As a virtual guerrilla, Aya Chebbi helped light the fuse of the Jasmine Revolution that, ten years ago, ended the regime of Tunisian Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The young woman took advantage of the notoriety of her political blogs to catapult herself as an off-road activist. Since then, he has fought colorful battles throughout Africa. Their struggle is that of the oppressed woman. That of the young man without horizon. That of the victims of violence who suffer consequences without finding justice.
In 2018 he made the leap to institutions by becoming a youth representative for the African Union (AU). A year later, she won an award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in recognition of her tireless youth empowerment work on the continent. Chebbi is now trying to influence and participate in the circles of power without compromising too much his radicality, a term that he carries as a banner. In the search for that balance, he has coined an expression that runs through his discourse: intergenerational co-leadership.
Question. You have a broad perspective – both temporal and geographic – on youth activism in Africa. What is the trend? Is it going up, down, is it stabilized?
Answer. It is clearly on the rise, partly due to an age issue. When I started, during the Tunisian Revolution, I was 23 years old. Today I see young people very involved in Nigeria, Namibia … Barely reaching their 20s. The past decade was like a frustration that boils, grows and turns into campaigns – online and physical – led by young people. Movements that last almost permanently. There is also the contagion effect, the inspiration to take action after seeing what has happened in other countries. The 2018 Sudanese Revolution has a lot to do with what had happened in Tunisia eight years earlier.
P. Has young people raise their voices more, has it caused greater repression?
R. It depends. There is an element of impatience in youth activism: you want change now. I was like that when I started. But, after my time at the AU, I have realized that deep, structural changes take time and a lot of diplomacy. And the ability to move to positions of responsibility. When this does not happen, when the struggle is perpetuated in the streets without producing tangible results (in the case, for example, of Egypt), discontent increases. And this, at times, provokes an increase in repression.
P. I suppose that it is not always easy for the young activist to become part of the system.
R. That is why many do not go into politics, for that fear of being corrupted, of becoming too pragmatic. During my time at the UA I always advocated for a massive incorporation of young people into institutions. Precisely to avoid that the system ends up engulfing the desire for change typical of youth. At the meetings she was, you know, a young woman surrounded by older men. Noisy, with radical approaches, with a language that they were not used to hearing.
P. Did it feel strange? Scorned?
R. Let’s say that little by little I was finding my way. I found that the generation gap was often a communication problem. I dealt with many politicians willing to listen, brave, humble, wanting to change. But they saw these masses of kids on the street as a threat, as if they were going to kill them all. And on the other side were the young people – that 65% of the African population under 30 years of age – who did not feel represented by the political class. That’s when the idea of intergenerational co-leadership began to take shape in me.
P. To unite the best of both worlds. Vitality and experience, for example.
R. I would rather say innovation and wisdom. Although the fundamental thing is that the relationship between different generations is not considered as a dichotomy: them or us. And that this allows young people to be incorporated into politics at all levels, from presidential teams to ministries, regional governments … If you go with this approach, they listen to you more than if you come to say “Gentlemen , your time is up, pack your things ” [risas].
The fundamental thing is that the relationship between different generations is not a dichotomy: them or us
P. Used to saying what you think openly, did you have to censor yourself when you assumed an institutional position?
R. I told myself when I accepted the offer that I never would. And if they censored me from above, I would resign. The truth is that I never felt that they wanted to silence me. I always said what I thought, even if it made the person in front of me feel uncomfortable. I did have, as I was saying, problems due to my condition as a young woman. I remember a meeting with a high position that I prefer not to reveal. To the right and left I had two people from my team, both young men. When that senior officer answered my questions, he looked at them, never at me.
P. It was not a question of age, but of pure machismo.
R. Of course. Regarding my age, I earned respect precisely by doing my job, which was to confront the political class with the reality of their countries. My speech was similar: “You have to listen to your people, you have to respect the voice of your youth, enforce the conventions and treaties that you have signed on human rights, access to public services, provision of jobs …”. I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.
P. I understand that holding a position also increased your sense of security.
R. During my career as an activist I had been arrested, imprisoned, deported to Tunisia from Egypt, the police had beaten me … Terrible experiences, especially in the early years, from 2010 to 2016. Then I was very involved in radical movements such as Lucha [surgido en 2012 en la República Democrática del Congo, utiliza la resistencia pacífica contra toda forma de violencia]. I was not afraid and still am not. Little by little I got into issues of political representation, I was gaining popularity and, with it, security and protection that, logically, increased when I joined the UA. To have lived what I have lived; Knowing first-hand the extreme risk gives me credibility today to bring the authorities closer to those millions of young Africans who are persecuted. It helps me to make them understand what the reduction of human rights implies for people’s lives.
