News / Middle East

Young People Driving Middle East Protests

Young people gather around candles as they begin three days of mourning Friday to mourn dozens who died in the protests that drove their autocratic leader from power, in Tunis, January 22, 2011 (File Photo)
Young people gather around candles as they begin three days of mourning Friday to mourn dozens who died in the protests that drove their autocratic leader from power, in Tunis, January 22, 2011 (File Photo)

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Lisa Bryant

The popular revolts roiling Egypt and other Arab countries are being driven by young people clamoring to oust autocratic governments they have known all their lives. The hardscrabble Tunis neighborhood of Ettadhamen provides a representative look at the hardships, and aspirations, of some of the young people behind Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution.

Cite Ettadhamen, on the edges of Tunisia's capital, is considered one of the poorest places in this small north-African country.  Accurate statistics are hard to get, but it is safe to say that many young people here are just scraping by. Twenty-nine-year old Bessam is luckier than most - he has a job as an engineer for a French company.

But Bessam said his brother, who has a masters' degree, was unable to find a job in Tunisia. He now works in Qatar, washing dishes in a hotel.

Another Ettadham resident, 17-year-old Selim, is still in high school. He hopes the changes afoot in Tunisia, where weeks of protests overthrew authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, will bring a brighter future. "Maybe this new government could change my future, my job, all my dreams. Because the last government of Ben Ali is not good."

It was literally a spark that ignited what Tunisians call their Jasmine Revolution, the self immolation of a young man who was prevented from selling vegetables. His story struck a chord with many young people who became the driving force in ousting Ben Ali on January 14th. Ettadhamen was one of the first neighborhoods to revolt.

Mansouria Mokhefi, head of North African and Middle East programs at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, said the frustrations of Tunisia's youth - their lack of jobs, free expression, dignity and power - are mirrored across the Arab world, where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age.

Mokhefi said this young population is making history. She believes the Arab world is witnessing its first real independence movements. Youths are beginning to take control of their destiny.

Just about everywhere you go in Tunisia, people will say they are proud, proud of toppling the Ben Ali government they hated.  Proud, especially, of their young people.

It was the young people who changed things, one woman in Ettadhamen said.

The editor in chief of the Tunisian news magazine Realites, Zyed Krichen, said he was astonished at the younger generation. Krichen said older adults like himself thought Tunisia's youth were uninterested in politics, that they lived in their own world.

Tunisia's revolt is now inspiring uprisings across the Arab world. There have been a string of reported self immolations - in Algeria, Sudan, Yemen and Morocco. Eyes are now focused on Egypt, where tens of thousands of protesters are calling for 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

Analyst Mokhefi said Tunisia's revolution reflects a maturity, even an elegance, of those who led it. She does not see it being replicated in Egypt, where the younger generation is poorer, less educated and more frustrated.

Tunisia's revolution is far from over. The interim government has promised elections six months from now. The youthful leadership on the country's streets, however, is not reflected in politics, where many known figures are middle aged or elderly, including opposition heads.

But Mokhefi, for one, is upbeat about Tunisia's future. Tunisians living overseas are heading back home to help rebuild their country. She said she is confident a new, younger leadership will emerge to steer it.

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