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After Arab Awakening: 'Now we need to change ourselves'

Tunisia, January 31, 2012

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If you want to know what the Arab Awakening is all about, hang out with teenagers in Tunisia for an afternoon.

I was recently in Gafsa, a town of 70,000 people in central Tunisia where Mercy Corps has worked for several months. We’ve established the Global Citizen Corps here, a program that mobilizes young people, links them up with other youth networks around the world, and helps them take action on issues ranging from environmental degradation to access to education.

Gafsa is widely considered to be ground zero of Tunisia’s revolution – a city where last year’s protests against President Ben Ali, government neglect and corruption were particularly fierce. The young people I met were on the frontlines; they would spend their days in school and then take to the streets immediately after – armed with milk and Coca-Cola to wash tear gas out of their eyes. In the days following the revolution, when fear of gangs and snipers dominated the streets, many of them participated in makeshift security groups or took refuge in the local university.

Today, young people in Gafsa are hopeful but not naïve. One 15-year old GCC member told me, “Life was complicated before the revolution. People wanted to make change but they couldn’t.” Her 21-year-old friend chimed in, “Now we need to change ourselves; we need to find out what we’re capable of.”

The GCC has taken root quickly in Gafsa, swelling to nearly 70 members between the ages of 15 and 25, and expanding to other nearby areas. There’s a strong appetite for the GCC’s focus on action, leadership skills and connections with other energized youth; again and again, I heard young people say that they are eager to make a positive difference for their country.

GCC members are still figuring out their priority projects – immediate options include renovating a local park and transforming a broken-down school bus into a technology learning hub for kids in rural areas. For the first anniversary of the revolution, they designed and created a massive downtown mural of the Tunisian flag consisting of hundreds of red-paint handprints, and including revolutionary slogans and inspiring ideas. It was beautiful and powerful.

But young people in Gafsa aren’t focused on Arab Awakening nostalgia; they want to take the next step — and for many that means jobs. Even in a country with a high unemployment rate, Gafsa’s economic situation is exceptionally bleak. Gafsa’s economy has long been dominated by Companie des Phosphates Gafsa (CPG, or Gafsa Phosphates Company), a state-run enterprise that used to employ 23,000 people, but with mechanization and downsizing now provides jobs for only about 7,000. In the past few years, the Tunisian government has provided tax and infrastructure improvements to boost private sector investment. While a couple of companies have taken the bait, the unemployment rate in Gafsa hovers around 30 percent. There’s little tradition of entrepreneurship and start-up capital is hard to come by.

The next generation is hopeful. Mohammed Amine Kaabachi, aka “Mak,” is 18 years old and exemplary of Tunisia’s tremendous potential. Mak’s a computer science wiz who’s known among GCC members as “the genius;” he recently won the “Olympiad of the Mediterranean,” a computer science competition for students in Tunisia, Egypt and parts of Europe. Like many of the young Tunisians I met, Mak believes that Tunisians need to change their mentality about job creation. “People don’t want to take risks; they want the government to employ them,” he explained.

Mak is ambitious, energetic and smart. He plans to start his own business – an offshore company to archive documents, a line of work that’s proven very lucrative for countries like India. But first Mak’s headed to university…in Paris. He’s eager to return to Tunisia and help his country, particularly the Gafsa area, become stronger and more vibrant. I hope he feels the same way in a few years.

Looking at the GCC group, I can’t help but feel hopeful along with them. Tunisia faces many challenges – building a democracy, boosting its economy, creating jobs for its throngs of young people – but the country has come a long way so far without the violence that’s plagued other Arab Awakening transitions. The amount of human talent here is huge, and youth are motivated. As one 16 –year-old told me with a wide smile: “Now we are free.”