Libya: oil and revolution – a tale of two generations

Young people started Libya’s revolution, young people fought and young people finished it. Now, almost two years after Tripoli’s liberation, their role in this new nation they helped create is unclear.

Some of them have started radio stations to bring a little more exposure to the outside world. Others are active in a bustling civil society, trying to make politics more accessible for the youth. And some have launched new businesses to try their luck in the suddenly free-for-all economy.

Trying to get a handle on the petroleum sector is also a priority. It might not be as cool as western radio or youth activism, but learning about a business that contributes 70 percent of GDP still counts for something. On my visit to the country last month, I ran three workshops explaining oil contracts in Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi. Most of the people attending were under 30. Misrata, where a few grizzled veteran petroleum engineers showed up alongside students and young journalists, was a notable exception.

There, in Misrata, the yawning generational gap between Libya’s young people and its more established working force became clear to me.

To illustrate, let’s try on two different pairs of shoes. You’re a 23 year old Libyan who just risked his life to help end Gaddafi’s rule. Now you find yourself entering adulthood with the world thrust open for you. Libya is suddenly a dynamic place – you fought to make it that way – and now you want to take advantage.

Or you’re a 50 year old Libyan who has spent most of his working life in a stale economic environment, trapped in a state-planned kleptocracy. On the subject of politics or strategic sectors like petroleum you’ve kept your mouth shut for a long time – didn’t want to end up in Abu Salim prison, did you. But now you can say whatever you want, about whomever you want, to whomever you want, and chances are there is someone else out there who will back you up. A new dawn has risen.

You can see why neither of these characters wants to give up a chance to wield influence he never had before. In Misrata I saw young and old spar on issues ranging from what the structure of an ideal Libyan oil industry would look like, to what time we should start and end the workshop on a Thursday. The young workshoppers would ask questions about how other more stable and democratic countries managed their petroleum sectors, and how Libya might follow suit. The elders of the group more often relayed stories about how working under Gaddafi’s iron fist could stunt development and limit an ambitious person’s career.

The older people in attendance did not necessarily look backward, but they did seem to resist what they perceived to be radical ideas about reforming the oil industry, because they were unrealistic. Young people seemed more amenable to the cause, but of course they were also clueless compared to their older counterparts about how such a vast and complex industry works. To me it seemed like the young felt they were ready to pick up the torch and run with it but the older generation was loath to let it go.

Influencing the new Libya doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, of course. I think there is enough space in this nation of 6.4 million for everyone who wants to get involved to do so. The mature workforce should continue plying its trade and also learn about and try out new ideas. At the same time, young leaders should be able to voice their political concerns through formal structures endorsed and supported by the state. These leadership structures do not yet exist, though, and what form they might eventually take is not clear.

Regional rivalries and competing militias with differing agendas mean the struggle for legitimacy can sometimes turn violent. Most people in cities stay in after dark. Many households keep a closet or two of guns they stocked up on during the revolution, just in case. There are probably as many young people involved in the post-revolutionary clamor on the streets as there are young entrepreneurs launching radio stations and start-ups.

The only thing clear so far is that Gaddafi and his goons’ way of doing business is finished. Libya is not in danger, as its neighbor, Egypt, seems to be, of having new power structures give way to the old status quo. Senior positions in the new government, and in the oil management, are filled by fresh faces – a law passed in May banning Gaddafi-era officials from holding office made sure of that.

The new oil minister, Abdulbari Al Arusi, is an engineer who was vocal enough during the Gaddafi years that he served eight years of a life sentence in Abu Salim, an unhappy home to many political prisoners. Nuri Abusahmain, the new president of the General National Congress, Libya’s proto-parliament, is an ethnic Amazigh, a Berber minority that was systematically excluded from politics during the four decades of dictatorship. In a speech after his election to the post, Abusahmain distanced himself from any political or regional affiliation and declared himself independent.

This is pretty refreshing stuff. But what interests me most is how the mindset of today’s young people influences Libya’s future, and what avenues they might pursue to make that influence felt. Especially when we’re talking about oil. Exposure to different ways of doing business around the world, whether it’s Norway, Brazil or Botswana, could inject new thinking into Libya’s oil management. Al Arusi has spearheaded a move to review Libya’s oil contracts and possibly draft new oil legislation. That’s a start. But what about looking at how money from oil best trickles down to the average citizen? The focus, during the Gaddafi years and even now, in the call to review contracts, seems to be on how to maximize the government ‘take’ of revenues and give foreign multinationals the toughest break. How about a more concerted focus on reforming what is done with the money after the government has got it?

Few seem to be talking about that in Libya at the moment. Maybe a new generation of leaders will start to shift the mentality that for so long has kept this kind of thinking quiet.

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