World Social Forum Tunis


In Tunis with thousands of others for the World Social Forum 2013. As with Egypt, the Tunisian Spring is a revolution unfinished, a country without a constitution. Then the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid barely a month ago. Suddenly there was an air of something providential about the arrival of the World Social Forum, along with a sense of urgency.

 

Images of Chokri Belaid are everywhere on posters and graffitti. And everywhere the same chant that launched the Arab spring, Ash-shaʻb yurīd – We demand.... the people demand. The demand for change, for dignity.
The opening was a thunderous expression of this demand. As we gathered at Habib Bourguiba boulevard over the afternoon, our numbers grew by the minute - 20,000, 40,000, 100,000, 200,000. Still increasing, we moved away from the coffee bar lined boulevard to the January 14th Square, itself renamed to commemorate the revolution. Here at the birthplace of the Arab spring, right by the clock tower built by the former dictator Ben Ali, the stage was set out for the 12th World Social Forum. Tunisian civil society hand in hand with civil society groups from all over the world, banners displayed proudly. At a polite distance police vans with grills maintained their prowl. Barbed wire cordoned off government and security buildings. As evening drew in, the massed ranks walked in unity out of the centre to the sports stadium where speeches and music ushered in the World Social Forum.

 

From this coming together in the streets, the Forum moved the following day to the campus at Almanar University. Here the energy generated pooled into a sprawling modernist campus. The schedule was ambitious on paper - the number of  workshops by activist organisations and NGOs from around the world ran to a dozen pages for a programme to be covered in a space of 2 or 3 days. Alas all too much for most, with telling images of disoriented people scuttling around the campus trying to get to valuable meetings with fellow comrades and compañeros. Made all the more difficult by ad hoc cancellations and room changes. The tragedy lay in the spatial zoning that kept apart the climate change, the migration rights, land and housing rights, democracy movements from the Tunisian dominated meetings on political Islam and Palestine.
If on the opening day, one delegate had expressed the possibility of 'a strategic unity emerging besides our being together', here we saw narratives of struggle from all corners of the world getting separated into zones A, B, C, D, E, F of a modern campus. Threads failed to connect... energy dissipated amidst the hustle and bustle, the to-ing and fro-ing between rendezvous. For tired disorientated participants, the social forum lost itself in a maze of its own indecision. In a discussion on the future of the WSF, a representative of the organisers explained that the "WSF  structure prefers unrepresentative groups rather than elected representatives...... its not about allocating 10 slots for Trade Unions, then 10 for Women, another 10 for Gay and lesbian communities etc. It is about maintaining divergent viewpoints".
Perhaps but there was the sense that the Forum belonged to 20th century thinking, as yet to enter the 21st century and engage the dynamics of contemporary social movements.

 

This is not to underestimate the challenges of the cultural and political context that Tunis posed. Progressive ideologies don't always sing from the same hymn sheet. That said, in Tunis as in every WSF, the 'Another world is possible' forum united in its resistance to neoliberalism, here foregroundeded by imperialism and colonialism; no surprise then that some of the most intense debates were in workshops on 'decolonising the WSF'.
Perhaps to leapfrog towards a future, speaking on social movements in emerging economies, the eminent economist Samir Amin brokered the possibility of a second Internationalism to realise itself fully. Beyond the first Internationalism of the Cold War when national liberation movements at last allowed the global south to enter the process of industrialisation. Amin expressed the hope that emerging economies would develop truly 'sovereign projects' in place of their co-option as merely expanding markets for absorbing monopoly capital.

 

How does the WSF play a role in this? The World Social Forum as a forum for global justice needs the conception of a global society. Its problem is that it can not be so without reproducing the imbalances it confronts: in terms of resources reflected by the balance between grassroots agents and large NGOs. And with the predictable demographics of attendance. There were ample participants from Europe, the north Americas, Brazil, along with a large contingent from the Indian social forum. Very few voices from sub-saharan Africa or the Far East.
And inevitably there were people who wanted to be heard but just could not be here. Algerian activists were deliberately barred from entering Tunisia. African refugees from the Libyan revolution now trapped in wretched camps like Coucha in Tunisia struggled to get permission from the Tunisian authorities to attend but some finally made it to impromptu protests.
But irrespective, the WSF prevails as a global plaform for the disempowered to project a global family; simply by convening itself, the WSF affirms that such a global family exists outside the overwhelming power of capital, that such a family will not be defeated by defeatism.
Thus "if we do not always speak to each other" we can at least sing together. In the packed amphitheatre as 'a, a, a, anticapitaliste!' rang out, an invading group of anarchists mockingly countered 'forum capitaliste, forum capitaliste!'.
No-one minds; after all it's only family.

 

After 5 intense days, the WSF family began to thin out. So what of the Tunis it left?  In all my conversations with Tunisians, where the majority of the young were unemployed, the hunger for change dominated. But there was no demand for cracks to open, for flames to engulf the streets or for blood to spill.  The revolution may have stalled but this revolution, the original Arab spring, had codified itself in song and dance and drum beats. The key spanner this Arab spring has thrust into the 21st century political imaginary is that of its 'demand for legitimacy' through the chant Ash-shaʻb yurīd.  The demand has exposed the difference between expectations for social change and for political change. The Ash-shaʻb yurīd demand is for social change plus political change, not just political change – that's only half the cup. In Tunis, the people will not accept one without the other. This was the force of the message from Tunis to this World Social Forum.