The Arab World's Youth Army

Meet the chronically unemployed twenty-somethings fueling social and political upheaval across the Middle East.

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — On the gray winter mornings at this out-of-the-way farm town on the scrubby brown steppes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara desert, you still see a few old farmers in hooded brown cloaks rolling to market on donkey carts. The occasional old woman, hunched against the cold, comes down the main road through town, tugging a camel.

But come about 9 a.m. in Sidi Bouzid -- where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi lived, burned himself to death, and launched at least one revolution in the Arab world so far -- the blue metal courtyard gates creak open on the squat stucco houses around where he used to live. Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings' emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid's main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.

Those still in school proceed to the classroom, while those without jobs make their way to Sidi Bouzid's coffee shops. But where they -- the Arab world's youth army -- are headed right now is, effectively, nowhere. North Africa and the Middle East now have the second highest percentage of young people in the world, trailing only to sub-Saharan Africa. Sixty percent of the regions' people are under 30, twice the rate of North America, found a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And with the unemployment rate at 10 percent or more, North Africa and the Middle East also have the highest regional rates of joblessness in the world. For the region's young people, it's four times that.

The unhappy youth in Tunisia are not alone in the Arab world. On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the pavement in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's regime in a generation. Other crowds have shaken the streets of Sanaa, Algiers, and Amman. And rather than the Arab world's usual suspects -- bearded Islamists or jaded leftists -- it is young people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity available to them, who are risking their lives going up against police forces.

It's no coincidence, the young people of Sidi Bouzid say, that the public uprisings surging across the Middle East and North Africa this month started here.

"Every day, my mother tells me go look for a job, why don't you get a job, get a job," Sofiene Dhouibi, 24, told me this week in Sidi Bouzid. "But I know there is no job," Dhouibi said.

"I look. Really, I look. But there is no job,'' Dhouibi continued, doing something so common among North Africa's unemployed that it has earned its own trade name -- the hittistes, meaning, in Arabic slang, those who lean up against the wall.

The oldest of three children, the son of an ambulance driver and a mother who makes spare cash selling olives from the family's groves, Dhouibi spent one-third of his family's monthly income of $210 each month for four years to earn a university degree. When the degree failed to land him a job, his parents doubled down and sent him to school for another two years, for a master's in computer technology.

Now two years on the job market with no job, Dhouibi -- polite, earnest, thoughtful, and fluent in three languages -- spends his morning with other unemployed high school and college graduates at the stand-up tables in Sidi Bouzid's Café Charlotte. He nurses a coffee, thanks to the change his mother gives him from her olive sales. He goes home for lunch, visits an Internet cafe in the afternoon, returns home for dinner, sleeps in a room with his brother, and wakes, hopeless, in the morning to do it all again.

"Imagine your life going on like this," he said at the Café Charlotte, standing over the coffee that was the treat of his day. "Every day the same."

When Bouazizi, a hard-working fruit-seller sent into a blind rage by a bribe-seeking policewoman who confiscated his wares and slapped him, immolated himself on Dec. 17, Dhouibi was there for the first of the demonstrations that followed.

His best friend, a newly graduated mechanical engineer with better family connections and better job prospects, hung back. But Dhouibi threw himself into the swelling protest movement. On the second day of the demonstrations, he pushed to the front of the crowd and helped push a police car out into the street. He helped set it ablaze.

"I felt frightened of the government," Dhouibi told me. "But I felt happy. Very happy."

"No to youth unemployment," graffiti newly painted on a statue in the town's square says. "No to poverty."

Dhouibi has gone back to protest every day since then. He turns up outside the gates of the local union hall, talking to other young men until the day's march takes shape. Even after protests built around the country, reached Tunis, and forced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president of 23 years, to flee the country, Tunisians have kept up the demonstrations to demand the resignations of the last ministers of a ruling party that brought economic wealth and political power for the elite, but few jobs or rights for the middle class and poor.

Of the 1,400 classmates who went to school with Bouazizi, perhaps 4 or 5 percent have found jobs in the years since, estimated Tarek Hajlaoui, an economics teacher who taught Bouazizi in his last year in school.

