Libyan youth dream of marriage

Many young Libyans, struggling with unemployment and the aftermath of years of war, can no longer afford the luxury of marriage. Long ignored by successive transitional governments, they are now the focus of attention and are being offered marriage allowances, land or housing by the government of national unity that fears both their desperation and their capacity for protest.

Libyan brides in traditional marriage outfits during a group wedding ceremony held in the western Libyan port city of Misurata
Mahmud Turkia/AFP

To understand something of what is happening in Libya beyond the headlines, it is worth paying attention to who is getting married there and why. More than a decade after the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, weddings have become big business in the country he ruled for 42 years. The sons and daughters of Libya’s elite – including many newly wealthy because of the post-2011 dispensation – hire wedding planners to arrange lavish parties at home or abroad. “It is a lucrative job,” one such planner in Tripoli told me as she detailed the extravagant demands of her clients. Highly sought-after wedding singers – the most famous of whom, Fatima al-Homsa, was detained for over a year by a powerful Tripoli militia known as Rada – charge thousands of dinars to perform at such nuptials.

Inadequate financial aid

But these ostentatious celebrations are out of reach for most of those who came of age in post-Gaddafi Libya. Many young Libyans – already struggling with unemployment and the aftermath of years of war – simply cannot afford marriage. In recent years, the number of Libyans delaying marriage and starting a family – both of which are traditional markers of adulthood in Libyan society – has grown. Official figures indicate that the average age for marriage is 34.4 years for males and 30.1 years for females. This older marrying age is partly to do with the fact more Libyans, particularly women, are pursuing education for longer periods of time, but the prohibitively high cost of marriage is a key factor.

Why does this matter? Libya is a strikingly youthful country: more than half of its population is under 30 years of age. It is a youth bulge that presents both challenges and opportunities. It is also a demographic that has largely been ignored by successive transitional governments since the fall of Gaddafi. There are signs that this is beginning to change.

Last year, an interim authority appointed as part of the UN dialogue process and known as the Government of National Unity (GNU) launched a flurry of initiatives that critics complained were crudely populist. Among these was what is known as the marriage allowance scheme. Under this scheme, newly married couples can apply for a one-off payment of 40,000 dinars (around 7,700 euros). The fund initially had a budget of one billion dinars. It was heavily publicized, including with a mass wedding celebration in central Tripoli last September. Three months later Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba announced a further billion had been earmarked for the fund. Tens of thousands of Libyans have applied for the allowance so far. More than any other initiative, it has become emblematic of the GNU. Not to be outdone, Libya’s parliament – known as the House of Representatives (HoR) – passed a bill granting up to 50,000 Libyan dinars to every Libyan family apart from those who received the GNU’s marriage allowance. Tellingly, this happened after the HoR withdrew its support for Dabaiba’s government last September.

Opponents of the GNU’s marriage allowance scheme say it is not a sustainable solution to a societal crisis that has deeper, structural roots. “Is the marriage issue something that needs to be tackled for the wellbeing of our young people? Absolutely,” says one prominent Libyan business figure. “But it does not make sound economic sense to do it this way.”

Some insist the scheme will lead to an increase in divorce rates because the prospect of handouts will encourage young Libyans to marry without much consideration of the longer term while others claim it has already resulted in more teenage brides, some of them reportedly underage. Allegations of graft have tainted the marriage allowance initiative from the outset.

The wedding rather than the militia

But many other Libyans support the fund. “It is better that our young men get married than join a militia,” a dentist in Tripoli told me during my most recent visit in October. That argument recalled what one prime ministerial hopeful told me in 2014. According to him, solving the marriage conundrum was key to solving Libya’s militia challenge. “This is the formula for Libya: fear, greed, love and sex,” he said. “If you know how to solve these four, then you can solve security, economic and social issues.”

