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Tunisians abroad: Facebook, regular citizens key to revolution

By Holly Yan, CNN
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Tunisians are protesting what they say are poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Facebook was the drive of this revolution," a Tunisian native says
  • Protests lead to the ouster of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
  • Tunisia, like other Arab countries, has young, underemployed population
  • Tunisians protested against high unemployment, government corruption and repression

(CNN) -- As Tunisia adjusts to a new government, Selma Beji is cautiously optimistic about the future -- and freedoms -- of her fellow Tunisians.

A Tunisian native who is pursuing a master's degree in the United States, Beji said she was amazed that demonstrations -- driven largely by young adults and social media -- have led to an uprising that ousted Tunisia's president of 23 years.

"We were like, this is going to die off," said Beji, whose family lives in the northern suburbs of Tunis.

But "Facebook was the drive of this revolution. Everybody was on Facebook ... if these protests started five years ago, they would have died."

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Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's departure January 14 followed weeks of protests over what Tunisians said were poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression.

Al Kallel, a Tunisian native living in California, and a group of Tunisian friends held up signs at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, California, to "thank Facebook for enabling our nation (both inside and outside the country) to freely share their opinion online, bridging our way to democracy."

Kallel said when he lived in Tunisia, residents didn't have access to Facebook.

"You can't pass info around without being censored," Kallel told CNN's iReport.

The recent wave of Tunisian unrest was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate in December.

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in the town of Sidi Bouzid after police confiscated his fruit cart -- Bouazizi's only source of income -- saying the 26-year-old was selling without a permit, according to Amnesty International. He died January 4 from his injuries.

The event tore the lid off what appears to have been long-simmering fury at Ben Ali and his associates. Tunisians accuse the ruling circle of rampant corruption and nepotism.

After a month of largely leaderless popular protests against the government, Ben Ali fled the country, and Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament, was sworn in the following day as interim president. New elections are due within 60 days.

The instability could be an omen of the future since Tunisia has been far from the only Arab nation with a long-time president and a young, underemployed population. And recent cases of men setting themselves on fire have been reported in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania.

Beji said some of her friends in Tunisia who have college degrees are unemployed.

"I'm very optimistic about (employment) after this," she said. "I think more investors are going to start coming into the country. The country has a lot of potential."

Already, filters on websites such as YouTube -- put in place under Ben Ali -- have been dropped, and internet speed picked up considerably -- a development that followed the new government's vow to ease restrictions on freedoms.

Beji said she hopes the next president will support freedoms for Tunisians -- especially after what regular citizens showed what they are capable of.

"I think the next president is going to be scared. The revolution happened with no arms, no guns, no nothing -- just people on the streets," she said. "I think the next president would be a little worried if he didn't give us freedom of any kind."