Athens Democracy Forum: Across Africa, Young Leaders Emerge

By John Mercury October 5, 2023

Tunisia, 35, co-founder and director, International Institute of Debate

Elyes Guermazi said his grandfather, an activist during the revolution in Tunisia in 1956, was the person who first stoked his interest in politics. “He would tell me stories related to our revolution — what was the meaning of democracy, how education is important,” said Mr. Guermazi, “and he made me very interested in civic engagement.”

However, by the time he came of age, Tunisia was in the throes of a dictatorship that suppressed political freedoms. “So we couldn’t talk a lot about politics,” said Mr. Guermazi, who has done consulting for UNESCO, Oxfam and the United Nations Population Fund. The Arab Spring, which began with revolts in Tunisia, changed all of that, and with a deep interest in how debate could help shape and shift political discourse, he co-founded the International Institute of Debate in 2013.

The idea was to civically engage young people — often in debates set up in cafes — who otherwise had no space to openly express their opinions on politics and society. “Our vision is to engage every young person in his or her community,” Mr. Guermazi said, adding that part of their success has been connecting politicians and citizens in proactive debates that finish with concrete action plans.

“Sometimes you can articulate a problem, but you don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “But if people are engaged, trained and have the capacities and tools, it will be easy for them to optimize.” More than 30,000 people have participated in the program so far, and the organization has expanded to Jordan and Lebanon.

“When communities start to create changes themselves and design things together, even small initiatives which bring hope, that would make governments inspired to join efforts.”

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