A lost generation of young people of Tunisia discuss grievances that led to their revolution

Tunisia has issued an international arrest warrant for ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was driven from power this month by violent protests in the "Jasmine Revolution."
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:10 PM

IN TUNIS They grew up being told to bottle up their frustrations, not to discuss politics and to accept a life without basic freedoms.

They grew up in a world of paranoia, fearing the secret police, fearing that their cellphones were tapped. To find a good job meant having to know a relative of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who ruled this North African nation with an iron fist for 23 years.

"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.

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