In troubled Libya, young robotics fans see hope in technology to ‘send a message to the whole of society’

  • Robotics competition in Tripoli had around 20 teams, many of them with members of groups often marginalised in the country: women, migrants and the disabled
  • Little public money goes into science and technology, but a science teacher and mentor to one of the teams says this needs to change to help Libya’s development
Agence France-Presse |

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Libyan students worked together at a school gymnasium where the robotics competition took place. Photo: AFP

Youssef Jira, a fresh-faced 18-year-old in a hoodie, has big ambitions in a Libyan society where youthful creativity has long been sacrificed to dictatorship and violence.

He wants to encourage other young people to use technology to help modernise the divided and conflict-scarred country.

Youssef, with a bandana around his head, is one of a group of young tech fanatics who took part in a robotics competition in a suburb of Tripoli this month.

“We want to send a message to the whole of society because what we’ve learned has changed us a lot,” Youssef said at the rare event.

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At the robotics competition in Tripoli, the young participants worked together at the school gymnasium where the competition took place.

The event had the air of a school sports competition, with fans cheering on their teams who worked in a pen on the gym floor, against a backdrop of banners promoting “Lybotics” and the “First Tech Challenge” as English pop music played.

The robots were nothing fancy: small wheeled contraptions with their electrical guts exposed. They made jerky movements as they manoeuvred around the pen.

The event hoped to promote tech culture and the start-up spirit among youth. Photo: AFP

But event coordinator Mohammed Zayed said such projects helped “open new horizons” for young Libyans.

“This is not just about simple robots,” he said. “These young people also had to manage their relationships and work towards inclusion, unity and peace.”

Zayed said the event aimed to “prepare the workers of the future and make the country aware of the importance of technology and innovation”.

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Libya has seen more than a decade of stop-start conflict since a 2011 Nato-backed revolt toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi, with myriad rival militias, foreign powers and multiple governments vying for influence.

Under Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, the education and development of young people were not priorities, and universities emphasised the leader’s views on politics, the military and economics.

The country remains split between an interim government in the western capital, Tripoli, and another in the east nominally backed by military chief Khalifa Hifter.

But after years of violence, a period of relative calm since a 2020 ceasefire has allowed some to dream that Libya can start moving forward, despite the ongoing political split.

The robotics event was finally able to happen this year after delays due to unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

At the competition, family, friends and even government officials joined the effort to promote tech culture and the start-up spirit, particularly among youth. The event, funded by an international school and private sponsors, had been envisaged since 2018 but repeatedly delayed because of unrest and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around 20 teams competed, many of them with members of groups often marginalised in Libya’s conservative society: women, migrants and the disabled.

Shadrawan Khalfallah, 17, a member of an all-girl team, said she believed technology could help address challenges from climate to health, but also help women get ahead.

“We set up our team to make our society evolve and show that we exist,” she said, handing out stickers bearing the word “Change”.

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Libya is rich in oil, but decades of stagnation under Gaddafi and years of fighting have shattered its corruption-plagued economy and left its population mired in poverty.

Little public money goes into science and technology, but Nagwa al-Ghani, a science teacher and mentor to one of the teams, said this needed to change and could help give Libya “a better image”.

“We need it if we want our country to develop,” she said, adding that education is the starting point.

They face numerous challenges, but authorities in the capital Tripoli talk of “new initiatives” for digital development, with a focus on young people.

“Libya lacks nothing, neither human resources, nor intelligence, nor the determination of the youth,” government spokesman Mohammed Hamouda said at the event. “What’s missing is long-term stability and a strategic vision to support young people”.

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