The Burned Generation

January 2011 |
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Mohammed Bouazizi was the young man who set himself alight in protest against the lack of economic opportunities available in Tunisia. This young man’s act of desperation may have sparked a revolution in his own country, but what of the millions of unemployed youth in the Arab world? Already others have copied his act in protest. What must be done to prevent a whole generation from becoming burned?

The biographical details are scant. He was a university graduate, 26-years-old, the family breadwinner. He needed a job, but he could not find one. Perhaps he did not have wasta, the right connections, or no money for the requisite bribe to secure a government job. Perhaps he had heard the rumors of the riches of the Tunisian dictator and his family. He may even have seen the WikiLeaks-inspired Tunisian web sites, the ones that described the lavish presidential family parties: the ice cream imported from France, the whiskey flowing, the gold lions glinting in the moonlight of a sumptuous Mediterranean home.

Or perhaps he cared little for politics, or WikiLeaks, or what President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family were doing. Perhaps he simply just wanted a job, a decent income, dignity for his family. But there was no job, no income, no fulfillment of his university aspirations, no dignity. So, he did what he could: He went into the informal economy―a fruit and vegetable stall. Perhaps the fruit stall would be temporary, he might have thought. A stepping stone.  A way to earn some income, support his family, maybe pursue further education, or use the income to start a new business. As his business began to grow, perhaps he even dared to dream again.

But the local authorities quashed the dream. They confiscated his goods. “No permit,” they said. Perhaps, once again, he was unable to grease the right palms or call in some wasta. He went to the municipality to plead his case.  He was a university graduate; he just wanted a job, some income, a shred of dignity. Perhaps he even begged the low-level functionary for help―another indignity for a young man who deserves better. But the municipality―the face of government in the provinces―spat at him with this stark response: get out, go away.

And so, Mohammad Bouazizi went away. On 17 December, in front of the same municipality that took away his livelihood, his dignity, his future―the municipality that represented a corrupt, dictatorial government―Mohammad Bouazizi lit himself on fire. Rushed to a hospital, the burns eventually took their toll. He succumbed a few weeks later.  But the fire soon engulfed all of Tunisia, bringing down a dictator, sparking new hopes and new fears, and restoring―if for the moment―the dignity of the Tunisians who took to the streets to protest. Yes, they could bring down a repressive ruler; yes, they could demand better; yes, they could preserve Mohammad Bouazizi’s memory. 

And the fire began to spread beyond Tunisia. Protests emerged in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria ―places where the dignity gap and the hope gap for the ordinary citizen are too wide, too deep. And so others lit themselves on fire, in Egypt, in Algeria, in Mauritania and perhaps other places.

The self-immolators are not seeking grand revolutions; they are not spouting the latest ‘ism; they are not pamphleteers with ideologies or fist-pumping leaders of “the street.” Their goals are modest: a job, an income, perhaps a chance to get married, a family, normalcy, dignity. Their expectations of government are equally modest: do not steal, help the people, manage the country efficiently, reduce the corruption.

Blake Hounshell, writing in Foreign Policy, captured the sentiment well when he wrote: “There is something horrifying and, in a way, moving about these suicide attempts. It's a shocking, desperate tactic that instantly attracts attention, revulsion, but also sympathy.”

It should also attract high-level attention, because, in a sense, young Arabs in the majority of countries might be seen as the burned generation. Burned by corrupt and unresponsive governments; burned by mismanagement and venality; burned by chronic unemployment and under-employment (the engineer driving the taxi, the professor turned petty trader).

While the Tunisia case has unique characteristics—an army chief that chose, it seems, not to fire on the crowd, a relatively strong middle class borne of years of economic growth―Mohammad Bouazizi is not only a Tunisian. He is an Egyptian, a Jordanian, a Palestinian (add to your economic woes, a foreign power repressing you), an Iranian, an Indian, a Chinese, a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, and on and on.

The new documentary film, Petition, set in China, also represents the Mohammad Bouazizis of the world: Chinese, frustrated by venal local officials who have quashed their dreams, their simple ambitions, their dignity, convene on Beijing, living in tents known as Petition City, waving crumpled papers at disinterested officials, clamoring, pushing, jostling and just hoping that one person, one man with a stamp, one authority figure, will actually listen and actually seek to solve their problem, rather than shoo them away.

And so it goes in the Middle East. It is a familiar scene in halls of power in the Middle East: the citizen, servile and bowed, offers the official a note, a petition, a few lines scribbled on paper asking for help, for a son’s job, for an operation for his father, for help against unscrupulous landlords, hoping the man with the stamp or the powerful local official with the Cuban cigar collection and a villa in Dubai, would just listen for once, would just help, for once. And sometimes they do: patronage politics of course. And often, they do not.

And if regional policy-makers do not act soon―and act effectively (note: this does not mean yet another high-level conference with foreign “experts” flown in first class to lecture the audiences)―the slow simmer of the burning generation will continue.

The numbers are bleak. The Arab world must create 100 million jobs over the next ten years, the world’s development agencies say. Youth unemployment, at a startling 29 percent, leads all regions of the world. There is nothing more debilitating than widespread unemployment. It festers on the psyche like a cancer, stifles the potential of an entire generation, and drags down the larger economy, creating a vicious cycle. Add to this combustible mix, governments seen as repressive, corrupt, unresponsive.

It is a toxic brew, one that can, we have seen, bring down a dictator. Throughout the developing world, but especially in Arab lands, there are millions of other Mohammad Bouazizi’s. They have not lit themselves on fire, but they are burning.

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