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Reflections from the World Social Forum – Tunis, Tunisia 26-30 March

FRIDAY FILE - As the World Social Forum in Tunis wrapped up, many agreed that the vitality of the older days of the Forum was back. Taking place at the Al Manar University in Tunis, amidst the still unmet calls for dignity and justice of the Arab uprisings, it gathered about 54,000 people who were united in their hopes for a better world.

By Shareen Gokal

The World Social Forum (WSF), smaller in numbers than usual, made up for its diminished size in sheer energy, enthusiasm and diversity. The Women’s Assembly opened with chants, singing and strong expressions of solidarity with the struggles for women’s rights in the region. It also signalled real commitment to addressing women’s rights as central to achieving a better world for all.

Over the years the struggle to recognize both patriarchy and neo-liberalisms, as central to the struggles of the WSF has not been easy. Gina Vargas, who has been involved in the planning committee of the WSF since its inception in Porto Alegre in 2001, is hopeful that the WSF is on the right track, but recognizes that this is something that has not been fully achieved, saying “it was very impressive to see how the Tunisian women managed to put gender issues in the center of this forum since the beginning, …but it’s (the full recognition of issues of patriarchy and power dynamics) a struggle that we still have to fight.”

Indeed, as the largest gathering of social movements from around the world, the WSF offers a unique opportunity to hold a mirror up to our movements and call for a better world. What’s reflected back is an immense energy, unyielding hope and incredible diversity. But also, uneven power dynamics, patriarchy, conflicts, and historical and contemporary tensions and traumas held within. The El Manar campus was a mosaic of demonstrations, art exhibitions, spontaneous concerts and moving protests, with politics very much at play.

Local and regional tensions front and centre

Given the location of the WSF - and that over 80% of the participants were from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) - the Palestinian solidarity movement against occupation was perhaps the strongest and certainly the most visible and organized contingent present. From the first morning of the forum a huge Palestinian flag draped the building in the main square on the campus, along with an Israeli flag on the ground, which was quickly filled with graffiti from passers-by. Among the messages were, “Fascist State” and “No justice, no peace, Free Palestine!”… slogans that were echoed throughout the forum.

Frustration with the ruling Tunisian Ennahda party, were also widespread with many people feeling that the raison d’être for the revolution has been betrayed. Two years after the Jasmine revolution, there has been little improvement in the quality of people’s lives, besides more freedom of expression and political participation. The unemployment rate and cost of commodities, such as petrol, is higher than in ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s time. There appeared to be more insecurity and instability, and many said that they felt the rising tide of Islamism both from within and outside of Tunisia.

Posters, graffiti, and rallies protesting the assassination of opposition leader and vocal critic of the Islamist Ennahda party, Chokri Belaid, in February 2013 were also widespread throughout Tunis. For some this symbolizes what has become of the hopes for justice and dignity two years on. Many place the blame squarely on the Ennahda party for, at best creating the conditions for his death by not responding to death threats made by Islamists, and at worst issuing the order. Many alluded to the growing presence of the Salafist groups and the use of political Islam by Ennahda, all creating conditions of increased potential for extremism.

But the WSF was also rife with pro Ennahda Islamist groups who filled parts of the square with graffiti against the secular party, but which was quickly replaced by graffiti calling “Ennahda terroriste”. Although not nostalgic for Ben Ali’s return it was clear that, as expressed in one poster, “democracy is still downloading” in Tunisia.

There was tension between two groups when supporters of the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria confronted a group planning a meeting to discuss strategies and future actions against the Syrian regime. Filling the main square, the pro Bashar al-Assad demonstrators shouted “Syria, Allah and al-Assad” the response “Syria, Allah and the people” shouted and in the end the gathering dispersed, as the throng of participants, media and police looked on.

The disturbing politics at play was on display in various forms. One tent proudly displayed pictures of the “Fighters of the World”, which was a peculiar group including Bashar Al Assad, Gandhi, Mandela, Chavez and Ahmadinejad among others. And a student, in a similar uncritical, anti-west sentiment painted, in glitter, the name of Saddam Hussein on his forum bag. To see fascist and genocidal leaders being touted as heroes, under the same anti-imperialisms banner as real freedom icons like Gandhi and Mandela; and a nationalist sentiment gone awry, was a low point of the WSF. It acutely displayed how the anti-neoliberal, anti-western and anti-imperialist discourse can be so easily manipulated to make people - even those who we think of as comrades on the left - turn their uncritical gaze the other way. Should we not rather envision, a space that is about creativity, possibilities and alternatives; a future where we do not accept, tolerate, condone, or justify violence no matter who the actors are?

Showing solidarity

It was poignant when the more forgotten struggles in North Africa were highlighted including those living in the Choucha camp, on the Libya- Tunisia border, slated to close down on June 30th, threatening to leave hundreds without a place to go. The names of 16,175 migrants lined the passageway, in a seemingly never ending roll of paper, documenting the deaths of those trying to make their way from North Africa to Europe.

Although the struggles from the MENA region dominated, other calls were also heard loud and clear. Rural women in Africa, who pay for extractive industries with their bodies and through their labour and livelihoods; and indigenous people are calling for a systemic change, which they see as the only way forward to end the destructive domination of the neoliberal system. There were calls for an end to violence against women, the violence of poverty, extremisms, patriarchy and misogyny.

Overall, the WSF is a unique space, with energy of possibility and hope for something better. One that reserves the most interesting conversations and experiences for those who are willing to flow along with it and use the informal spaces to exchange ideas and form alliances for possible future strategic directions.