Issam Khedri, 29, eldest brother of cigarette vendor Adel Khedri, smokes a cigarette outside his room in the Mellassine slum of the Tunisian capital, Tunis on Sunday, 14 April 2013. Adel set himself on fire outside the Municipal Theater in the heart of Tunis on 12 March 2013. Photo: Ons Abid

11 May 2013

SOUK AL-JUMMA, Tunisia (Associated Press) – On the day he chose to die, Adel Khedri woke up at 6:30 a.m., took his black backpack and headed down to the busy boulevard where he worked as a cigarette peddler.
It was the last in a series of odd jobs that had defined his hand-to-mouth existence for almost nine years. He couldn't afford to pay bribes to get hired as a driver or a guard. The Tunisian army didn't need him. There were few factory jobs. And the owner at a fast food restaurant in neighboring Libya had cheated him out of wages as a dishwasher.

So on March 12, three weeks after his 27th birthday, Adel left the dirty room he shared with his older brother in a Tunis slum for the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, once the stage for the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

He stopped in front of the art deco Municipal Theater. He poured gasoline over his body. Then he set himself on fire.

Adel died 19 hours later. One of his last words to a doctor at the burn center was "faddit" - slang for "fed up."

Adel is one of 178 people in Tunisia who have set themselves on fire since the self-immolation two years ago of another high school dropout-turned-street vendor launched the Arab Spring.

These two book-ends of a revolution that toppled four Arab dictators show how little has changed in between for millions of jobless, hopeless 20-somethings across the Middle East and North Africa. The difficulty of finding a job, which helped spark the unrest, is now a prescription for continued turmoil.

Youth unemployment worldwide is up to about 12.3 percent, in part because of the global financial crisis that began five years ago. But some areas of the Middle East and North Africa suffer from more than twice that rate, because of stubborn labor market problems compounded by the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

And the future looks even worse. In the Middle East, youth unemployment is expected to rise from 27.7 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2018, the International Labor Organization reported this week. In North Africa, a slight increase is expected, from 23.3 percent to 23.9 percent.

Economists say fixing the problem will require broad and deep changes, such as overhauling education, slashing bloated public sectors and encouraging entrepreneurship.

"There is no quick solution that will address all the aspirations of young people looking for jobs now," said Masood Ahmed, head of the International Monetary Fund for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In the meantime, the numbers add up to a generation in trouble.

Tunisia, 143 of the people who lit themselves aflame over the past two years, many of them unemployed, have

A month after Adel's death, five of the 20 beds at the Ben Arous burn center in Tunis held people who had set themselves on fire, including two young men newly arrived from the poor provincial towns of Kasserine and Ben Guerdane. Self-immolations make up about 25 percent of admissions, according to Dr. Amen Allah Messaadi, the center's trauma chief. Some victims suffer from mental problems, but most are just like Adel—unemployed high-school dropouts in their 20s.

The Associated Press pieced together Adel's story from interviews with two dozen people, including his family and friends; waiters, a lawyer and a witness at the scene; a doctor and a psychiatrist at the burn center, and local officials, including a school principal. The AP also looked at photos from the scene.

Adel's life of struggle was in some ways a copy of that of his father, Habib.

Born in Souk al-Jumma, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Tunis, Habib went to the capital as a young man to find work in day labor. In January 1978, he was wounded by gunfire in the left shoulder during a government crackdown on anti-poverty protests.

In 1980, Habib married his hometown cousin, Latifa. The couple started out in a tiny room in Tunis, just like the one Adel and his 29-year-old brother Issam were to share later. […]

Adel and his four brothers were part of the "youth bulge" rippling across the Middle East and North Africa, a region of about 380 million people. In Arab countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, those under 25 make up anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the population, largely due to improved health care over the decades.

But the economies of the region have not kept pace.

The Arab world would have to create about 46 million jobs to bring unemployment down to the global average by 2020, according to Elena Ianchovichina, the World Bank's lead economist in the region. Instead, economic growth has come in at well below the 6 percent a year required to achieve this, particularly in Arab Spring countries that saw a sharp economic downturn.

In Jendouba province, where Adel spent much of his childhood, unemployment is running at about 20 percent. His district of about 60,000 people houses factories for car wires and sugar, with two more in the works for solar panels and olive oil packaging. But that's not enough to absorb all those with a high school education or less.

Even a university education may make no difference.

In Tunisia, about 230,000 university graduates are unemployed, making up one-third of the jobless, according to the National Institute of Statistics. The Union of Unemployed University Graduates puts the actual number of jobless graduates closer to 350,000, saying many have stopped looking for work. [more]

Vendor's suicide reflects despair of Mideast youth



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