YouthCan, Tunisian Youth's Turn              

Article published on June 30, 2014
Article published on June 30, 2014

Tunisia's youth are scram­bling to leave their ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­hind and work to­gether as they did three years ago, when they suc­ceeded in over­throw­ing Ben Ali's for­mer regime. Youth­Can is a new or­gan­i­sa­tion that is try­ing to unite all of this strength in order to put a stop to Tunisia's real prob­lem of the day: its lack of prospects for youth.

"¿A Cité Et­tad­hamen?" "No." The cab­bie re­fuses to go to this city, well known for its poverty and mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion, which is sit­u­ated on Tunis' out­skirts. Last Jan­u­ary, there was heavy ri­ot­ing there. Demon­stra­tors burned tires to block ac­cess to streets and the po­lice had to re­sort to tear gas to dis­perse them.

While a sec­ond cab is dri­ving there, the mo­tor­ways get muddy and the butcher's hang an­i­mal skin, and the re­main­ing parts that are sold, in their en­trances. Hun­dreds of peo­ple work their way up and down and then sit at nu­mer­ous cafés and tea­rooms. Hafedh Oueled Saad waits at a zebra cross­ing. He's 23 years old and has been un­em­ployed ever since he came back to Tunis. He gets cof­fee and soft drinks for his guests and sits in a room full of white and gold set­tees. He starts to de­scribe why he de­cided to il­le­gally em­i­grate to Italy in 2011.

“Back there in the café, you could find 20 or 25 peo­ple that tried to go to Italy, too,” Hafedh ex­plains. After dis­em­bark­ing in Lampe­dusa, he man­aged to get to Switzer­land, but his Eu­ro­pean dream came to an end when his asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected and he was de­ported. His hope for the Rev­o­lu­tion is al­ready long gone. Hafedh tells us: “I don't mean any­thing to those politi­cians, so they don't mean any­thing to me. I wouldn't say the sit­u­a­tion is any bet­ter”. He plans to learn Ital­ian to work at a call cen­ter, “but I don't think it pays very well”. The first time he fled Tunisia, he paid 1,500 dinares (ap­prox­i­mately 725 euros). “Today, if I had the chance, I would do it all over again.”

The ail­ing econ­omy and lack of prospects for young peo­ple are the biggest threats that still lie ahead for the coun­try's tran­si­tion to full democ­racy. Three years have passed since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Ara­bia, and the new politi­cians have been un­able to find a so­lu­tion. They're too old and they don't con­nect with the prob­lems of youth. At least that's what they think at Youth­Can, a new non-par­ti­san group that has col­lected more than 25,000 sig­na­tures in a lit­tle over a month. Its ob­jec­tive is clear: sup­port young Tunisians, be­tween 20 and 35 years of age, se­cure de­ci­sion-mak­ing posts at in­sti­tu­tions. It doesn't mat­ter what party or ide­ol­ogy they sup­port.

A Bleak Fu­ture

“They can't see any fu­ture. I'm going to study. I'm going to study. And then what? That is taken to ex­tremes by some­body who can ma­nip­u­late their minds. Youth­Can's en­ergy is mak­ing them aware of their own po­ten­tial and what they must do.” Mehdi Gue­bzili is a found­ing mem­ber of the group. He and its pres­i­dent, Besma Mhamdi, speak from l'Étoile Du Nord, a mod­ern cof­fee shop-bar-book­shop in down­town Tunis. This is where Youth­Can or­gan­ised its first meet­ing. Back then, there were 70 mem­bers, today there are over 4,500 in their closed Face­book group, where there are also mem­bers from Italy, France, Ger­many, and the United King­dom.

“From the very first mo­ment that Youth­Can ap­peared — Besma ex­plains — it was per­fect. It was dur­ing the Na­tional Di­a­logue [the ex-Prime Min­is­ter, Ali Laarayedh, had re­signed and the politi­cians couldn't agree on ap­point­ing a new head of gov­ern­ment], when peo­ple were re­ally frus­trated. We raised hope and op­ti­mism at a mo­ment when every­thing was com­pletely fail­ing.”

Young Tunisians are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­cer­tain times. They pulled off the Arab Spring and they con­tin­ued to be at the fore­front when Ben Ali sent in the snipers. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, Tunisians under the age of 24 rep­re­sent 40% of the pop­u­la­tion. How­ever, today they face a 30% un­em­ploy­ment rate. And it doesn't mat­ter if they have uni­ver­sity de­grees: 40% of uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates are job­less, ver­sus 24% of non-grad­u­ates, according to the World Eco­nomic Forum. More­over, they're al­to­gether ex­cluded from in­sti­tu­tions. As Mehdi main­tains: “Es­pe­cially for young peo­ple, for us, the Na­tional Con­stituent As­sem­bly was a dis­ap­point­ment be­cause they didn't talk about any­thing. They're not fa­mil­iar with the prob­lems we ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Youth­Can is still a brand new or­gan­i­sa­tion. It doesn't have an of­fice and the ma­jor­ity of its work is done on­line, where the move­ment was spon­ta­neously born. De­spite their own doubts in the be­gin­ning, the idea is very clear now: train new politi­cians and rec­on­cile youth with pol­i­tics. In De­cem­ber 2013, two Tunisian youth (Bassem Bouguerra and Tarek Chen­iti) spon­ta­neously sent their re­sumes over with the ob­jec­tive of serv­ing the gov­ern­ment that Prime Min­is­ter, Medhi Jomaa, was cre­at­ing, “free of charge”. Dur­ing this process, hun­dreds of young peo­ple ex­plain their mo­ti­va­tions on so­cial net­work sites to be­come, in less than 24 hours, Youth­Can's most promi­nent show­case. “Bassem Bouguerra shared his re­sume on Face­book, of­fer­ing his help to the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs. I saw it and I con­tacted him, just like every­one else did,” he re­mem­bers. “All we knew was that we didn't want to be a tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal party,” adds Besma. Their ob­jec­tive is long-term, but there's no time to waste. The first pro­ject will be for the up­com­ing elec­tions, planned for the end of 2014. 200 can­di­dates will be trained for them. “Young peo­ple pow­ered by young peo­ple, train­ing them in pub­lic speak­ing, in­tro­duc­ing them­selves to one an­other, find­ing fi­nanc­ing...”

Youth­Can's mem­bers are spread through­out the coun­try. Yazidi Boul­beba is one of them. He lives in Sil­iana, a small, rural, farm­ing com­mu­nity in Tunis' in­te­rior. A diploma in Physics and Chem­istry hasn't been enough for this 28 year old youth to find work. He takes part in a po­lit­i­cal party, but when he saw an op­por­tu­nity to join Youth­Can, he didn't hes­i­tate. “The youth had a Rev­o­lu­tion for three rea­sons: dig­nity, free­dom and jobs. Free­dom is the best, but there will be no dig­nity with­out jobs.” He likes Youth­Can's con­cept of train­ing new politi­cians and he be­lieves that this plat­form can bring young peo­ple and pol­i­tics to­gether. “I hope so, be­cause this is the youth's po­lit­i­cal boy­cott.”

In Sil­iana, poverty is on the rise. “There's only one fac­tory in the province and the crops we grow are processed in other cities.” As a re­sult, a lot of peo­ple go to more pros­per­ous re­gions. “The sec­ond al­ter­na­tive is ex­trem­ism and ter­ror­ism. Nearly every ter­ror­ist is from the county's poor­est re­gions,” Yazidi con­fesses.

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