Tunisian youth sit on stairs outside the theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on November 6, 2013 in Tunis
Tunisian youth sit on stairs outside the theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on November 6, 2013 in Tunis © Fethi Belaid - AFP
Tunisian youth sit on stairs outside the theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on November 6, 2013 in Tunis
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Kaouther Larbi, AFP
Last updated: November 6, 2013

Tunisia old guard shuts out youths behind revolt

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Three years after Tunisia's revolution, youths who formed the vanguard of protests find themselves sidelined from the political arena by veteran leaders determined to hold on to power.

Sparked on December 17, 2010 by the self-immolation of a 26-year-old street vendor angry with corruption and police harassment, the uprising toppled autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a month later.

But since then, "the revolution of the youths has been confiscated by the old who were hiding at home or abroad during the popular uprising," said Naima Charmiti.

"Our dinosaurs haven't stopped telling us that we have a political future, but in reality they haven't done anything concrete," lamented the 32-year-old who runs the arabesque.tn news website.

Two veterans dominate the crisis-hit political scene in the North African country, where people under the age of 30 account for 51 percent of the population.

One of them, Rached Ghannouchi, 73, heads the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and spent two decades in exile before returning to Tunisia in 2011.

The other, Beji Caid Essebsi, 86, leads the main opposition party, Nidaa Tounes.

Essebsi was a minister under Habib Bourguiba, the father of Tunisia's independence, as well as a parliament speaker during Ben Ali's rule and prime minister in the months after the revolution.

The pair were at the heart of talks that failed on Monday to lead to the appointment of an independent prime minister to steer Tunisia out of a political crisis that began in July with the assassination of an opposition leader.

Each side has its own candidate: Ennahda and its allies support 88-year-old Ahmed Mestiri; and the opposition backs 79-year-old Mohamed Ennaceur. Both men entered politics during the Bourguiba era.

"Right now it's clear the leaders of parties are all old, and making matters worse, they appeal to even older men!" said Thameur Mekki, a 27-year-old who supports rappers who have fallen foul of the law for irreverent lyrics.

And in a divisive political era that comes in for ceaseless criticism, one of the rare things leaders have been able to agree on is the lifting of the age limit of 75 for presidential candidates.

Salem Ayari, secretary general of the Tunisian union for unemployed graduates, said the problem is that the political elites simply consider youths as incompetent.

"These people do not believe that young people can take over," he said, adding it was the same under the ousted regime of Ben Ali "who excluded youths from political life".

Among political parties, there are restraints that have impeded the involvement of youths, the engine of the revolution who now account for 30 percent of Tunisia's unemployed against the national average of 16 percent.

"Following the hyper-enthusiasm of the revolution, there is real hyper-disappointment," said Selim Ben Abdessalem, a 43-year-old deputy in the Nidaa Tounes party.

"It would be a huge mistake to ignore them, but there is a lack of ability to attract them.

"There is a distrust of... youths in all companies and parties."

But the situation could also be explained by the need for people with experience in Tunisia, which faces growing jihadist violence, political crises and economic hardship.

"We must also stop populism, and the cult of youth," said Ben Abdessalem.

"Tunisia is in a situation where you don't go to someone who has no experience in government as prime minister. And if we don't want those who weren't in the Ben Ali regime, we have to rely on those from the Bourguiba era," he explained.

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