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Youth Who Led Tunisia's Uprising Frustrated With Pace Of Change


People took to the streets four years ago in Tunisia to help topple a dictator and spark a wave of uprisings across the Arab world. Tomorrow Tunisians will vote for their president. But young people, who were key to the protests of the Arab Spring, are not expected to turn out to the polls. Tunisia's transition to democracy has been mostly peaceful and the runoff for president tomorrow will be a landmark, but NPR's Leila Fadel reports that the young see too many things staying just the same.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Young Tunisians stream into a downtown auditorium this week. They're there to hear a debate between young representatives of the two presidential candidates. The event is in an attempt to get more young people to vote, but it's a struggle.

ELYAS GUERMAZI: We see that the voice of the youth is not really well-represented in the government. And that's why only 5 percent of the youth went to vote in the election days.

FADEL: Elyas Guermazi is 26 and one of the organizers of the event. He says it's not that young people don't care, it's that so far they haven't seen themselves in the candidates, and they don't trust them.

GUERMAZI: Because one of the issues that we have right now is like, the two presidents are kind of old.

FADEL: Candidate Beji Caid Essebsi is 88 years old and from the old regime that Tunisians ousted. Some people think he probably won't live long enough to serve a five-year term. And Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist who served as interim president for three years, is 69. Guermazi hopes today's debate helps young people see that even though the men are old and one of them served in the old regime, they still have a choice to make that will decide Tunisia's future. Nidaa Tunis is 26 and came to hear the debate, but she's already made a choice.

NIDAA TUNIS: Yeah I do plan to vote, but I will vote for no one, for the two candidates.

FADEL: She's going to spoil her ballot. She says Essebsi served the dictator she protested against and Marzouki, well, she says he's a disaster. During his interim presidency prices skyrocketed, there were political assassinations and a drop in tourism.

TUNIS: We haven't a personal leader today in Tunisia who have the mind of the young people or who have the priority of the young people.

FADEL: And as if on cue, an announcement is made.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).

FADEL: Representatives of Essebsi's party, Nidaa Tounes, aren't coming to the debate. Young people led the protests in Tunisia and that uprising gave birth to revolts against despots in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and beyond. Now, the concern in Tunisia is if young people aren't voting, it's because the system isn't changing fast enough. They say the underpinnings of the old dictatorship still remain, like the police who are known for human rights abuses. And politics are still weighted in favor of remnants of the old regime, or Islamists who are far more organized. We meet Azyz Amami, a renowned Tunisian activist and blogger. He was briefly jailed for his role in the uprising nearly four years ago. He listens to hip-hop as he effortlessly switches between French, Arabic and English.

AZYZ AMAMI: I'm not participating in this actual political process.

FADEL: Neither of these guys represents him, but he says that doesn't mean he's boycotting or he doesn't believe in democracy. In the first round of the vote there were 27 presidential candidates. He encouraged people to choose the Communist, who came in third.

AMAMI: For me, it's a symbolic fight. It's something that we have to print in the minds of people. There is possibility for good politicians.

FADEL: Even, he says, in an unreformed system. Now with such a limited choice, the youth vote will drop even more. But, he says the ballot box is not everything. Young people are volunteering at the electoral commission and are serving as observers at the polls. That's how they're helping build a new system.

AMAMI: (Speaking foreign language).

FADEL: They're looking toward municipal elections in 2017, where change can happen and future politicians are born.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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