The rebels have taken Tripoli, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has gone into hiding and Libyans have begun celebrating. Gaining control of the country’s capital was a crucial break for the opposition after six months of fighting. As the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and North Africa, the ouster of long-time leaders in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year gave much hope that even someone like Gaddafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, is not invincible.
While gunfights are still erupting in parts of Tripoli and rebels and NATO forces are closing in on the embattled colonel, Libyans now have to start confronting the challenge of rebuilding their country. After decades under strongman rule, transitioning to a democratic leadership will be a grueling process. Political institutions will have to be restored or even built from scratch. Political parties for instance, have been banned during the dictatorship and non-governmental organizations are required to conform to Gaddafi’s mandate. Establishing a vibrant and independent civil society and stimulating an open and participative political exercise are just some of the long-term challenges.
Almost 70 percent of Libya’s population is under the age of 34. With young people comprising a good number of the opposition’s foot soldiers, the revolt has been branded as disorganized and amateurish. Gaddafi has also accused the youth of taking drugs and being manipulated by al-Qaida. With unbridled passion and impulsiveness typically attributed to the youth, they are often seen as the best for frontline fighting but not so much for policymaking.
As the tide is turning in the rebels’ favor, the spotlight is on the senior leadership of the National Transitional Council and who Libya’s next leader might be. But by focusing on who the next big personality in the country could be, there is a danger of just picking the next dictator instead of moving away from the strongman framework and establishing an inclusive, democratic system. If Libya is to break away from Gaddafi’s legacy, different sectors and parties should be involved in nation-building including the youth. In fact, the country could benefit greatly from the youth’s passion and idealism. They joined the uprising because they wanted something better for themselves, they didn’t want to settle for the kind of society and government that their elders have lived with.
Democracy is a messy job; the process of making it work can be slow, arduous and frustrating. But for a people who have endured nearly half a century of dictatorship, it is also empowering and liberating. Young Libyans should be given a real chance to experience this empowerment and liberation as they shape their future in the rebirth of a country that they can truly call their own.
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0971/Marta Ramoneda. Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 2011. On 11 June, 18-year-old Sidiq Nasser stands in a street in al-Whishi, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Benghazi. “I want a country with good institutions, where people understand what politics is, and the people and the politicians respect the law. So we have buildings we are proud of and can be recognized by the world as intelligent and strong,” said Sidiq.