The scourge of youth unemployment in Libya

There is one question that has been on the mind of every citizen living in any of the countries that experienced the so-called "Arab Spring”. How much have we achieved since then?

The citizens of these countries endured oppression for a long time. Tyrants were displaced, blood was shed and promises of prosperity for the people were made. In Libya, many young people believe that the biggest success was the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country from 1969 until he was overthrown in 2011.

But since then they have faced much disappointment. Although many young people involved in the uprising still have guns and weapons in their possession, they would rather achieve their goals through political means. Though their demands are simple, for the decision makers they are far-fetched.

First and foremost, they want to see the key figures of the Gaddafi regime put on trial. They also want to see a better standard of living for Libyans, the disarmament of the militias, the establishment of functioning institutions and they also want a stake in the decision-making process as Libyan politics tends to be dominated by much older men.

Their biggest demand, however, is work.

Before the revolution, Libya was a country facing “profound decent work challenges”, with an unemployment rate 22 per cent according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Today, the Libyan Ministry of Labour puts that figure at 15 per cent, although unofficial estimates suggest that the real figure is closer to 30 per cent. And of the unemployed registered with the Ministry of Labour, 43 per cent are university graduates.

The truth is – graduate or otherwise – few young Libyans have seen much progress since Gaddafi’s overthrow. They still face massive unemployment, especially now that many public and private sector employers have stopped doing business due to the deteriorating security situation in Libya.

Like in many places, the employment situation varies across the country. In Tripoli, for example, relative stability means that there are more employment opportunities whereas in places like the eastern city of Tobruk, the official unemployment rate is more than 30 per cent.

The greatest tragedy

This means that many young Libyans have to be creative and flexible in order to find work. Amjad, a 27-year-old from Libya’s third-largest city of Misrata, did not know when he graduated from the city’s Higher Institute for Computer Science in 2008 that he would have to leave home and completely disregard his degree in order to find work.

Amjad now makes a living as a photographer. When asked how he felt about his job he said: "I do not expect much from this job, but I prefer to work than stay at home."

Not every young Libyan has been as lucky or as resourceful as Amjad. Many now spend their time in cafes, sitting around with friends and feeling great disappointment that the revolution hasn’t changed anything for them.

Moreover, even if the figures say otherwise, there is a feeling that unemployment has increased, while their chances of a better future have decreased.

The unemployment situation in Libya adds to the tragedies endured by the Libyan people, who went from four decades of authoritarian rule straight into a seven month civil war in which thousands were killed.

But the deteriorating economic situation in a country that literally floats on a sea of oil is probably Libya’s greatest tragedy.

Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and is the fifth biggest oil producer in the world, producing more than 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. But following decades of lack of transparency and corruption, there is still no effective mechanism to channel the country’s oil revenues for the good of the Libyan people.

Most of the companies operating in this field are foreign-owned and many of the employees are expats, so the need for a strong oil policy to increase revenues, create new jobs and allow Libya to make the most of its oil wealth is vital.

Until then, bright young graduates like Saif, a 26-year-old from Benghazi, will continue to get by however they can. Despite holding a degree in IT, he survives by running a tea and coffee cart.

"I have found in this profession a source for a decent income instead of staying at home unemployed and being a burden on my family and my community until I find the right job."

For the sake of Libya’s future, let’s hope it doesn’t take Saif or the thousands like him too long.