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Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Rebellion of the Young in Tunisia

The President of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country yesterday and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, the victim what appears to be the first successful street demonstration rebellion in the Arab world. According to a story by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times:
The antigovernment protests began a month ago when a college-educated street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the small town of Sidi Bouzid burned himself to death in despair at the frustration and joblessness confronting many educated young people here. But the protests he inspired quickly evolved from bread-and-butter issues to demands for an assault on the perceived corruption and self-enrichment of the ruling family.
The self-enrichment issue related especially to Ben Ali's second wife "the former Leila Trabelsi, a hairdresser from a humble family whose relatives have amassed conspicuous fortunes since her 1992 marriage. 'Policeman, open your eyes, the hairdresser is ruling you,' they chanted, addressing Mr. Ben Ali."

But the protests themselves came from younger people who had grown up in the era of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president after independence from France in 1956. Ben Ali was only Tunisia's second president since independence, but his regime was a clear contrast to the Bourguiba years:
“We are the Bourguiba generation,” [said one young woman], referring to Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and the father of its broad middle class. He poured resources into Tunisia’s educational system and made higher education effectively free. He also pushed a social agenda of secularization, women’s rights, birth control and family planning that, in contrast to most countries in the region, slowed population growth, keeping the job of public education and social welfare manageable.
The lesson seems to be that a large, educated, internet-connected, but underemployed and frustrated young population can be a force for positive change.

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