands go up as the participants detail their experiences with evacuation, extended power cuts and safety precautions.
The workshop, entitled 'Youth in Crisis Management', was organized by Civil Initiatives Libya in collaboration with Eltwassul, and has been one of the few civil society events held in Benghazi since the beginning of the conflict. "We decided to hold this workshop partially because of the low morale and hopelessness the youth are feeling right now," said Maeteiga Gremeia, the Finance Officer of Civil Initiatives Libya. "We believe that the youth can bring in new ideas to resolving this crisis, and we want to improve their understanding of safety." The ultimate goal of the workshop is lay down a frame work for response to the worst case scenario.
Since the conflict began, Benghazi has come almost to a standstill. The airport, university, several businesses and other institutes have all closed. The life of average citizens has been limited by the sporadic fighting that takes place at any hour, occasionally drowned out by the sound of jets flying overhead. And yet, life has not stopped altogether. It is the average citizens, and especially the youth, who are keeping the city together.
This can be seen in campaigns like "We're Benghazi's Family", which assists the families displaced by the fighting. They've set up havens in public schools and are working with other institutes to provide aid for these families. The Benghazi branch of the Red Crescent has also played an exemplary role. Their work ranges from transporting corpses to delivering medicine to even patrolling traffic. The volunteers of these groups are mainly comprised of young people, many of whom were active during the revolution. And, as one member put it, "Maintaining neutrality has helped us play a more efficient role."
While neutrality is a wise stance in an increasingly polarized conflict, many feel that the country cannot move forward with the presence of armed groups that act independently from the state's authority. A law was recently passed by the newly elected House of Representatives to call on the international community to protect civilians.
It was this law that inspired the Sijal debate team, a youth-founded organization, to hold a public debate with the motion 'Foreign intervention is the solution to Libya's crisis'. Salem Bader, co-founder of Sijal, explained the importance of these debates. "What we're missing in our society is dialogue, and being tolerant of different opinions," he said. "We wanted to hold this debate as a way to get dialogue started on the parliament's decision, as well as to revive civil society. It's important to involve youth because they're the ones who are actually on the street and working [for Libya]."
The importance of youth involvement is often emphasized, ever since the crucial role they played in the revolution. But we have yet to see any sincere effort made to incorporate them in the nation-building process. Youth still remain underrepresented in local councils and other governing authorities. This alienation and lack of opportunities has led to young men being easily swayed into joining militias and extremist groups.
It's imperative that the new government works to enable and encourage Libya's youth into play a larger role in the country's affairs. By strategically harnessing youth potential, there is a greater chance of ending the conflict and securing future stability for Libya. Whether through debating, volunteering or through social media, they are continuing to find new ways to make themselves heard. Now it's time for officials to listen.
Tawfik Ben Saoud, one of Benghazi's most prominent activists, summed it up by saying, "A military movement alone can't solve the crisis; there must a civil movement that works parallel to it. If youth are given a chance, they can find a peaceful solution. My message to Libya's youth is, you are powerful and you can make change. You just need to take the opportunity and act."
This article was written by Nada Elfeituri, and is part of the special Libyan Youth Voices series run by the IPF and the Libyan Youth Movement.
Nada Elfeituri is a Libyan architecture student currently attending the University of Benghazi. She is also a Georgetown University MEPI alumna and the founder of the Young Writers of Benghazi, a project dedicated to help foster aspiring young Libyan writers. Follow her on Twitter @NadaElfeituri!