The World Social Forum: An Energy Boost for Arab Social Movements

Elizabeth Jesdale chanting at a union rally in front of the French Embassy in Tunis, during the WSF.  Credit: Michel Leclercq
Elizabeth Jesdale chanting at a union rally in front of the French Embassy in Tunis, during the WSF. Credit: Michel Leclercq
This year’s World Social Forum was considered a success by many of its organizers. Held for the first time in an Arab country, it was called “the forum of a new generation” by one delegate of the WSF International Council during an evaluation the day after it ended. “We’ve shown that the Arab Spring is not over.”

More than 5,000 organizations and over 60,000 participants took part in the four day event at the sprawling University of Tunis El Manar campus on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital, according to a press release on the Tunis Afrique Presse website.

Among the 1000 workshops offered, popular themes were climate change, women, migration, globalization and economic justice. However, workshops on issues related to sub-Sahara Africa, The U.N., and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were surprisingly absent.

World Social Forums have taken place since the turn of the millennium, when anti-globalization activists got tired of simply protesting the dominant paradigm. They were also tired of being bullied by police in the streets of Seattle and Genoa and Miami. In 2001, a group of Brazilian and French activists issued a call and created an inviting space where the grassroots – the people at the base – could meet, plan and build a better world. They wanted an ‘open space’, but not a bureaucracy to issue declarations. Instead, individual groups could make their own statements.

Nevertheless, during the 2003 Forum every participating group took a stand and supported a massive march in opposition to the Iraq War, then just about to begin. A decade later, as peace and justice activists met from around the world at the 12th WSF, Aleppo, an ancient city in Syria – called a World Heritage site by UNESCO – was being destroyed. Would a similar cry of outrage be issued?

On the third day, competing battalions of flags swirled around the square at the University El Manar campus.  One group, brandishing flags of red, white and black, supported President Assad, the others, with green white and black flags, supported the opposition. A scuffle ensued and Forum organizers had to intervene.

An onlooker explained that this was actually a great step forward: the two sides were confronting rather than killing each other.  Indeed, this seems to have been one beneficial outcome of the Forum; political groups from the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa) were able to meet for the first time in a supportive atmosphere.  Minds and lives had been profoundly changed by the new activism and they wanted to share insights.

Civil War and Discourse

I’m moderately fluent in two of the three Forum languages – English and French — but felt outside the Arabic debates and workshops, a fair number of which were held without translation. Other workshops, those on climate change for example, featured primarily western speakers.

At the final climate convocation the organizers were roundly chastised by a French women during the Q and A.  “There are no Tunisians here,” she said. “There has been no inclusion here.  The future colonialization of the climate debate is happening here.”

The western organizers explained that they had tried to reach out to MENA environmentalists, but the critique resonated.  Finally, a young Tunisian woman took the mike and described the struggles against environmental degradation taking place in her country. Hopefully they all exchanged e-mail addresses.

In and outside the Forum reverberations from the Syrian civil war were making disturbing waves. La Presse, a leading French language newspaper in Tunisia, carried a two-part series about the Tunisian young men who are volunteering – or being brainwashed into volunteering – to join the Syrian insurrection. Recruiters paid by Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly offering large sums to the families of the young men who sign up.

At workshops on Syria, activists in exile explained the complexity of the situation. Bizava Astiyane Suri, a leader of the Syrian nonviolence movement, described the dynamics when dissent first arose in Syria in 2011. “We didn’t have the luxury of being dispersed with tear gas,” he recalled. “Assad’s troops came in shooting right off.  They attacked before our non-violent forces could get organized.”

Suri said that non-violent organizing still takes place on the streets of Syrian towns. “Our difficult job is to convince people to go back from the violent option to the nonviolent option,” he explained, “because if someone has killed your brother you naturally want to kill them.”

Another concern is to make sure that the state doesn’t collapse after Assad is gone. Many police are resigning in the midst of the chaotic situation, he said.  “We need help from Arab NGOs to build new organizations.”

Lost in Translation

Passions also ran high at the final gathering of social movements on Friday night when the declaration of decisions was read. Support for the Western Sahara Polisario struggle for independence from Morocco caused Moroccan activists to leap up in protest and storm the platform. Organizers from Global Grassroots Justice, who were among the moderators, did succeed in separating the groups, but it was a difficult moment.

As Latin American activist Cindy Weisner said, “I can tell Salvadorans from Colombians…but in this situation I couldn’t begin to know who was on which side and what they were saying.” That’s because the shouting happened in turbo Arabic.

Something similar happened in a second meeting I attended on Syria.  As some 200 participants tried to hammer out a statement without simultaneous translation devices, progress was slow. Every comment had to be translated into two languages.  The system ultimately broke down when an Arabic speaker made a charge that caused widespread gasps. The tension in the room increased and all hope of translation was lost.

A little later someone told me the reason: the man had charged a panelist with either being a CIA agent or working for the US government.

Despite such language glitches important connections were made. Elizabeth Jesdale, who represented UE Vermont on the Global Grassroots Justice delegation spoke on a panel, and was invited by a woman activist to join her union in a protest at the French Embassy. She went and found someone to translate her words into French. It was one of the first international political speeches of her life.

Surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and a large police presence, she said to her sister unionists “Although our feet stand on different soils, the blood flowing in your veins is the same as ours.”

Future of the Forum

For the first time, participants were invited to the evaluation session of the International Council the day after the Forum ended. One on my lingering questions was how the organization plans, maintains and funds this fragile and magnificent vessel of global hope from year to year.

Mark Randazzo, a delegate who directs Edge Funders, succinctly summarized for me WSF’s recent history.  After an unsatisfactory 2006 forum in Kenya organizers feared that the next, slated for 2008 in Brazil, might be the last. It turned out to be highly successful, however, due to large-scale participation by indigenous people. Climate change, and migration were designated major themes for future forums. Good work was also done in Dakar two years later, but attendance was down and organization poor. As a result, hopes were muted for the success of this forum. However, based on testimony from around the long conference table, delegates felt relieved, grateful and proud that they’d pulled it off successfully.

“For the first time, we have an elected administration, so we were very enthusiastic,” said the dean of the university. “The students were happy to take part.  Choosing Tunisia was a choice and a risk and it went well. We want to thank you for your contribution to the revolution in Tunisia. You’ve set out principles of democracy and these are what all Tunisians want to implement.”

A delegate from Italy enthused, “this was the most extraordinary Forum. It would have been impossible to hold such a gathering with social movements two years ago.”  This was the first time that migrant and migrant support groups met from around the world, she claimed.

In early February many Tunisian activists were still mourning the assassination of the secular progressive Chokri Belaid, a human rights activist. And they were uneasy that the government hadn’t made an arrest. Some wondered if impunity was becoming institutionalized. Organizers were worried that the youth movement’s commitment might diminish. But, “Even after the Chokri assassination, you stuck with us,” said one delegate.

Others pointed out that the Forum employed local people, who are now trained in translation.  “We have to support the ongoing organizing that will continue here, and spread this democratic energy to the rest of the Maghreb.”

Others were not so sanguine.  “This is a white elephant waiting to be euthanized,” critiqued a founding member of the WSF from Brazil.  “We should dissolve the International Committee and revive the collectives…”

Overall, however, the feeling was positive.  In fact, some organizers proposed that the next Forum, to be held in two years, also take place in Tunisia to build on the contacts and structures built during the last four days. We’ll see. The Middle East will probably still appreciate a boost of democratic energy in 2015.

Robin Lloyd is the publisher of Toward Freedom.