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Story Publication logo January 28, 2011

The Arab World's Youth Army


Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Media file: sidi-bouzid-mohamed-bouazizi_9750.jpg

On the gray winter mornings at this out-of-the-way farm town on the scrubby brown steppes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara desert, you still see a few old farmers in hooded brown cloaks rolling to market on donkey carts. The occasional old woman, hunched against the cold, comes down the main road through town, tugging a camel.

But come about 9 a.m. in Sidi Bouzid -- where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi lived, burned himself to death, and launched at least one revolution in the Arab world so far -- the blue metal courtyard gates creak open on the squat stucco houses around where he used to live. Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings' emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid's main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.

Those still in school proceed to the classroom, while those without jobs make their way to Sidi Bouzid's coffee shops. But where they -- the Arab world's youth army -- are headed right now is, effectively, nowhere. North Africa and the Middle East now have the highest percentage of young people in the world. Sixty percent of the regions' people are under 30, twice the rate of North America, found a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And with the unemployment rate at 10 percent or more, North Africa and the Middle East also have the highest regional rates of joblessness in the world. For the region's young people, it's four times that.

The unhappy youth in Tunisia are not alone in the Arab world. On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the pavement in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's regime in a generation. Other crowds have shaken the streets of Sanaa, Algiers, and Amman. And rather than the Arab world's usual suspects -- bearded Islamists or jaded leftists -- it is young people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity available to them, who are risking their lives going up against police forces.

It's no coincidence, the young people of Sidi Bouzid say, that the public uprisings surging across the Middle East and North Africa this month started here.

"Every day, my mother tells me go look for a job, why don't you get a job, get a job," Sofiene Dhouibi, 24, told me this week in Sidi Bouzid. "But I know there is no job," Dhouibi said.

"I look. Really, I look. But there is no job,'' Dhouibi continued, doing something so common among North Africa's unemployed that it has earned its own trade name -- the hittistes, meaning, in Arabic slang, those who lean up against the wall.

The oldest of three children, the son of an ambulance driver and a mother who makes spare cash selling olives from the family's groves, Dhouibi spent one-third of his family's monthly income of $210 each month for four years to earn a university degree. When the degree failed to land him a job, his parents doubled down and sent him to school for another two years, for a master's in computer technology.

Now two years on the job market with no job, Dhouibi -- polite, earnest, thoughtful, and fluent in three languages -- spends his morning with other unemployed high school and college graduates at the stand-up tables in Sidi Bouzid's Café Charlotte. He nurses a coffee, thanks to the change his mother gives him from her olive sales. He goes home for lunch, visits an Internet cafe in the afternoon, returns home for dinner, sleeps in a room with his brother, and wakes, hopeless, in the morning to do it all again.

"Imagine your life going on like this," he said at the Café Charlotte, standing over the coffee that was the treat of his day. "Every day the same."

When Bouazizi, a hard-working fruit-seller sent into a blind rage by a bribe-seeking policewoman who confiscated his wares and slapped him, immolated himself on Dec. 17, Dhouibi was there for the first of the demonstrations that followed.

His best friend, a newly graduated mechanical engineer with better family connections and better job prospects, hung back. But Dhouibi threw himself into the swelling protest movement. On the second day of the demonstrations, he pushed to the front of the crowd and helped push a police car out into the street. He helped set it ablaze.

"I felt frightened of the government," Dhouibi told me. "But I felt happy. Very happy."

"No to youth unemployment," graffiti newly painted on a statue in the town's square says. "No to poverty."

Dhouibi has gone back to protest every day since then. He turns up outside the gates of the local union hall, talking to other young men until the day's march takes shape. Even after protests built around the country, reached Tunis, and forced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president of 23 years, to flee the country, Tunisians have kept up the demonstrations to demand the resignations of the last ministers of a ruling party that brought economic wealth and political power for the elite, but few jobs or rights for the middle class and poor.

Of the 1,400 classmates who went to school with Bouazizi, perhaps 4 or 5 percent have found jobs in the years since, estimated Tarek Hajlaoui, an economics teacher who taught Bouazizi in his last year in school.

"Of course, officially, I encourage my students about the advantages of education, encourage them to go on to university for the sake of their futures," Hajlaoui said, when I spoke with him at a gas station's coffee counter. "But in reality…" Hajlaoui shrugged, trailing off.

Some political scientists warn of the dark side of the "youth bulge." A study by Population Action International asserted that 80 percent of the world's conflicts between 1970 and 1999 started in countries where 60 percent of the population was under 30. (Of course, other factors -- such as the Cold War -- also played a role.)

Political scientists and development economists like Tarik Yousef, founding dean of the Dubai School of Government, saw the Middle East and North African youth bulge coming for years. They urged Arab leaders to harness the skilled, eager, and educated labor force flooding on to the market.

The youth bulge could have been "a precondition for problems, or a precondition for prosperity," Yousef said by phone on Jan. 27, from Dubai.

Even if Middle East and North African governments tried to ready for the surge in workers, the high unemployment rates show that they failed -- in the case of Tunisia, with explosive results.

"This decade of underachievement by educated Tunisians, especially, created a humiliated" generation -- now no longer in their first youth, but in their disillusioned late 20s and early 30s, Yousef pointed out.

The grievances of the Middle East's and North Africa's young -- and now not-so-young -- have been building for years. In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, I met a 31-year-old man, Abdel Basat al-Asady, who daydreamed about marriage with the eagerness of a teenage consumer of Brides magazine. It was a pipe dream for Asady, though. With jobs and housing as short in Libya as elsewhere, he had no prospect of launching his adult life.

He took me to his parents' house, where he and his five grown brothers and sisters, all unemployed or underemployed, pulled from their closets the plastic-and-cardboard wrapped wedding clothes they had already bought in hope of the day each could begin a family. Wedding expenses in the Middle East, with their feasts, gifts, and mandated dowries, run about two and a half times a family's annual income. Absent some boon outside the family's control, no one in Asady's family would be wearing their wedding clothes for years.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen -- everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa where I went the subject came up -- people complained of the corruption that crushes even their last hopes. Getting a job takes wasta -- connections -- to a country's ruling party, tribal leader, or a powerful businessman.

In all those countries, frustrated job-seekers I've talked to say, it takes money, too.

"I would bribe, but I don't know anyone high up enough to bribe," Dhouibi said.

"I don't have money, but if we just got the chance, I would get the money, to get him a job," Dhouibi's kerchiefed mother said, serving me fruit juice in her home of stucco-covered concrete blocks, with a weathered red geranium pushing out of the packed-dirt courtyard outside.

Bouazizi himself, the oldest of six children, never complained of his lot in life, Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia told me.

Bouazizi was 3 when neighbors carried into the house the body of his father, dead of heart troubles on the job as a low-paid laborer in neighboring Libya. Mohamed Bouazizi was 12 when he started working part time, studying by school at day and working for fruit vendors by night. He was 17 when he quit school to work full time so that his younger brothers and sisters could stay in school and his sister, Leila, could go to college.

But he snapped one morning when a policewoman who tormented him for bribes confiscated his fruit -- depriving him of the 5 dinar, or $3, he hoped to make for his family that day. The policewoman slapped him when he tried to take them back. Bouazizi fell to the ground then, crying, his mother recounted.

"Should I become a thief? Should I die?" Bouazizi shouted at the policewoman, according to a friend who watched it all and told Bouazizi's mother. Bouazizi pushed his empty fruit cart to the front gates of the provincial governorate and doused himself with one and a half liters of gasoline. Then he pulled out a match and struck it -- igniting not only himself, but the frustrations of Arab youth everywhere.


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