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.