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Story Publication logo February 9, 2011

Tunisia’s Hope Deficit


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: knickmeyer-tunisia_9817.jpg
Hamza ben Abdallah, in front of the police station in Sidi Bouzid. Behind him is a police car that was burned during the protests. Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Hamza ben Abdallah, a 24-year-old from the lusterless farm town of Sidi Bouzid, on the steppes midway between the green palms of Tunisia's Mediterranean and the first dunes of the northern Sahara, started his battle to earn a living as a young man in the Arab world the day that an old classmate, Mohammed Bouazizi, surrendered his.

On December 17, 2010, Abdallah had just graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from a university in the country's capital, Tunis. Broad-shouldered, tall, and thoughtful, Abdallah headed home, south to Sidi Bouzid, to celebrate his graduation with his family. He traveled in one of the country's louages, the white vans in which Tunisians hurtle, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, along the two-lane roads that connect their country, which has roughly the size and the population of the U.S. state of Georgia.

Sidi Bouzid lies on semi-arid steppes. On a winter's day, ground and sky form a monotonous palette of brown and gray. Although the town is situated among the crags of the Dorsale range of North Africa's Atlas mountains, the flatness of the steppes around Sidi Bouzid is such that in World War II, Allied commanders waging a tank offensive, having failed to survey the terrain in advance, were in full view of German defenders and suffered staggering losses. The American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, covering the tank battle at Sidi Bouzid, noted it looked a lot like Phoenix, Arizona.

For young people in the town, the highest hope is public employment, with its promise of job security and access to graft. Second-best is work in a factory that turns the local tomato crops into tomato paste—but it takes connections to the factory managers to get a job there. Unemployment in town is 30 percent, and even higher among the young.

Passing by Sidi Bouzid's main square on his return from Tunis, Abdallah noticed a crowd outside the town's government offices. The men in the crowd were angry. They were shouting through the governorate's metal gates, and hurling fruit—bananas, oranges—through the bars. "What happened?" he asked the louage driver. "Some poor man burned himself to death, in protest," the driver told him.

Once home, Abdallah ran into a classmate on the street who told him more. "Did you hear what happened to Tariq?" she asked, using Bouazizi's first name, by which he was known in school.

Abdallah had known Bouazizi—who was, at 26, two years older than him—only in passing at their high school of 1,400 students. Abdallah, although the first in his family to attend university, had two parents with good jobs; his mother, crucially, had membership in Tunisia's ruling party, which, until it was overthrown this month, accorded connections and opportunities.

Bouazizi, meanwhile, was considered all but an orphan by his classmates. His father died while working as a day laborer in neighboring Libya. His mother, who later married his father's brother, tended olive trees in other people's orchards to earn spare change. At 12, Mohammed started working part-time running errands for fruit merchants in town. At 17, he dropped out of school to push a metal cart through town, hawking fruit, bringing in as little as $3 a day. It kept his brothers and sisters in school, and helped send his oldest sister to university.

Manoubia Bouazizi, Mohammed's mother, told me details of what happened. She spoke at the home that she shared with her six children and her current husband. Canaries in cages mounted on the wall trilled. The smell from faulty sewage systems hovered. The family huddled on a wooden settee and in plastic chairs around a brazier of burning coals on the concrete floor to keep warm. In the cold indoors, puffs came from their mouth when they breathed.

Bouazizi had been pestered endlessly by a policewoman in town—one always after him, and other fruit vendors, for bribes of cash or fruit to allow them to keep selling their wares. As is typical in the Middle East and Africa, she tormented the poorest and most vulnerable, since they had the least chance of fighting back.

On December 17, the policewoman ran into Bouazizi on the streets, demanding a bribe and threatening to confiscate his wares, his mother said. Bouazizi summoned an uncle, a pharmacist with more standing, who came and defused the quarrel.

But the policewoman was waiting for Bouazizi on the next street he turned his cart down. She scooped up all his fruit, and made clear she would do so every day she saw him. When he tried to grab it back, she slapped him twice.

Defeated, overwrought, humiliated by the insult from a woman, and with no other means to feed his family, Bouazizi fell to the ground in tears.

"Should I steal?" he screamed at the policewoman. "Should I die?"

Bouazizi pushed his cart to the curbside before the governorate to complain to officials. Authorities ordered him turned away, without even allowing him inside. Bouazizi left to buy one and a half liters of gasoline. He returned, stood on the cart, upended the jug of gasoline, pulled out a matchbook, and struck a match.

Bouazizi lived 18 days longer, but was burned too badly to talk ever again. By the time he died, protests sparked by his self-immolation raged daily across Tunisia. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose extended family had become increasingly greedy about snatching up the country's businesses and real estate after 23 years in power, visited Bouazizi's hospital bedside before the young man died. But Ben Ali's efforts to feign an interest in his people came too late. So did Ben Ali's pledge, in his final, shaky appearance before his people on state TV, to create 300,000 jobs for young people like Bouazizi.

When, on January 14, the army chief of staff refused Ben Ali's orders to instruct the army to fire on protesters, Ben Ali surrendered power and fled, trading his sprawling white-walled villa on a Mediterranean hillside for an ex-dictator's exile in the sands of Saudi Arabia.

Currently, the Middle East has the highest percentage of young people in the world. About 60 percent of the region's population is under 30—a demographic easily seen in Sidi Bouzid, where young men in hoodies and young women in fashionable calf-high boots far outnumber the occasional picturesque tableaus of old men wearing the region's traditional hooded burnooses, driving donkey carts.

Demographers have been forecasting the coming youth wave since the 1990s. Political scientists, economists, and others urged leaders in the Middle East to develop their economies, to transform the surge of young workers into an economic boon rather than a social, economic, and political catastrophe. In 2007, Population Action International warned that 80 percent of the world's conflicts in the last 30 years of the 20th century had been waged in countries where at least 60 percent of the population was under 30.

Leaders in the region, lulled into complicity by the ease with which they had subdued their populations to date, didn't listen. In recent years, while Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries grew in prosperity, the rate of people living in poverty actually increased.

As of this month, the U.N. International Labor Organization says, the result is that the Middle East now has the highest regional unemployment rates in the world—about 10 percent. For young people in the two regions, the rate is four times higher, the I.L.O. says.

Unemployment means the average age of marriage is increasing, because each wedding costs many times the average family's per-capita income. At ages when their parents were settling into jobs and marrying, millions of the Arab world's young people, though educated, are living at home, wheedling allowances from their mothers, ever more humiliated and angry at the failure of their launch into adulthood. Some of the highest corruption rates in the world mean that only those with connections—wasta, to Arabs—and money to pay bribes have any hope of getting many kinds of desirable employment.

After throwing a party to celebrate his graduation, Abdallah's mother tried to prepare her son for disappointment in life: "You'll get a job," she told him. "Don't get depressed. It'll take a while, but don't worry."

At a stand-up table at Sidi Bouzid's Charlotte café, Abdallah gestured at the friend next to him, a computer-technology specialist who has been unable to find work in the two years since leaving school, despite having a master's degree. "I look at him, and he's been coming to this café every day for five years, and how do I feel?" Abdallah asked. "I feel hopeless."

Across the Arab world, hopelessness is translating into anger. Abdallah missed the first full day of demonstrations because of his graduation party. But he's been to almost every protest since.


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