Held in the seat of the so-called Arab Spring that inspired regional and global uprisings, this world social forum—the first in an Arab country—had the slogan of karama, or dignity, and was most heavily attended by people and organizations from the Middle East and North Africa. First launched in Brazil in 2001 as an alternative to the annual meeting of the global capitalist elite at the World Economic Forum, the World Social Forum (WSF) has roots in the Latin American encuentro. Organizers champion the gathering as a pluralistic, non-representative space for fertilizing a global force against neoliberalism, with its charter proclaiming that it is simply a “world process”.
The gathering in Tunis was a dizzying experience that I am still sorting out, shaped by huge challenges including big differences over issues in the ongoing revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the presence of forces loyal to various governments. Amid these obstacles, grassroots organizers from across the world networked, took inspiration, and shared strategies in a gathering that reflected both the common ground and the divisions of the global left.
Self-Determination and Dignity
The primary focus of the gathering was self-determination and dignity in the midst of ongoing revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, against U.S.-led militarism and empire. Workshops took on the issues of organizing within Palestine for justice against apartheid, organizing within Iraqi civil society, and the struggle in the Western Sahara for self-determination. Sessions explored Western intervention in the Arab Spring, struggles for justice in Mali, and the relationship between U.S. imperialism and militarism and AFRICOM. Organized mass marches and smaller marches throughout the WSF site centered these issues throughout the gathering.
“I am here for the revolution, for freedom and democracy in Bahrain,” explained Bahraini independent activist Ali Bazzaz, holding a sign with an image of Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist imprisoned for two years. Bazzaz himself is a former cartoonist who was fired from his job for producing work critical of the government. Bahrain’s revolution has faced brutal repression from the monarchy, aided by the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the consent of Bahrain’s close ally, the United States. Bazzaz explained with frustration that Bahrain’s revolution has majority support but is blocked out by international media.
“People are fighting everyday demanding freedom. They face teargas imported from the USA, and it is used as a weapon to kill people. We are also shot with guns. But we will keep fighting. Change is coming and no one can stop it.”
The WSF also reflected divisions, as people throughout the Middle East and North Africa trek through the winters of their revolutions. At one point, supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attacked people from the opposition, resulting in clashes that sent three to the hospital. A Tunisian student complained that Tunisian Islamist ruling party Ennahda sent members and front group organizations to infiltrate the WSF. This ruling party has been slammed for derailing democracy, eroding human rights, and violently snuffing out dissent more than two years after the fall of Ben Ali— including assassinating Democratic Patriots’ Movement leader Chokri Balaid in Feburary. Despite Ennahda’s presence, calls for a continued revolution in Tunisia and memorializations of Chokri Belaid’s life dominated the forum.
At the Assembly of Social Movements, which involved more than 50 social forum organizations, Moroccan delegates aggressively attempted to prevent the reading of a declaration of the “right of peoples to self-determination and sovereignty” that included people from the Western Sahara. The facilitation team of the self-organized assembly publicly condemned the actions of the Moroccan delegation, declaring: “We affirm, once again, our solidarity and active commitment with the Saharawi people and in favor of the respect for international agreements that recognize their rights.”
Transforming Neoliberal Capitalism
The call to transform neoliberal capitalism also rang throughout the WSF, intertwined with the messages of dignity and self-determination. A plethora of workshops demanded an end to austerity, the debt of the global south to the global north, and economic neocolonialism throughout the continent of Africa,as well as the Middle East and North Africa countries that have toppled dictators. Anti-capitalist chants filled the air at marches and the boisterious social movement assembly, and art calling for a new path forward filled the WSF space.
"Debt is the result of the exploitation of resources by the north of the south," declared workshop panelist Sammy Gamboa of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, a nationwide Filipino coalition aimed at fighting debt to the West and building an economy based on human dignity. "The concept of debt is inherently odious."
Sammy explained that most of the external debt of the Philippines was acquired during their dictatorship, when Ferdinand Marcos borrowed copiously to fatten his own coffers as western lending institutions looked away from his flagrant human rights violations and martial law. The new government decided to continue paying his debts, a burden carried today by each Filipino. The Freedom from Debt Coalition, which formed shortly after the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship, has been organizing for the past 25 years to advocate for a different path forward.
For Mahinour El-Badrawi from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, foreign debt threatens to undermine real revolution by ensuring that Western-led debtors maintain their grip. She explained that Mohamed Morsi has championed a “Rescue Plan to Combat Poverty” that is simply a continuation of the same neoliberal economic policies of the Mubarak Administration doomed to deepen poverty in Egypt. This includes courting of the World Bank, as well as talks about a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF, contingent on the erosion of safety nets and subsidies for Egypt’s vast working classes and subsistence poor.
“What this entails is a repetition of a vicious cycle in which dictators are toppled but you continue the impoverishment of the people,” Mahinour declared. “The Muslim Brotherhood is crushing dissent brutally and resorting to torture.” With the Egyptian parliament currently dissolved, Mahinour explained that her organization is mobilizing people to the streets to stop new loans.
