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Senior hopes to empower Tunisian youth


Senior political science and religious studies major Mariem Masmoudi is traveling to Tunisia on Friday amid political unrest to help promote democracy and focus on youth empowerment. Masmoudi plans to return to UNC this fall and graduate in December.

Mariem Masmoudi had hopes of graduating in May and moving on to a career in politics.

But on Jan. 14, when the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled amid nationwide political protests, Masmoudi put those plans on hold.

A political science and religious studies major at UNC, Masmoudi decided to delay getting her degree to December, choosing to promote democracy in Tunisia.

Born in the United States to Tunisian parents, Masmoudi left Chapel Hill on Saturday to make preparations for her Friday departure. She will go with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, an organization founded by her father, Radwan Masmoudi, who serves as president of the center.

After 23 years of massive unemployment, widespread corruption and censorship under Ben Ali’s rule, Masmoudi said she now sees an opportunity to help.

“This revolution (has) sprung from underlying tensions and anxieties that have plagued the Tunisian people for the 23 years of ex-President Ben Ali’s term,” she said.

“I feel I can contribute my experiences as a politically and socially active American, having organized rallies, demonstrations, campaigns of many different kinds … and just generally having experience with rallying people around a cause.”

Tunisians began demonstrations in about a dozen cities across the nation after 26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire because police had confiscated his only means of livelihood, an unlicensed vegetable cart.

Masmoudi has spent most of her summers in the North African country and is fluent in both Arabic and French, the two administrative languages of Tunisia.

Masmoudi said she plans to stay in Tunisia until the start of fall semester in August, when she hopes to return to UNC to graduate in December.

She said she will focus on youth empowerment during her time in the country. The projects deal with issues including the compatibility of Islam and democracy and the rights of women and minorities.

“The mentality of young Tunisians has been totally warped by the policies and actions of Ben Ali and his regime,” she said.

“I feel the best contribution I could make is to try and help focus and channel legitimate hopes and dreams for the future Tunisian state,” she added.

Masmoudi’s brother Youssef, a freshman at UNC, said he is optimistic about the future of Tunisia and the work his sister will do to promote participation in the democratic process and encouraging young people to vote through workshops. During her two years interning for the center, Masmoudi’s duties have included drafting grant proposals for the center’s projects, which involve hosting conferences, workshops and seminars in Arab countries.

“I am a bit worried about her safety, though, since there is no central government at the moment, and how that is going to be in the intermediary period between now and elections,” her brother said. “But I think this is going to be a really great experience for her.”

Masmoudi’s friends at UNC said they support her plans.

“This is the way to go, to go and actually do something rather than just writing a blog about it from home,” said Nadia Shazly, a UNC senior and friend of Masmoudi’s.

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