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Vendor's suicide reflects despair of Mideast youth

Sunday - 5/12/2013, 11:48am  ET

Issam Khedri, 29, eldest brother of cigarette vendor Adel Khedri, stands outside his room in the Mellassine slum of the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on Sunday, April 14, 2013. Adel set himself on fire on March 12, 2013 outside the Municipal Theater in the heart of the capital. One of his last words to a doctor at the burn center was "faddit" - slang for "fed up." The self-immolation comes more than two years after another Tunisian high school dropout-turned-street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire and launched mass protests that eventually toppled dictators in four Arab countries. (AP Photo/Ons Abid)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

SOUK AL-JUMMA, Tunisia (AP) -- 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."

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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.

In Tunisia, 143 of the people who lit themselves aflame over the past two years, many of them unemployed, have died. Similar self-immolations have been reported in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanon, though in smaller numbers.

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.

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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.

Several years later, the Khedris got a two-room concrete shack in Souk al-Jumma as part of a housing program by the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime authoritarian leader of Tunisia. Latifa stayed in the village with Issam and Adel. Habib returned to Tunis to work.

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