“Can young robot fans help unify Libya?”


Youssef Jira, an 18-year-old tech enthusiast from Libya, is part of a group of young people who participated in the Libya Regional Championship for robotics. The event saw 20 teams of 12-to-18-year-olds compete in a suburb of Tripoli. Jira hopes to encourage other young people to use technology to modernize the country, which has been dominated by dictatorship and violence. He believes that the skills he learned and the teamwork he experienced during the competition can help him achieve this goal.

Libya has been plagued by conflict for more than a decade, with rival militias, foreign powers, and multiple governments vying for power. The country remains divided between a supposedly interim government in the western capital, Tripoli, and another in the east, backed by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar. Despite this, the robotics competition had an air of excitement and enthusiasm, with fans cheering on their teams as they worked on their robots.

The robots themselves were small, wheeled contraptions with exposed circuitry that manoeuvred jerkily around the pen in the centre of the room. Event coordinator Mohammed Zayed said that such projects help “open new horizons” for young Libyans. He believes that the competition aimed to “prepare the workers of the future and make the country aware of the importance of technology and innovation”.

Under Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, universities emphasised the leader’s views on politics, the military, and economics rather than scientific advancement. However, 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 competition was funded by an international school and private sponsors and had been envisaged since 2018 but repeatedly delayed because of unrest followed by the COVID pandemic.

Shadrawan Khalfallah, a 17-year-old member of an all-girl team, believes that technology can help address challenges from climate to health and help women get ahead. She hopes that her team’s participation in the competition will show that they exist and can contribute to society. 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, believes that this needs to change. She believes that education is the starting point for developing the country.

Despite the challenges facing Libya, authorities in the capital Tripoli are talking about “new initiatives” for digital development, focusing on young people. Government spokesman Mohammed Hamouda believes that Libya has everything it needs to succeed except for long-term stability and a strategic vision to support young people. The robotics competition is just one example of how young Libyans are using technology to prepare themselves for a better future.