"Of course, officially, I encourage my students about the advantages of education, encourage them to go on to university for the sake of their futures," Hajlaoui said, when I spoke with him at a gas station's coffee counter. "But in reality…" Hajlaoui shrugged, trailing off.

Some political scientists warn of the dark side of the "youth bulge." A study by Population Action International asserted that 80 percent of the world's conflicts between 1970 and 1999 started in countries where 60 percent of the population was under 30. (Of course, other factors -- such as the Cold War -- also played a role.)

Political scientists and development economists like Tarik Yousef, founding dean of the Dubai School of Government, saw the Middle East and North African youth bulge coming for years. They urged Arab leaders to harness the skilled, eager, and educated labor force flooding on to the market.

The youth bulge could have been "a precondition for problems, or a precondition for prosperity," Yousef said by phone on Jan. 27, from Dubai.

Even if Middle East and North African governments tried to ready for the surge in workers, the high unemployment rates show that they failed -- in the case of Tunisia, with explosive results.

"This decade of underachievement by educated Tunisians, especially, created a humiliated" generation -- now no longer in their first youth, but in their disillusioned late 20s and early 30s, Yousef pointed out.

The grievances of the Middle East's and North Africa's young -- and now not-so-young -- have been building for years. In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, I met a 31-year-old man, Abdel Basat al-Asady, who daydreamed about marriage with the eagerness of a teenage consumer of Brides magazine. It was a pipe dream for Asady, though. With jobs and housing as short in Libya as elsewhere, he had no prospect of launching his adult life.

He took me to his parents' house, where he and his five grown brothers and sisters, all unemployed or underemployed, pulled from their closets the plastic-and-cardboard wrapped wedding clothes they had already bought in hope of the day each could begin a family. Wedding expenses in the Middle East, with their feasts, gifts, and mandated dowries, run about two and a half times a family's annual income. Absent some boon outside the family's control, no one in Asady's family would be wearing their wedding clothes for years.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen -- everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa where I went the subject came up -- people complained of the corruption that crushes even their last hopes. Getting a job takes wasta -- connections -- to a country's ruling party, tribal leader, or a powerful businessman.

In all those countries, frustrated job-seekers I've talked to say, it takes money, too.

"I would bribe, but I don't know anyone high up enough to bribe," Dhouibi said.

"I don't have money, but if we just got the chance, I would get the money, to get him a job," Dhouibi's kerchiefed mother said, serving me fruit juice in her home of stucco-covered concrete blocks, with a weathered red geranium pushing out of the packed-dirt courtyard outside.

Bouazizi himself, the oldest of six children, never complained of his lot in life, Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia told me.

Bouazizi was 3 when neighbors carried into the house the body of his father, dead of heart troubles on the job as a low-paid laborer in neighboring Libya. Mohamed Bouazizi was 12 when he started working part time, studying by school at day and working for fruit vendors by night. He was 17 when he quit school to work full time so that his younger brothers and sisters could stay in school and his sister, Leila, could go to college.

But he snapped one morning when a policewoman who tormented him for bribes confiscated his fruit -- depriving him of the 5 dinar, or $3, he hoped to make for his family that day. The policewoman slapped him when he tried to take them back. Bouazizi fell to the ground then, crying, his mother recounted.

"Should I become a thief? Should I die?" Bouazizi shouted at the policewoman, according to a friend who watched it all and told Bouazizi's mother. Bouazizi pushed his empty fruit cart to the front gates of the provincial governorate and doused himself with one and a half liters of gasoline. Then he pulled out a match and struck it -- igniting not only himself, but the frustrations of Arab youth everywhere.



Berlusconi's Worst Nightmare

The decades-long battle between Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's most famous prosecutor is entering its final round. The prime minister's career and Italy's democracy hang in the balance.

Last week, the Italian magazine Panorama published a huge photo of Ilda Boccassini, Milan's 61 year-old public prosecutor, on its front cover under the title "Il Vizietto," the Little Vice. The vice in question was not that of the magazine's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, who is the current and long-time object of Boccassini's investigatory ardor. The misbehavior that the magazine intended to highlight was the magistrate's own -- namely, her relentless persecution of the Italian prime minister. Indeed, in seeking an indictment of Berlusconi for the better part of the past two decades, Boccassini has herself become a defendant in Italy's court of public opinion.

