Libyan youths take part in the yearly First Tech Challenge, a country-wide robotics competition, as regional qualifiers for Libya begin in the eastern city of Benghazi, on Febryary 3, 2022. [Abdullah Doma/AFP]

Youssef Jira, a fresh-faced 18-year-old in a hoodie with a bandana around his head, has big ambitions in a Libyan society where dictatorship and violence has dominated, rather than youthful creativity.

Jira is one of a group of young tech fanatics who took part in the Libya Regional Championship for robotics in a suburb of Tripoli this month. Some 20 teams of 12-to-18-year-olds competed in the inclusive event.

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

“We want to send a message to the whole of society, because what we’ve learned has changed us a lot,” Jira said, adding that he has gained new skills and learned about teamwork in pursuit of a common goal.

Libyan youths take part in the yearly First Tech Challenge, a country-wide robotics competition, as regional qualifiers for Libya begin in the eastern city of Benghazi, on February 3, 2022 [Abdullah Doma/AFP]

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.

The country remains split between a supposedly interim government in the western capital, Tripoli, and another in the east, backed by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar.

‘It’s more than robots’

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

The robots were small, wheeled contraptions with exposed circuitry that manoeuvred jerkily around the pen in the centre of the room.

Event coordinator Mohammed Zayed said such projects help “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”.

Under Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, universities emphasised the leader’s views on politics, the military and economics rather than scientific advancement.

Libyans attend a robotics competition at school in Tripoli on March 4, 2023 [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

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.

At the competition, family, friends and government officials were there to cheer on the competitors and promote tech culture.

The event, funded by an international school and private sponsors, had been envisaged since 2018 but repeatedly delayed because of unrest followed by the COVID pandemic.

Shadrawan Khalfallah, 17, who was competing on an all-girl team, said she believed technology could help address challenges from climate to health and 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”.

Libyan students attend a robotics competition in Tripoli on March 4, 2023 [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

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 that needs to change. “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, focusing 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”.