An estimated 50,000 people from 5,000 organizations in 127 countries spanning five continents participated in the World Social Forum in Tunisia over the past week. By choosing to come together in Tunis, this year’s forum evoked the spirit of the 2011 revolt that inspired uprisings around the world. But the annual convergence also raised questions about the trajectory of these movements, as well as the continued relevance of the World Social Forum process.
The WSF, which started in Brazil and has featured appearances by Hugo Chavez and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the past years, has been credited with helping to build and consolidate a broad left in South America and establish connections and shared strategy between movements around the world. However, the WSF has always been divided. There are frequent protests against the forum from within – notably in 2007 in Nairobi, when protestors took over a food stand that they said symbolized a corporate sellout by the forum and a lack of accessibility to locals without means – as well as struggles by leadership over its direction.
The contradictions and conflicts of the Arab Spring were on full display. While one group held a session on strategies for overthrowing the Syrian government, there was a rally nearby in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Elsewhere in the forum, arguments broke out over whether Libya was better off without Muammar Gaddafi.
While many spoke of Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood as regressive forces, others saw political Islam as part of an anti-imperialist front. Reflecting the importance of these debates, hundreds lined up to hear remarks by Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies and major figure in the debate on the role of Islam in the West.
An area of the forum called the “Global Square” was organized by members of anarchist or horizontalist movements such as Occupy and 15-M in Spain, many of whom were critical of the politics of the WSF and its organizing bodies. While Occupy has vanished from US headlines, it was clear that around the world the name still resonates. When Occupy was mentioned in the opening ceremony, it brought one of the largest cheers of the night. “I really find a close connection between the Occupy movement and Tunisia,” said Mabrouka Mbarek, an elected member of the Tunisian constituent assembly. “It’s like Tunisia really catalyzed a global movement. Suddenly everyone is courageous to occupy.”
Gender and the role of women was an underlying theme. Forum organizers made a statement by having all the speakers at the opening ceremony be women – including Besma Khalfaoui, widow of assassinated Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who gave a rousing speech. Organizations such as the World March on Women, an international feminist action movement, played a major role in the forum and kept these issues central. However, some panels and spaces at the forum were male dominated – a problem that seemed to be even more true of sessions organized by Europeans than of those organized by activists from other regions.
The movement for a free Palestine was well represented, and the forum closed with upwards of 10,000 people marching in commemoration of Palestinian Land Day. While Palestine liberation was the consensus position at the forum, there was strife between grassroots activists and those representing the political leadership in Ramallah.
While in the United States it is often seen as a voice of the Arab Spring, Qatar-based Al Jazeera was criticized by local activists as supporting repressive regimes in the region. Shams Abdi, a young and fierce woman activist with the General Union Tunisian Students, refused an interview with a reporter from Al Jazeera, calling the news channel a “Zionist project.”
However, the most public explosion of conflict occurred during the closing social movement assembly, when members of the Moroccan delegation rushed the stage in opposition after a statement was read in support of independence for the people of Western Sahara.
The dominant focus in the 1,000-plus sessions was criticism of capitalism and imperialism, and the lens through which these struggles were viewed was a contrast with the framing at US activist convergences. For example, LGBT issues were the subject of only a handful of the estimated 1,000 sessions here, and sex worker rights, white anti-racist organizing, prison abolition and abortion were among the subjects that could not be found here – not because of any official policy, but apparently because no organization proposed sessions on these issues.
Many North Africans at the forum were celebratory of the region’s revolutions but expressed fears of the electoral rise of right-wing forces and the economic neoliberalism being pushed by their current government. Hamouda Soubhi, an activist from Morocco and one of the members of the WSF Tunisia organizing committee, sees a moment of danger and possibility. “For us, it’s like the beginning of the struggle,” said Soubhi. “Tunisia wants to say to the world: No more fear, we are going to change the region.”
Many at the forum rejected the term “Arab Spring,” saying that implies a season that ends quickly and this revolutionary wave has just begun. Samir Amin, a Marxist economist based in Senegal, said the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt was the first step in a continuing process, but the new governments are scarcely an improvement. “This gigantic popular movement got rid of the dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak, but not of the system,” said Amin. “The Muslim Brotherhood who are in power in both countries are just continuing the same system. . . . the same so-called liberal policy, the same submission to imperialism, the same social disaster.” But Amin said the biggest change represented by this period is a new awareness that change is possible. “The people now, who have proved to themselves their capacity to overthrow any dictatorship, will also get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Tunisians at the forum condemned secret deals the outgoing Tunisian government was recently found to have made with the International Monetary Fund. “When I read about shock doctrine, I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s happening to Tunisia,’ ” said Tunisian constituent assembly member Mbarek, who has been attempting to fight these back-room deals through her role as an elected representative. “They are going to stop subsidies after two years; they will increase the price of gas; they will increase the price of wheat; they will completely restructure the banking system. All of this happened without discussion, without debate in the parliament.”
For many Tunisians, the hope of the 2011 uprisings has run up against the intransient forces of global capital. Mbarek pointed to similar tactics by the IMF in Cyprus. “In Cyprus, the IMF was really happy to find a solution that didn’t require parliamentary debate,” she said. “The fate of the Tunisian people should not be discussed between this international institution and a resigning government.”
Invoking the legacy of former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara, Mbarek also spoke of joining with other nations in a global movement against debt. “In Tunisia, after a revolution that was expressed upon economic and social issues but also a will to have people’s aspirations represented, this is all falling down because we have economic policies that are not even discussed by a representative and are pushed in post-shock mode.”
At a cost of millions of dollars and a huge amount of resources, there is an ongoing debate over whether the WSF needs to continue to exist and if it has become compromised by the funding that organizations receive to make the gathering possible. At several sessions debating the future of the forum, participants spoke of a need to continue working to build alliances based around shared struggles. “It is the same banks that are kicking us out of our homes that are restructuring Tunisia’s economy,” said Maria Poblet of Causa Justa/Just Cause, one of two dozen activists and organizers who participated as part of a US Grassroots Global Justice delegation.
At its best, the forum represents hope for a just society. In the tens of thousands of people present – representing millions more who want to come, but cannot – there is a palpable feeling of a new world being born. Hiba Laameri, a 15-year-old Tunisian girl, was among those who inspired hope through her words and presence. Laameri echoed the concerns of many Tunisians at the forum, saying that Tunisia’s current government is pursuing a neoliberal economic agenda. “We have our freedom; we can speak. An event like this would not have been possible in Ben Ali’s time,” she said. “But capitalism is still there, imperialism is still there. Nothing’s changed socially, economically, culturally.”
Laameri was thrilled by what she experienced at the forum and thought it would help give energy to local activists. “I’ve always been a person to see what’s wrong, and I’ve always thought to myself, ‘Why won’t somebody do something about that?” said Laameri. “And these days at the forum I realized I was that somebody.