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World Social Forum: A new turn in Tunis

The World Social Forum in Tunisia was framed as the alter-globalisation movement meets the ‘Arab spring’. James O’Nions reports back from Tunis on how both sides of that equation are faring

May 28, 2013
10 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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The women’s assembly reflected a new impetus to organise for women’s liberation in North Africa Photo: Isabelle Merminod

The thousands of international activists, politicos and social movement organisers who descended on Tunis for the World Social Forum (WSF) at the end of March could hardly fail to notice that there had been a revolution there two years earlier. For one thing, the organisers had festooned the city centre with banners reading ‘The revolution of dignity welcomes the World Social Forum’. For another, Avenue Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis was adorned with rather less welcoming rolls of barbed wire, which shifted in their extent throughout the week.

The contrast perhaps sums up the attitude of the ruling Islamist Enhadda party to the event – keen to demonstrate its moderate credentials to the world by accommodating the forum (and the thousands of extra tourists wouldn’t hurt either), but aware that the forces of the secular left most involved in its organisation are also among the Islamists’ main opponents.

Nevertheless, the moniker ‘revolution of dignity’, widely used in the country but largely unknown outside of it, has some real resonance as to how the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is now popularly seen. Those events returned Tunisians’ dignity to them, even if the problems two years later include many of those that existed before and more besides. Unemployment stands at around 17 per cent (an economy heavily dependent on European tourism has been badly hit by the upheaval of the revolution) and in April the government agreed an IMF loan of £1.13 billion, which came with the usual rider of neoliberal policies.

These include a ‘prudent monetary policy’ to control inflation and ‘structural reforms to improve the competitiveness of the economy’, for which read spending cuts and privatisation. Indeed, as the Financial Times has reported, the government had already ‘raised fuel prices by nearly 7 per cent, increased taxes on alcohol and trimmed subsidies on state-produced milk’. Given that it was ‘structural adjustment’ programmes under IMF poster child Ben Ali that helped trigger the revolution, the new loan perhaps serves to underline the way the revolution has ended up being limited to questions of political democracy.

For the left, the recent formation of the Popular Front, a promising left electoral alliance, was followed by the assassination of its popular leader, Chokri Belaïd, just a month before the WSF took place. Though his killers are still unidentified, the murder is widely seen as further evidence of the growing power of the Salafists in the country. Like in Egypt, the backing of Saudi Arabia is a significant factor behind the rising influence of these extreme social reactionaries. Nevertheless, the fact that a million people reportedly took part in his funeral procession, in a country of only 10 million, suggests the left isn’t done for just yet.

Twofold rationale

This is the context in which the World Social Forum arrived in Tunisia. The rationale had been twofold. On the one hand the WSF would bolster the Tunisian left with a public demonstration of international support and the fostering of ongoing links, together with the opportunity to involve wider layers of Tunisians in a vibrant progressive movement. On the other hand, the WSF itself, now 12 years old and with an uncertain future, would be invigorated by the ‘Arab spring’.

On the first count, the outcome seemed fairly successful. Thousands of young Tunisians in particular took an interest, and lively debates took place on the role of Islam in public life, the Syrian civil war and the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. (Although the WSF has a strong tradition of support for the Sahrawi liberation struggle, the official Moroccan government delegation took exception to this, though the latter had little business being at the WSF anyway.) The forum made headline news across Tunisia and had a big impact on the capital.

One Tunisian student, Sossi Mohamed Sadek, told US peace activist Medea Benjamin: ‘This was like a dream come true, to see our university overflowing with over 50,000 people from Africa, Europe, Latin America, the United States, the Middle East—it was extraordinary. I came away with new ideas and new friends that will surely have a great impact on my life.’

It was particularly unfortunate, then, that many of the sessions organised by international campaign organisations were almost segregated away in one part of the university campus where the WSF was held, with the sessions organised by North Africans (and conducted largely in Arabic) in another space entirely. And without wanting to underestimate the difficulties of organising translation in such a heterodox and underfunded space as the WSF, the possibility of exchange wasn’t exactly enabled by language barriers. However, participants spoke highly of the Women’s Assembly, for instance, perhaps reflecting the growth of international feminist organising through groups such as the World March of Women and the Rural Women’s Assembly in southern Africa, as well as the new impetus towards women’s organising in Egypt and the Maghreb since the Arab spring.

