Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Education Under Attack in Libya’s War

Specials- Benghazi University
Students from the chemical engineering department of Benghazi University throw their academic robes in the air as they celebrate on October 24, 2016, during their graduation ceremony in front of a building of the university that was destroyed due to fighting. Photo AFP

The Green Book was the cornerstone of Libya’s education for decades under former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The book, authored by Qaddafi, blended Marxist theory with traditional anarchy, while offering sometimes ridiculous reflections on the differences between men and women.

From the age of eight, schoolchildren were indoctrinated in the Green Book’s teachings for two hours a week. They learned how to love the ‘Brother Leader’ – Qaddafi’s self-given nickname – as well as his views on breastfeeding and sports, and his distaste for Western-style democracy.

The book became obsolete shortly after Qaddafi’s capture and assassination on 20 October 2011. Afterwards, a team of 160 experts came together to purge the school curriculum of all of Qaddafi’s influence, vowing to replace it with a curriculum that encourages critical thought.

While education remains free in Libya, the lack of security is derailing thousands of children’s access to schooling. Ongoing militia violence has disrupted school sessions, and many pupils fear for their lives.

In February 2014, a grenade hit a private school in Benghazi, injuring 12 children. By that summer, the country was descending deeper into turmoil. As it became entrenched in a volatile civil war, most state institutions collapsed. Competing governments – one in the east, the other in the west – allied with rival militias that vied for legitimacy.

The civil war forced hundreds of schools and universities to close. During the battle for Benghazi, education officials released a report that revealed that the conflict was stopping 63,000 children and 8,500 teachers from going to school.

In September 2014, a militia allied with the broad coalition of Islamists known as Libyan Dawn took over a school cafeteria in Zawiya and made it into their kitchen. The school’s administrators tried but failed to enrol students in evening classes elsewhere.

Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan journalist and academic, wrote that 250 schools in Sirte – Qaddafi’s birthplace – had been abandoned following the campaign to route the Islamic State (IS) from the city in 2016.

Access to education remains just as perilous for Libyan children four years later. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that 489 schools were affected by violence in the first seven months of 2018. At least 260,000 students experienced obstacles to accessing an education as a result.

Despite the conflict, literacy rates remain high in Libya, standing at nearly 91 per cent as of 2015. However, this figure might not be accurate due to the difficulty in conducting a nationwide census.

Osman Abdel Jalil, the education minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), told the Arab Weekly in March 2018 that a general lack of funding and teacher training are also hindering the progress of education. Yet escalating violence, he acknowledged, was the main concern, especially in the south and east.

“The conditions in the schools and the universities in southern Libya and eastern cities are far worse than those in areas in the western parts of the country,” Jalil said. “A rising pitch of violence in those areas makes continuing the educational process impossible. Going to work for teachers and attending classes for students is a heroic mission.”

Despite the war, and the overwhelming challenges facing the education sector, Jalil celebrated the achievement of unifying the curriculum in eastern, western and southern Libya. He stressed that all universities in the country need to operate under a nationwide curriculum, even if the country remains fractured.

The infrastructural damage, he argued, is not a big issue compared to the psychological affects that the war is having on young pupils. He fears that young Libyans could suffer lingering trauma, impacting the next generation.

The poor and dangerous working conditions for teachers are also major concerns. In October 2017, the teachers union in Benghazi postponed the school year indefinitely until the ministry conceded to a list of demands.

The union demanded that teachers have their salaries doubled and be given full health insurance. They also demanded adequate security to prevent conflicts erupting near schools. Jalil agreed to give the teachers health insurance but not to double their pay, a compromise that the teacher’s union refused. One university student from Benghazi said that the standoff continued until teachers finally decided to open primary schools in late November.

Since then, Jalil has worked with aid groups to give some children a glimmer of hope. UNICEF reported that more than 370,000 displaced Libyan families returned to their homes in May and June 2018. Most families cited access to education as a major reason for their return.

Returning to school has offered previously uprooted children a safer environment in the ruptured country. Twelve-year old Amina Zintani, from the southern town of Ubari, is one example. She recently came back to her rehabilitated school, allowing her to resume classes and reunite with friends.

“It feels great being with my friends again. The people and this place mean a lot to me,” she told Theirworld.

Of course, thousands of children are still searching for the semblance of normality that school provides. Geert Cappelare, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Theirworld that 26,000 students were forced to change schools in the southern and eastern parts of the country due to escalating violence.

Meanwhile, education is subpar in cities where children are still going to school. In the capital Tripoli, classes are overcrowded, with an average class size of 40 children, none of whom have been given text books. That issue pales in comparison to the poor health standards in schools. Some do not have a toilet, while many have contaminated water.

The war and poor service provision are clearly having a serious impact on the learning environment of young Libyan children. Ceasing the violence and ending the political paralysis appear to be the only ways to address the root of the problem. Only then can the education ministry provide the security and investment needed to safeguard the next generation.