|(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)|
'Forget doctors and engineers: We want to marry a rebel,' one of the widely circulated text messages goes. 'Looking for a rebel to wed?' another SMS asks: 'Press "M" for a husband from Misrata, "B" for a husband from Benghazi ...' But Libya is still a deeply observant Islamic country, and very few -- if any -- of those unacquainted young men and women were actually talking to each other during the night of rallying that followed the camel feast. Only once in my visit last month, in Tripoli's Martyrs Square, packed with celebrating crowds each night since Qaddafi's overthrow, did I see a tall, armed rebel and a young woman in headscarf with their cell phones out, exchanging numbers. The young male Libyan activist I was with watched as the rebel and young woman appeared to head out of the square together, a discreet 10 feet apart. 'This has never happened before,' my Libyan colleague said, shocked. But the budding of wartime romance means a lot more in Libya than merely giddiness at overthrowing a four-decade old dictatorship. With dictators falling in much of the Middle East and North Africa, Arab men and women in newly liberated nations hope to redress one of the most profound and damaging iniquities wrought by rulers like Qaddafi -- the lack of economic opportunity that stunted every aspect of the lives of the region's youth. The Arab region has the second-largest percentage of young people in the world. Almost two out of every three Arabs are under 30, a level exceeded only in sub-Saharan Africa. And the Middle East and North Africa boast both the highest youth unemployment and unemployment overall on the planet. Years ago, political scientists, including Diane Singerman, began using the term 'waithood' to describe the crippled outlook for the young generations of the Arab world. Unable to find jobs, or jobs that paid a living wage, millions of young Arabs were fated to live unhappily at home, unable to afford marriage. And in conservative Islamic societies, marriage for many is the only launch there is into independence, dignity, and a life of one's own. In effect, for young Arabs of ordinary means, 'If they're unemployed, they have no hope of becoming adult,' Singerman, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C. told me earlier this year. Around the region, the average age of marriage has edged up -- and not, for most, because millions of young Arab men and women were enjoying their single years. Young Libyans had it especially bad. Qaddafi didn't just fail to develop well-paying jobs for the young -- he destroyed jobs with erratic socialist schemes that warped Libya's economy. So much so, in fact, that the Libyan government officially estimated unemployment in recent years at 20 percent, twice that of the already high regional rate. As U.S. diplomats in Libya noted in a 2009 WikiLeaked cable that looked closely at the country's high rate of waithood, that more than 60 percent of those Libyans lucky enough to have jobs worked for the state. Qaddafi, quixotically, had blocked wage increases in most of those jobs for decades. Most employed Libyans I spoke with said they made only a few hundred dollars each month. Despite Libya's vast oil wealth, gross domestic product per capita is less than $10,000. A single wedding can cost almost that much in Libya, young Libyan men told me. Marriage in Libya is particularly expensive, with days of celebration and gold-laden dowries expected. Housing is in short supply, but suitors are expected to line up an apartment before the wedding. The result was countless hard-luck stories. On a 2007 visit, I met a Tripoli family of six educated brothers and sisters in their 20s and 30s -- all of whom, male and female, had already bought outfits for their future weddings, which none had any hope of actually affording. The stories of most Libyan young men I met, then and again this year, were variations on the same theme. 'What he's saying, it's all of us,' said the Libyan man in his 20s who translated for me as I talked to Faqiar, the rebel fighter, about his lack of prospects before the revolution. No one in Libya's regime seems to have bothered to have tracked precise figures. Libyan women have a perception that there is a shortage of marriageable young men, both because of the death tolls of Qaddafi's military adventures in Chad and elsewhere and because of the lack of jobs. 'If you tried to count the number of spinsters among us, you couldn't, you'd make mistakes -- there are too many," said Rahana el-Gadi, the 19-year-old young woman at Janzour's rally for the young rebels. The unease over the lack of opportunity for marriage was reflected in the unexpected declaration last weekend, in a victory speech by the head of Libya's opposition national council, that the new Libya would reinstate polygamy, which Qaddafi had limited. But because, according to Islam, only those with the means to support all wives equally can take more than one, easing the way for polygamy would seem likely to make it worse for Libya's unmarried young men of modest means. So did all this frustration really have an impact on the course of the revolution in Libya? [...]"