Aya Chebbi was born in Tunisia in 1987 in Dahmani, a village northwest of the capital, Tunis.

Aya Chebbi was born in Tunisia in 1987 in Dahmani, a village northwest of the capital, Tunis. Growing up, Chebbi moved to a new city every two to three years because her father was a colonel in the Tunisian army. During her formative years, she attended eight different schools and traveled all the way from Tunisia’s northern coastal regions to its southern desert.

In 2007, Chebbi began studying international relations at the Higher Institute of Human Sciences of Tunis. In her senior year, she witnessed one of the most important events in her country’s recent history: the Tunisian Revolution. Riots had broken out after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, self-immolated to protest the injustice he experienced in his small town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010.  

In an interview with Inside Arabia, Chebbi recalled how former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali set the revolution in motion in December 2010: “We were preparing to sit exams in January and then, because of different protests, Ben Ali decided to shut down public schools and universities.” Freed from the classroom during the shutdown, young Tunisians like Chebbi could focus on organizing and protesting.

Later, as Chebbi completed her undergraduate degree, she watched Tunisia’s long-time dictator step down from power and her country struggle towards freedom and democracy. Chebbi’s passion for political and social activism was born as her beloved homeland was being reborn.

Reclaiming the Narrative

For the first two weeks of the Tunisian Revolution, the international media was absent, according to Chebbi. Consequently, ordinary citizens poured into the streets to document and share with the outside world the Tunisian regime’s oppression. Yet, even when media outlets began reporting the tumult in Tunisia, Chebbi was dissatisfied with their coverage.

“I started blogging out of frustration about how the media portrayed our movement,” Chebbi told Inside Arabia. First, she objected to the name given to the political tidal wave that swept through her country. Tunisians called their movement the “Revolution of Dignity,” while the West called it the “Arab Spring,” she said. The 2011 Revolution of Dignity in Tunisia, and subsequent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), marked the rise of a new phenomenon in the region: citizen journalism.

Mainstream journalists and media organizations had long monopolized the reporting of local and international events. However, in 2011, technology and the internet gave average citizens across the Arab world the ability to disrupt this control by using their personal experiences and perspectives to shape the narrative of the period.

Tunisians were the first in the Arab world to politicize social media to mobilize the masses for social change: “We created a Facebook event, not to invite you to a graduation party or a wedding, but to a protest in front of the Ministry of Interior,” Chebbi said proudly. From the frontlines, young Tunisians shared photos, vlogs, blogs, and messages on various platforms to report breaking news to international audiences.

Instead of being the subjects of news stories, people reported their own stories; and in the process, Chebbi and her young compatriots forever changed the face of journalism and youth activism in the region.   

A Brave New World

Following the Revolution, many young people like Chebbi were inspired to fight for their rights in Tunisia’s media, social, and political spaces.

Following the Revolution, many young people like Chebbi were inspired to fight for their rights in Tunisia’s media, social, and political spaces. In so doing, they found their voices and laid the groundwork for a new culture of debate.

Practicing free speech in the uncharted territory of the virtual world played a key role in pushing Tunisians to seek the same freedom offline. “Many people couldn’t exercise their freedom of expression in person,” Chebbi told Inside Arabia. For the first time, the internet gave them a unique opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns in a very public way.

But social media soon became a new battleground for both activists and government. Like the protestors, the authorities also “created Facebook pages and started to mobilize online and create a lot of false information,” Chebbi told Inside Arabia. Initially, it was difficult for the public to differentiate fact from fiction. As the revolution progressed, Facebook fact-checking pages emerged to address the problem.

Tunisian online activists and citizen journalists, however, became more vulnerable as their identities and opinions became public knowledge. But this did not deter them from making their voices heard. “Over the past couple of years, young people have said we’re here, we exist, we can make positive change,” Chebbi told Inside Arabia. This ambition continues to drive activists in the region to promote youth engagement and participation.

Making Space for Change

Since 2012, Chebbi, who identifies herself as a feminist and a pan-Africanist, has traveled to 30 countries in Africa to educate, train, and mentor young artists and collectives on the continent.

Since 2012, Chebbi, who identifies herself as a feminist and a pan-Africanist, has traveled to 30 countries in Africa to educate, train, and mentor young artists and collectives on the continent. “I’m happy to be someone who’s living her dream. I’m not dreaming. I’m living what I’m dreaming of, which is organizing young people around the vision of unity,” Chebbi told Inside Arabia.

The chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, appointed Chebbi as the organization’s special youth envoy in November 2018. In her new role, Chebbi will serve as spokesperson for African youth across the AU’s different decision-making bodies.

Yet, the award-winning activist believes that more still needs to be done to get Arab youth into public and private institutions across the MENA region. Chebbi outlined three steps for young people to achieve this goal:

First, connect with people outside of their customary networks to avoid creating echo chambers that limit their reach and social impact.

Second, leverage online and offline activism to increase youth representation and diversity of perspectives in mainstream media.

And third, fight for greater representation in social, economic, and political institutions so that young people’s issues, and solutions, can be a part of their nations’ future visions and agendas.

“Young people have a voice, now all we have to do is amplify it,” Chebbi concluded.