Boccassini, who over the course of her career has earned the nickname "Ilda the Red" for both her flame-colored hair and her left-wing sympathies, has polarized a society sharply divided when it comes to the embattled prime minister. An opinion poll published Jan. 23 by the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed that 49 percent of Italians thought Berlusconi should resign because of his latest sex scandal, while 45 percent believed he should not. Boccassini has earned the support of those who dislike Berlusconi: Roberto Saviano, the bestselling author who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, dedicated an honorary law degree he received last week to Boccassini, praising her for fulfilling her "duty of justice." But for admirers of the premier, the prosecutor has become a symbol of the judiciary's obsessive, and self-interested, drive to restore its place at the top of the national political hierarchy.

Italy's judicial officials pride themselves for having essentially been the founding fathers of the current political order, the so-called "Second Republic" that got its start in the mid-1990s. Italy's "First Republic," which was inaugurated after the conclusion of World War II, was ostensibly democratic, but it was never marked by a consistent rule of law. The highest echelons of power were in the hands of a corrupt network of politicians, industrialists, and organized criminals, and little was done to challenge the elite. With the specter of Italy's Communist Party and the threat of Soviet espionage looming large, the judiciary tacitly agreed not to dig into the crimes of leading public servants.

That changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The "Bribesville" corruption investigations of the early 1990s revealed to the Italian public for the first time the extent of political corruption plaguing their government and economy. Spearheaded by the Milan public prosecutor's office of which Boccassini is now a part, the investigation forced politicians and top businessmen to testify in damning court proceedings that were televised nationwide. An entire political generation was tainted and discredited by the ensuing trials: Four of Italy's seven existing parties disbanded entirely, including the Christian Democratic Party that had been the dominant force in politics for the previous 50 years. The series of electoral, ethics, and economic reforms subsequently passed from 1992 through 1997 heralded the beginning of the Second Republic, under which the elite were to be held accountable for their misdeeds.

Most of Italy's politicians have consistently been on the defensive ever since, daunted by the watchful eye of the courts. Berlusconi has been the major exception. Some suspect that the media magnate started his political career in the wake of the Bribesville affair precisely to mitigate its effect on his own financial dealings. Indeed, taking the courts down a peg -- most often with dismissive rhetoric, but also by passing laws that shield him and his associates from prosecution -- has been one of Berlusconi's most consistent political priorities over the years.

For Boccassini and Berlusconi, the stakes are higher now than they've ever been: This may well be their final showdown. But with the country's newspaper headlines reaching a tawdry fever pitch and the national government unable to conduct its business amid the din of accusations and counteraccusations, it increasingly seems that the case will be settled in the court of public opinion before it ever engages the attention of a judge.

Boccassini is largely responsible, however unintentionally, for instigating the nationwide furor. On Jan. 15, she sent a 389-page document to the parliamentary authorizations committee -- which was promptly, and unsurprisingly, leaked to the media -- to support her request for permission to search the office of Berlusconi's personal finance manager for evidence that the prime minister had paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his office to cover up the crime. Berlusconi's defenders say that the prosecutor revealed her political bias from the very beginning: Whereas the prosecution's request could have been satisfied with just a few pages of summarized evidence, Boccassini's document contains lurid allegations about the prime minister's private life.

Sensing (or choosing to believe) that this was as much a political as a judicial campaign, Berlusconi's mighty media empire -- three national television channels, a daily newspaper, and several weekly magazines -- has portrayed Boccassini's investigation as a witchhunt. The magistrates have mounted a kind of judicial coup d'état, they say, attempting to subvert Italy's democratic elections. "It's the usual attempt by fanatics in the judiciary to overstep their proper role and influence the political scene," Mariastella Gelmini, who serves under Berlusconi as education minister, told Panorama. The Berlusconi camp accuses the magistrates of devoting disproportionate resources to the most recent inquiry: Investigators had conducted almost 100,000 wiretaps in a six-month period, at a rate of about 600 per day.