Knowing the extreme risk first-hand gives me credibility today to bring the authorities closer to those millions of young Africans who are persecuted
P. Is youth activism in Africa more active than in Europe?
R. 10 or 20 years ago I would have answered yes. But now much of youth activism around the world has a global dimension. Big issues such as racism or climate change move millions of young people regardless of their origin. What I do detect – when some NGOs bring together young Europeans and Africans – is that attitude that Africans have to learn from Europeans in terms of mobilization strategies, leadership and relationships with institutions. And we have spent decades organizing ourselves, sometimes with very creative solutions, precisely as a consequence of the repression. Young Europeans can also get involved in African causes through campaigns online, pressuring their own governments to rethink their foreign policy and wonder how it affects Africa.
P. As virtual activism is very effective, especially in terms of its capacity for expansion and awareness, does it go to another level when a physical component is added? Maybe those older men I was talking about before don’t pay much attention to what’s going on on social media. But when they see thousands of people on the street, things change.
R. I always say that the Tunisian Revolution was not the Facebook or Twitter revolution. We achieved freedom when people took to the streets and died for it. There is a story about what happened in my country as if everything had been online, when what we did was simply use the internet for social change. Previously, social networks were used to socialize virtually and, at best, go physical by hanging invitations to a graduation party, things like that. We started inviting people to come en masse to a protest.
The Tunisian Revolution was not the Facebook or Twitter revolution. We achieved freedom when people took to the streets and died for that freedom
P. Internet as a powerful tool, but far from unique.
R. We must not forget that 70% of Africa is still offline. If we focused on 30% online, we would not reach the vast majority who still do not have access to the internet. Digital helps to organize oneself for an action that in the end –especially in the longer-term causes– occurs fundamentally through real, physical contact with local communities.
P. The most frenzied or explosive movements that topple governments in a short time, as happened in Tunisia or Sudan, have something unpredictable. A trigger ignites the flame and causes long-held frustrations to spill over.
R. That story of waking up also bothers me, as if we had been asleep before. In Tunisia there had already been previous revolutionary attempts. What changed that time? Two things. First, a flash point that captured the imagination of citizens. In our case it was Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who got burned like a bongo. He became a reference, a metaphor for our demands: all of us – we came to say in the demonstrations that followed his death – also burned ourselves against corruption and police brutality. A second decisive factor was that international legitimacy was achieved, with the explicit support of international leaders, especially Barack Obama.
P. The outbreak in Sudan (and to some extent that of Tunisia) also had a lot to do with its dire economic situation: brutal inflation of basic products such as bread, lack of employment and prospects for young people …
R. When you squeeze your people into their daily lives, when they don’t have much to live for, nor much to lose … Sooner or later they will take to the streets to protest. Poverty and economic inequality unite the people, the great majority. And then there are more specific struggles, always with that common thread of human rights, in which young people can turn: genital mutilation, access to education, peace movements, child marriage …
P. You have been involved in all of them. How would you say your activism has had the greatest impact?
R. I couldn’t tell you … My favorite area has been gender issues, feminism, and I think I have contributed to a change in mentalities and on specific issues, such as a law that we had in Tunisia that allowed the rapist to marry his victim. But now I focus my energy on trying to empower young people to occupy the positions of responsibility they deserve. That idea of intergenerational co-leadership that I was commenting on and through which I can act as a bridge between youth activism and the institutional system.
P. His speech contains a strong pan-Africanist element. In that feeling of continental brotherhood, do you see a pronounced gap between the north and the south of the Sahara?
R. Completely. When I was a student, I looked for scholarships throughout Africa and could not access any sub-Saharan country; I had to go to a MENA country [acrónimo inglés para referirse a Oriente Medio y el Norte de África]. It occurs in access to financing, in development projects … Even in summits that are defined as “African”, but completely ignore the north of the continent. I remember I was in Senegal and saw that, in Dakar, there was an avenue named after the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. Apparently, he was close friends with the first president of Senegal. They were united by a common cause: your liberation is my liberation.
P. Is that feeling stronger among young people? Perhaps your vision is less constrained by borders or even racial divisions.
R. I would say yes. In all my travels in Africa I meet young people who face the same challenges: repressive regimes (although to very different degrees), post-colonial institutional structures … The same shit everywhere! [risas]. I know there are people who think, “What does she know? Pan-Africanism comes from Ghana, from Tanzania … not from Tunisia! ”. That is why I insist on certain and forceful messages: we share a colonial past, we face similar challenges and united we are stronger.
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