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.