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A lost generation of young people of Tunisia discuss grievances that led to their revolution
"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.
In the cafe, unemployed young men - as many as four shared one cup of coffee - said they took to the streets to vent their anger about rising prices, the lack of health benefits, even dues they were forced to pay to the ruling party.
Alla, who has a graduate degree, has been out of work for three years; job openings, he said bitterly, are filled by those connected to the regime.
"People couldn't support themselves anymore," Mehnez said. "There was a small part of the population who had all the money, the buildings and the land."
Jailed for speaking out
Saifeddine Amre, 22, spent six months behind bars for writing about Tunisia's inequity. During an internship at a local newspaper, he submitted an article probing alleged real estate transgressions by Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family. The editor reported him to the secret police.
In prison, Amre said they beat him and stamped a cigarette butt on his hand. The scar is still visible.
The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders listed Ben Ali's government as among the "top 40 predators" of journalists. Sites such as YouTube were censored after a smaller wave of protests in 2008 that was suppressed.
When last month's uprising spread, Amre went to Sidi Bouzid and other towns, filming demonstrations with a video camera or his cellphone. He and his classmates uploaded videos and photos onto their Facebook pages, which were not censored. They created, in effect, a shadow news agency that helped break the barrier of silence at a time when state-run television and radio stations were ordered not to cover the protests.
"Facebook was the means of our revolution," Amre said. "We used it to apply pressure on the regime, to make sure the truth came out."