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.
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