So the WSF still has various kinds of utility for the global movement against neoliberalism at least. The opportunity to meet and discuss with people from around the world remains vital for global co-ordination, whether it be around climate change or tax justice. And for every session comprised of a panel overloaded with long-winded speakers leaving no room for discussion, there is another imparting valuable lessons of particular struggles or resolving to create international networks, such as the one opposing drones, which came out of a session at this year’s forum.

Whose forum?

But there are also problems. Graffiti on some of the banners condemned the event as a ‘forum of capital’. Ultra-left perhaps, but it does point up an ongoing problem with corporate sponsorship of the WSF. Part-public part-private Brazilian oil company Petrobras has long played a role here, along with national airlines and the like in host countries. USAID, the imperialist development arm of the US government, felt happy enough to set up stall at this year’s forum, at least until a protest removed it. Fortunately, the fact that the WSF is a space, not a movement, means sponsorship has little direct impact on the politics being discussed.

Nonetheless, the Brazilian trade union centre, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), was concerned enough to put out a leaflet rejecting sponsorship and calling for a reaffirmation of anti-capitalist principles. It also declared: ‘In our vision, the WSF will be open to everyone: to networks, to spontaneous movements, to organised social movements, to the NGOs, etc.’ While formally this is already the case, taking this idea seriously means some reform of the current WSF set up.

There is a growing disjuncture between the modus operandi of the WSF and WSF-like events, and the forms of movement-based resistance to post-financial crisis capitalism. In Tunisia, the younger generation who made the revolution were alienated from the WSF organising process by the communist organising style of the traditional left.

At the event itself, activists from Occupy in the US and UK and the M15 (indignados) movement in Spain, organised under the banner of the Global Squares movement, created a horizontal, participative space inside the forum. Though the number of people sat around for workshops on their plastic chairs under a tree was initially small, they made a real effort to involve Tunisians and involvement grew over the days of the forum. On the Saturday, when the forum had finished, save for the closing demonstration, they moved their space to Avenue Bourguiba and involved many dozens more passersby in a discussion of the world they wanted to see that took place largely in Arabic.

It was one of the most interesting interventions of the forum. Of course, its overall success in no way minimises the importance of trade unions or NGOs in the wider movement. Nor would I want to gloss over its shortcomings – consensus is a difficult process when people are constantly coming and going, for instance. But it does add to the sense that the WSF must adapt or see its significance fade.

A new movement

In fact, there are calls from inside the WSF ‘establishment’ to do just that. Chico Whittaker, a Brazilian activist and Catholic radical involved in setting up the WSF in 2001, has called for the dissolution of the international committee, the self-appointed and self-perpetuating governing council of the WSF. In its place he essentially proposes direct co-ordination by an organised movement.

Whittaker says: ‘I call this a new movement because it would have to be necessarily of a new type, in coherence with the new political culture built on social forums: structured as a network, horizontally, as the new movements that arise everywhere, but with a global reach; making decisions by consensus, in the organisational bodies created for specific initiatives; with militants but without the appointment of leaders or spokespersons; in dialogue with parties and governments but maintaining its autonomy in relation to them.’

In Whittaker’s proposal, the movement would have a general assembly both before and after the WSF, dealing with its own business and deciding where the next WSF would be held. The WSF itself would remain, as now, a space open to participants regardless of whether they sign up to the politics of the movement. It’s a bold idea, which attempts to resolve both the question of relating to indignado-style politics and a longer-running question of whether the WSF should try to become a movement itself, with some agreed politics and global initiatives.

The difficulties associated with organising a horizontally-based movement on a global scale are many, however, and the proposal is unlikely to be agreed even with significant modification and elaboration. Nonetheless, the fact that La Via Campesina, a global movement involving millions of people in decision-making at some level, does already exist suggests we perhaps shouldn’t write off the ambition too easily.

Arguments about the usefulness of the WSF, and how much we should expect from it, have surrounded it from the start. Nevertheless, Immanuel Wallerstein’s suggestion that the WSF is ‘alive and well’ and fulfilling its function seems unnecessarily complacent. With growing calls for the WSF to better facilitate the creation of ‘horizontal solidarity among people and organisations’, in Tomaso Ferando’s phrase, the WSF international committee has the opportunity to give a clear lead towards a more participatory politics. But that also implicates everyone who comes to the WSF in thinking about our political practice and stepping outside our comfort zone.

For more reflections on this year’s WSF, see Nick Dearden’s report

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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