Omezzine Khelifa

Photo courtesy of Michelangelo Marino

A tech engineer by training, Omezzine Khelifa left a life in France to work in the Tunisian transition from dictatorship to democracy. Today she is the executive director of the Apolitical Foundation Accelerator programme, helping equip a new type of community-powered politician all over the world. Following her appearance at Stronger Things, she speaks to Katy Oglethorpe about her remarkable career and hope for the new wave of “awesome” changemakers.

You went from working of a financial institution in France to returning to Tunisia to help rebuild its democracy. Why?  

When the Tunisian revolution started in 2010 I had been working for a financial institution in France for 13 years. I started witnessing all the videos of people being killed by the police while they were protesting for jobs, freedom and dignity.

I was safer in France, but I couldn’t stay away from my home country. The moment dictator Ben Ali fled, I decided to fly back to Tunis and get involved in the transition. I joined a political party and this is how my journey started. I was a candidate in the first free and fair elections of Tunisia. I wasn’t elected, but my party was and we became part of the first governing coalition. I was called to advise two ministers and two transition governments.

I had to learn the hard way how to be a politician, when a few months before I was just an engineer working in finance.

That was exciting and inspiring, but at the same time very challenging. I had to learn the hard way how to be a politician, when a few months before I was just an engineer working in finance. But four years in a political party in government and helping to draft the constitution was foundational to who I am today: a strong believer in democracy, supportive of aspiring politicians, and understanding that those who have the power to make the largest impact on society are politicians. They need to be well trained, prepared, understand the challenges, be able to see the opportunities while also protecting themselves while doing this demanding job.

Now Tunisia has backslid to an authoritarian regime again. The president who was elected in 2019 has destroyed, bit by bit, the foundations of the new democracy. 

This is why my work in the Apolitical Foundation is, for me, very important. I still needed to work in the democracy space. The global work that we’re doing supporting new and different people to run for office is my contribution to democracy, in the hope that we as Tunisians, can help somehow, some way, get Tunisia back on the track of democracy again.

You set up Mobdiun, which worked with young people at risk of radicalisation to lead change in Tunisia. Why was working with this particular group important to you? 

At the time we were told that a lot of young people in Tunisia were joining terrorist organisations. I wanted to understand why, and how big the issue was. I realised we needed to have solid research to understand this.

One of the neighbourhoods most affected was somewhere I campaigned when I was a candidate for parliament. It was a poor, marginalised neighbourhood. It was a hotbed for crime, the black market, drugs. And it had become a place of recruitment for these terrorist groups.

I recruited sociologists and we started a conversation with youths aged between 12 and 18. We wanted to understand their family dynamics, their experience of gender, their relationship with the state, the police, with to religion, with their peers.

Photo courtesy of Mobdiun – Creative Youth

We learned that the story of violence was deeply ingrained. That what used to be a social state for their parents had become an oppressive state. And when the peaceful way of protesting and asking for your rights is not respected, violence becomes the only solution.

One of the main findings was – and it’s incredible because it’s so simple and obvious – we needed to create a place where young men and young women could meet, play, work together, do theatre and normalise their relationships.

Young men were subject to violence, so having this safe place was taking them out of the streets. Violence against young women was mostly in their homes, so we needed to get them into a safe environment that was endorsed and accepted by their families. This space needed to be gender diverse because the first thing terrorist groups do is separate males from females.

The outcomes of these discussions were used to initiate a dialogue with multiple stakeholders, including government, the private sector, and civil society organisations to inform policy to counter violent extremism.

I think at the local level we changed lives. We saw extraordinary human beings who realised the potential they have, and saw that they have a voice – it was just so repressed under layers of feeling worthless.

What are you trying to achieve through your work at the Apolitical Accelerator programme?

People come to us who want to change politics in their countries. They are disappointed in political leadership, and believe that a lot of voices are not represented. They are usually leaders from civil society who have done amazing and transformational things in their communities. This is a common thread from Latin America to Europe to Africa to Asia.

A real test will be when citizens can say, ‘Being a politician is the most respectable job on earth – I want to become a politician.’ Today it is exactly the opposite.

We start leadership incubators, akin to executive masters degrees, which help them get the knowledge, skills and mindset to become politicians. We cover 25 countries. In our current cohort we have people from Nepal, to the Arctic region, to Ghana, to Argentina. They represent an incredible wave of changemakers who are deciding to get involved in politics.

My hope today comes from talking to them. They are incredible people who are also facing challenges related to fundraising, deeply polarised societies, violence. But they are still doing it.

A real test will be when citizens can say, ‘Being a politician is the most respectable job on earth – I want to become a politician.’ Today it is exactly the opposite. Even very good politicians who are trying to do their best are often tarnished by the toxicity of the environment.

What leadership qualities are you trying to cultivate?

We are trying to build leaders who are entrepreneurial, creative, resilient, resourceful, and who have a very strong sense of how democracy should be representative of the people, especially those from minorities or who are marginalised.

This is really a wave. We are seeing the first signs of an international movement for new and different political leadership.

Our belief is that every citizen around the globe deserves good political leadership: people who are ethical, trustworthy, courageous, who are here to serve them and serve the planet with the skills of the 21st century.

This is really a wave. We are seeing the first signs of an international movement for new and different political leadership. I believe that the next five to 10 years, we will have a new generation of leaders. I hope that the political parties will take them in. We need a critical mass of these awesome people in politics to see the impact on better policies.

What is the idea behind the Democratic Innovators awards you ran in November?

This was the first Hall of Fame of Democratic Innovators of the 21st century, in association with the Democracy and Culture Foundation. 

The recipients are 10 extraordinary women and men who have used democratic innovation practices to involve their citizens and to give them meaningful power.

This is our way to change the narrative and to show that there are good politicians. They are an inspiration in these very dark times of democracy. We need these good examples of hope, people trying to make change with citizens.

Can you give us some examples of how these leaders are using community-powered techniques to make change? 

I can give you some amazing examples.

Ximena Peredo is the secre of civic participation in the city of Leon in Mexico. She is from a civil society activist background, and she’s been asked to join the government and start a new ministry. The idea is really to involve citizens in deliberative conversations and decision-making processes about their city.

Photo courtesy of the Democracy and Culture Foundation

Kate Chaney is a member of the House of Representatives in Australia. She used a method called ‘kitchen table conversations’. These are conversations held informally in houses. People invite their friends and their neighbours, and they start to discuss their priorities. They were able to mobilise a community of citizens who find found in them a new type of political leadership. Once they got elected, they continued involving people in policy making and are even challenging the other members of the House to do the same. Kate and her colleagues have become a bridge between citizens and the Parliament.

Our belief is that every citizen around the globe deserves good political leadership. People who are ethical, trustworthy, courageous, who are here to serve them and serve the planet with the skills of the 21st century.

Another recipient is Graça Fonseca, who introduced the world’s first national participatory budget while she was a minister of culture in Portugal. She discovered that when you give this power to citizens to decide on what to do with a small part of the budget, it can completely change the dynamic, creating trust and transparency and being able to follow, as a citizen, what’s been done with taxpayers’ money.

We have also the example of Joan Burton, who was the Minister of Social Affairs in Ireland and was able to lift the ban on abortion rights. We all know this is almost an intractable issue to solve. But she was able to resolve that in a Citizens Assembly, and now there is a standing one in Ireland.

Omezzine was a speaker at Stronger Things 2023.
Source: New Local Website