Global organizations and networks shared the work they are doing to transform these injustices. In a press conference to kick off the WSF’s workshops, La Via Campesina showcased its global network of peasants, small farmers, landless people, indigenous people, migrants, and agricultural workers from around the world to defend natural, small-scale agriculture rooted in social justice as a force to stem the dehumanizing forces of neoliberalism, including large agribusiness and transnational corporations. This network, which represents more than 200 million farmers from 150 organizations in 70 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, is building a global left among peasants who bear the brunt of neoliberal capitalism.
“Liberalization, free trade agreements, land grabbing, all these things are against us,” said Nandina Jairam, President of the Karnataka State Farmer’s Association and panelist for La Via Campesina.
Yet some charged that the WSF internally replicated the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism. During the opening WSF march, a group of Tunisian anarchists wove against the march in protest, calling for a boycott of the WSF, which they insist has a reformist orientation dominated by big-money NGOs. Their statement declared: “Even though the event is presented as an opportunity for the revolutionaries coming from all corners of the globe to meet, we deem that the ultimate objective, namely the collapse of the capitalist system, will not be taken into consideration.”
This critique is one of many aired since 2003, charging that the WSF privileges NGOs with financial and state connections, marginalizing leadership from indigenous movements, poor peoples' movements, lower-caste, queer people, and many others who bear the brunt of neoliberalism and global inequalities. During the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, Kenyan-based poor people’s movements launched protests against prohibitive costs and forced the WSF to open the forum to Kenyans in at no cost.
Building International Feminism
“Welcome everyone, women and men,” exclaimed 21-year-old Shams Abdi of the World March of Women and General Union of Tunisian Students. “The struggle for feminism is not only a struggle for women. It is the struggle for the emancipation of society as a whole.”
About 75 people, mostly women, were crowded into a courtyard for Feminists Unite!Women’s Rights in the Age of Empire, a workshop by U.S.-based Grassroots Global Justice and World March for Women. This international crowd, with participants hailing from Basque, Congo, South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, and many other places, leaned in to listen as Shams continued. “We are not feminists. We are anti-capitalist feminists. We are not feminists. We are anti-militarization feminists.”
Abdi insisted that feminists must be equipped to take on the new world order, in which corporations and foreign interventions fall the hardest on the backs of women who face poverty, workplace exploitation, and race-based oppression and discrimination. She called for the session’s participants to join the World March for Women, an international feminist movement that seeks to build global solidarity and joint action to transform conditions of poverty and gender oppression.
Panelist Salwa Mohammed Boujmil of the Tunisian General Labor Union explained that women have been very present throughout the Tunisian revolution, organizing and participating in strikes and protests against the regime. Yet now Tunisian women face a government that seeks to erode their rights in a climate where violence against women and exploitation of women in the work place present profound challenges. “The fight continues,” she exclaimed. “We need a strategy and action plan. Women must stand up.”
Marcia Olivo of the Miami Workers Center and Grassroots Global Justice told of how, four years ago, she founded an organization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence that centers the experiences of working-class members and those of color. “The war against women is a phrase we created in the U.S. she explained. The war against women is a global issue designed to destroy our dignity, especially people of color,” she asserted. “We are in the process of building a feminist movement that represents the most marginalized.”
The lively discussion that followed surfaced a call for a global feminist movement equipped to take on the different and related struggles of women around the world, including intersecting issues of capitalism, war, and neocolonialism. “Where is the feminist movement?” asked session moderator Maria Poblet, of U.S.-based Causa Justa/Just Cause and Grassroots Global Justice. “Here! Once we know each other we cannot un-know each other.”
The threads of this workshop could be traced throughout the forum. The opening and closing marches had strong and visible feminist presences, with chants of solidarity with the women of the world ringing out frequently, and included many men’s voices. During the opening ceremony, on a stage facing tens of thousands, it was women—and only women—who addressed the crowd, a move to counter growing conservatism in the region as well as global patriarchy and sexism, as Jordan Flaherty reports.
Yet these developments are the product of feminist organizing in a WSF climate still shaped by patriarchy. Furthermore, issues of queer justice were largely missing from these stages. Just a handful of sessions took on sexuality, such as workshop by queer Palestinian group Aswat, as the queer voice was decidedly absent at this global gathering.
There is much to evaluate about this complex gathering of global movements, including grappling with potential limits, strengths, and weaknesses of the WSF process as it has been developing over the last decade.
Social movements are trying to find their way and create new paths toward 21st century change in a political climate beset with challenges. They include deep divisions in ongoing revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as marginalization within movements produced by global inequalities in a time of neoliberal capitalism. U.S. movements often discuss fractures within the domestic left, but the challenges are even greater on a global scale.
“There is a lot people in other countries can do to support us, and there is a lot we can do to support each other," says Bazzaz. "Many do not even know that there is still a revolution in Bahrain. That is why it is important for us to meet people from around the world, even if it is hard.”
Salwa Mohammed Boujmil of the Tunisian General Labor Union put it succinctly: “The fight is without frontiers.”