Berlusconi has testified to the public on his own behalf in a video message that he sent last week to an association of his supporters, the Freedom Promoters, and that was later broadcast by his television channels. In it, he personally accused the prosecutors of conjuring a case against him from thin air, invading his privacy and that of his friends, and intimidating witnesses. It was Boccassini and her colleagues, not Berlusconi himself, he claimed, who merited "adequate punishment."

While prosecutors haven't responded to Berlusconi's accusations that their investigation has been unlawful, there's been no doubting that it has been tireless: Investigators carefully tracked cell phone signals in Berlusconi's Arcore mansion to build a picture of the colorful female entourage gravitating around the prime minister, a technique first used in the hunt for mafia boss Salvatore "Toto" Riina in 1993. And it's no coincidence that the Berlusconi investigation, with its blend of sophisticated technological surveillance and meticulous traditional police work, resembles an anti-mafia probe: Boccassini honed her investigative skills, after all, in the battle against the Cosa Nostra.

Born in Naples, Boccassini became a prosecutor in 1977, cutting her teeth in the 1980s mafia investigations. Along the way, she earned a reputation for irascible stubbornness and moral rectitude: She rarely speaks to journalists and imposes strict secrecy on those who work for her. Some say she was scarred by the murder in 1992 of her onetime colleague and close friend, Giovanni Falcone, the legendary mafia investigator. Boccassini moved to Sicily immediately afterward to help investigate the killers, who were eventually convicted of the crime. But in a speech at a Milan high school in 2007, she admitted that she has never entirely gotten over the loss. "I still feel resentment and anger," she said. "That's not nice, but I have to admit that's how it is."

Boccassini's relationship with the prime minister is inextricably linked to the Falcone case: In investigating his murder in the early 1990s, she came across allegations that Berlusconi, who was serving his first stint as prime minister at the time, had financial ties to the Sicilian mafia. So Boccassini was already familiar with Berlusconi when she was tasked in 1995 with investigating him for bribing Rome magistrates in order to gain control of the Mondadori publishing group. On that occasion Berlusconi got off the hook, because his legan team managed to drag out the proceedings beyond the statute of limitations.

Given that history, Boccassini could be forgiven for approaching Berlusconi's current case with a priori suspicions. But her supporters insist that the investigations of the prime minister are not in any way the product of a personal vendetta. "She subscribes to Falcone's philosophy, which holds that a judge must act without passion, depersonalizing and depoliticizing his approach to his work," said a Milan journalist who knows her well, but did not want to be identified. "She is very cold and detached."

The result so far has been a stalemate: The prime minister has avoided punishment, but Berlusconi's associates have been convicted for crimes apparently committed on his behalf. One of Berlusconi's lawyers, David Mills, was convicted in 2009 for pocketing a $600,000 bribe to commit perjury on his behalf; a business associate, Marcello Dell'Utri, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for complicity with the Cosa Nostra; but through it all, Berlusconi himself has remained untouched. Time after time, he has either been acquitted, seen the case against him timed out under the statute of limitations, or simply had the law changed to abolish the crime. (Until recently, Berlusconi had made liberal use of an immunity law in order to avoid trial, though that statute was thrown out by Italy's constitutional court earlier this month.)

The pursuit of the prime minister has been a chastening experience for Boccassini. Because of her insistence on holding the prime minister accountable, she and her colleagues have been subject to disciplinary proceedings initiated by the justice minister, and she has watched as other colleagues have been promoted ahead of her. What's clear to everyone by now is that Boccassini isn't easily deterred or intimidated: On Jan. 24, she announced that the latest evidence compiled against Berlusconi, on charges of illegal prostitution and abuse of office, is so clear cut that she will move for a fast-track trial for the prime minister. A trial could begin in as little as three months, and a conviction would undoubtedly put an abrupt end to Berlusconi's 17-year political career.

But Berlusconi can still use his soapbox to try to rally the public against Boccassini and her colleagues. Indeed, the bombastic prime minister has been less inclined to offer sober arguments about the rule of law than wage a scorched-earth campaign to delegitimize the judiciary wholesale. Boccassini may have always claimed to just be a prosecutor, but with the legitimacy of Italy's judiciary threatening to erode under Berlusconi's onslaught, she now finds herself public defender of an entire political order.