Libyan delegates – mostly youth drawn from the country’s civil society sphere – I met at the recent Forum des mondes méditerranéens in Marseille were divided on the marriage fund. Some welcomed the fact that the delayed marriage dilemma faced by many from their generation was being addressed even if they acknowledged that corruption was an issue. One female attendee was more skeptical. Dabaiba was widely criticized by women activists in December when, while publicly discussing the marriage allowance, he compared women to products on the market.

Controversies over the scheme and other government decisions aside, polling late last year found Dabaiba a popular potential candidate in presidential elections that were supposed to take place on December 24 though he had previously pledged not to run. Likely assuming such ratings to be an endorsement of his populist approach, Dabaiba has since announced a further expansion of the marriage fund. He is also courting Libyan youth in other ways. On the anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 uprising in February, he announced that the GNU would distribute 50,000 plots of land to young people across the country and make available 100,000 under-construction apartments to be completed with the help of government loans.

An important issue for future elections

Dabaiba is not the only political figure to start engaging with Libya’s youth even if his government is the first since 2011 to pay more than lip service to its needs. Fathi Bashaga, the former interior minister selected as prime minister designate by the HoR on February 10 and whose cabinet was approved in a contested HoR vote on March 1, has interacted with young Libyans during discussions on the Clubhouse app and other online forums. He has sought to highlight his past as a member of the Boy Scouts, the only civil society organization allowed to operate during the Gaddafi era and still hugely popular. Dabaiba and Bashaga’s focus on youth may have something to do with the fact that both their teams include young Libyans once prominent in civil society organizations. In eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar, the commander whose failed attempt to capture Tripoli in 2019 led to more than a year of fighting, appointed his doppelgänger son Saddik to oversee youth outreach.

Youth engagement makes sense not only when one examines Libya’s demographic trajectory but also figures released by the country’s High National Elections Commission (HNEC) last year. They show that 50 percent of newly registered voters are between 18 and 30 years old. The legal voting age for both men and women is 18. Though presidential and parliamentary elections planned for last December now appear postponed indefinitely as political wrangling continues over their legal and constitutional framework, that youthful cohort of first-time voters will still matter whenever the ballot might happen.

This recent uptick in voter registration stands in contrast with low youth engagement during the last national elections which were held in 2014, the year Libya slid 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 elections that ushered in the highly dysfunctional House of Representatives.

Regaining hope

A lot has happened since. In a recent paper for the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), Libyan scholar Asma Khalifa found that 2014 was a pivotal year for the young Libyans she surveyed, even more so than 2011. “[2014] represented a turning point that brought about irrevocable changes and loss of hope in the future of the country,” she wrote.

From 2014, years of civil conflict resulted in interrupted lives, dashed hopes, and diminished prospects for Libyan youth. “Facing important psychological trauma and in a perpetual state of uncertainty and instability, [youth] have little hope for the future and little ability to plan for their lives,” Khalifa stated. “The pervasive feeling is that they are not safe and cannot set deep roots for fear everything will collapse.” Young Libyans were key to the uprising that ousted Gaddafi, a reminder that youths – if ignored or not engaged with – are capable of not only challenging but disrupting or even upending the status quo. In August 2020, authorities in both Tripoli and eastern Libya were taken by surprise when anti-corruption rallies swiftly snowballed to become the most widespread national demonstrations since 2011. Young people played a leading role – both as organizers and participants – in these protests.

At the time of writing, Libya is facing the prospect of rival governments, with Dabaiba insisting the GNU will stay in place until parliamentary elections are held later this year, while Bashaga wants to install his government in Tripoli as soon as possible. As alliances shift, there is a risk that this new political crisis may tip the country back into armed conflict.

Looking beyond the immediate situation, any future agenda for Libya should put the country’s youth front and center. This should include economic policies to reduce youth unemployment and enhance youth purchasing power; educational reform that helps prepare young Libyans for the labor market; and an overhaul of the country’s medical sector to better meet the needs of the younger generation, particularly when it comes to mental health. The marriage question is just one part of the equation.