Twenty-three years of dictatorship have left their mark on young Tunisians. They are visibly engaged today in launching new projects and restoring trust in their country - and in themselves.
By 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning at the Congress Palace in Tunis, a long queue has formed, running nearly to the street. Two police cars have just arrived to manage traffic. Around 1,500 people, most of them young, are patiently waiting to enter the TEDxCarthage event, which has the tagline: "Trust as a new currency?"
Seif, who struggled to get out of bed so early on the weekend, is standing in line with a cup of coffee in one hand and a smart phone in the other. The computer expert said he wants "to meet friends from the 'Net, listen to interesting speeches, and network."
Electronic music is resonating throughout the auditorium - where Tunisia's major parties normally hold their congresses - and a video about the conference is playing on a large screen.
The moderator, Haythem El Mekki, juggles Arabic, French and English to introduce speakers - many from outside of Tunisia - including from Canada, Brazil, Spain and Belgium. On stage are artists, lawyers, founders of a co-working space, and economists. They all share the desire to discuss trust, which many believe is missing at all levels of Tunisian government and society - and especially among Tunisians themselves.
The aim of TEDxCarthage is to promote an exchange of views among participants, introduce new ideas and encourage especially young people to have more trust in themselves and in their projects, whether big or small. The conference has been independently organized by Tunisians as part of the American TED conference series. Under the motto "Ideas worth spreading," the speakers give speeches on select topics every 15 minutes for the whole day.
Such conferences have been taking place in the US since the 1980s. The first one in Tunisia happened in September 2010, just three months before the start of demonstrations that led to overthrow of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
At that time, it was a gamble for the organizers - who were close to the opposition - to bring together so many young people at one time. Today, it's much easier; many events like TEDxCarthage regularly take place, especially at Tunisian universities.
Moderator El Mekki, who has been with TEDxCarthage from the start, is perhaps the best example of how far a person with a good dose of confidence can go. After the uprising in 2011, the outspoken blogger became one of the most sought-after political columnists and moderators in Tunisia.
"In my profession, everything depends on trust; if my readers and listeners don't trust me, I might as well quit," Haythem said. "Only when we have trust in ourselves can we move forward in these difficult times."
After-effects of dictatorship
And the times are tough in Tunisia. Many young people are unemployed, including university graduates. But only a few people are willing to take the plunge of launching a company or non-governmental organization (NGO).
Many believe that this is the result of 23 years of dictatorship, when schoolchildren were indoctrinated into believing they were better off not thinking for themselves, let alone developing their own projects. That period has left a mark especially on the country's young people - around half of Tunisia's population is under the age of 30.
It's the oldest speaker at the conference, Tunisian theater director and actor Raja Farhat, who manages to receive a standing ovation after calling for reform of the educational system and rallying against resurgent radical Islamists. "We are not hillbillies who can be led to Jihad by some illiterate people," he said, adding that thanks to education, Tunisia has grown stronger since its independence. "You need to defend the country; you need to accept the challenges because you will live here one day," he told participants.
Computer expert Seif believes that conferences like this one are an important step in building trust and encouraging more self-initiative, especially among young people. "It is the first step and it can't be the last one, but I think it can make a difference," he concluded.