"We were not living. We were like his puppets," said Asma Nairi, 22, a law student. "If we spoke the truth, we would be punished."
Tunisia's revolution was fueled by tens of thousands of young people, most in their teens and early 20s, who ultimately overthrew their leader. Few analysts or diplomats predicted such an upheaval would take place here, a prosperous and secular Arab nation that lacks an organized opposition.
Yet in interviews across this tense capital, young people of all economic and social classes said they had long felt part of a lost generation of Arab youth, facing problems widely shared in the region, from Morocco to Egypt to Yemen.
They were highly educated and ambitious, but frustrated about job shortages and low wages. They were infuriated by the corruption, the human rights violations and the government's unchecked abuse of power.
But in an information age, shaped by Facebook and Twitter, Tunisia's youth were also exposed to the openness of the West and the oppression felt by their peers across the Arab world. Their resentment poured out on the Internet, building up until it exploded in cities across Tunisia.
"We grew up hating the government," said Karim Ali, 25, a computer engineer who joined the mass demonstrations last week that ousted Ben Ali from power. "Our government made us into a lost generation."
These are the stories of Tunisia's young people, the grievances that pushed them to mount an uprising, and their aspirations as uncertainty and turmoil continue.
Turning point: suicide
For many young Tunisians, the turning point was the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed university graduate who set himself on fire Dec. 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid to protest his bleak job prospects.
"All of us know how he felt," said Mehnez, also 26, seated in a cafe in Intilaka, a poor neighborhood in Tunis, with two unemployed friends, Ziad and Alla, who were university graduates. "For us, we call this the Revolution of Mohamed Bouazizi, not the Jasmine Revolution."
They spoke on the condition that their family names not be used for fear of reprisals from militias aligned with the former regime.
As word spread of Bouazizi's self-immolation, so did the riots. On the street next to the cafe are charred buildings and boarded-up shop fronts. Several protesters died on this street during clashes with police, witnesses said. On the walls, graffiti voiced the angst of a generation: "The City of Joblessness" and "Let's wage jihad to realize our demands."
Tunisia was long considered a model country in the region, with high economic growth rates derived largely from tourism, universities, hospitals and good infrastructure. But the wealth remained largely in the hands of the elite. By some estimates, 20 percent to 40 percent of the nation's youth are unemployed, mirroring figures in other Arab countries.