The World Social Forum continues to be the pivotal global venue for left and progressive forces to advance struggles and create internationalist alliances to make another world possible. Benny Kuruvilla and Susana Barria1 report from the 2015 Tunis WSF on the challenges of the unfinished revolution in Tunisia, solidarity with Palestine and Greece and how the new innovative space of convergence assemblies provided concrete plans for activists to work together beyond the WSF.
The world has changed since 2001, but many of the challenges that led to the founding of the World Social Forum (WSF) in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre remain. In the initial years of the 21st century, people’s movements were arguably on the offensive what with the massive global mobilisations against the war on Iraq; the defeat, by social movements in Latin America, of the US led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); the dramatic collapse of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Doha Round at the 2003 Cancun Ministerial and left resurgence in Latin America. In 2015, the world is a far more complex place with a still unravelling 2008 financial crisis in the North and South that has left millions jobless in its wake and a looming climate catastrophe that two decades of inter-governmental negotiations have failed to address. On the trade and investment front, mega regional treaties pushed by the USA such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have raised the stakes for the control of global trade, relegating the WTO to an afterthought. In the Maghreb, the euphoria and promise of the Arab Spring have tempered with the rise of extreme religious forces and return of status quo-ist elements to power in countries such as Egypt. Arguably on all these fronts, progressive forces are fighting defensive battles – in defending the right to decent work, defending the commons, defending democratic spaces and defending social services.
The UGTT and Tunisia’s unfinished revolution:
Tunisia, which provided the spark for the Arab Spring, hosted its second WSF from 24-28 March in its capital Tunis. 4 years after a young fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi’s self immolation led to a popular overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, the Tunisian revolution remains unfinished. This is despite a relatively successful democratic transition, which initially saw the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party win elections in October 2011. The Ennahda regime, despite its call for civil liberties maintained the economic status quo that saw rising unemployment and skyrocketing food and fuel prices. It was out voted in October 2014 by the secular front Nidaa Tounes currently led by President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Habib Essid.
Picture 1: The UGTT office on Rue de Grece.
‘The outlook for the new ‘technocratic’ Government is also bleak as there is as yet no sign of a break with neo-liberal economic policies’ says Mounir a senior trade unionist with the teachers federation affiliated with the Tunisian General Labour Union (known by its French acronym UGTT). We meet Mounir at the busy UGTT office after traversing through the crowded bylanes off Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Tunis. Many UGTT functionaries are actively involved in the Tunis WSF. The UGTT has played a key role in Tunisia’s politics since its founding in 1946 and more so in the period before the revolution when it catalysed the coming together of groups opposed to the dictatorship and neo-liberal policies. As opposition parties were prohibited during the Ben Ali regime, the UGTT provided a platform to articulate the struggles of workers, the unemployed, professionals and the precariat. UGTT’s various offices across the country were actively involved in the revolt against Ben Ali and Mounir led many protests and suffered a broken arm after a brutal attack by the police during the upheaval in January 2011.
The UGTT continues to be a refuge for struggles. After our meeting, Mounir took us to one of the halls in its sprawling office on Rue de Grece which was converted into a venue for an indefinite hunger strike since March 16. Twenty four young women and men were protesting against being denied jobs by the post revolution governments despite having the requisite academic credentials. They were earlier banned by the Ben Ali Government from holding government jobs due to their affiliation with the militant Tunisian General Union of Students (UGET in French). A pamphlet given to us by one of the UGTT lawyers fighting their case reads ‘the fight against social inequality is the great collective purpose that a nation should fulfil’.
Picture 2: Leader of the Popular Front Hamma Hammami at a seminar during the Tunis WSF
The UGTT was nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, narrowly losing out to the eventual winners. Rooted in this progressive trade union movement, a new coalition of left parties and independents formed the Popular Front, which emerged as the fourth largest political force in the 2014 elections. In a clear departure from other mainstream parties, the Popular Front led by the communist leader Hamma Hammami promises not only to deepen democracy but also a departure from neo-liberal economic policies.
The 2015 Tunis Forum
The Tunis Forum, hosted at the state run El Mannar University, began with a march in the rain to the Bardo museum (the site of a horrific attack a week prior to the WSF) under the slogan of ‘Peoples of the World United for Freedom, Equality, Social Justice and Peace: In Solidarity with Tunisian People and all Victims of Terrorism against all Forms of Oppressions’. This formulation was important in asserting WSF's tradition to speak truth to power. Immediately after the Bardo attack, there was a proposal to hold the march under the slogan, 'Peoples of the world united against terrorism’. However, groups responded by arguing that the discourses, policies and practices of the ‘war on terror’ have contributed to perpetuate capitalist and imperialist power. It was essential for the WSF to challenge dominant narratives and provide an alternative perspective that asserts solidarity, while challenging oppression and violence.
Picture 3: The opening WSF march reaches the Bardo Museum
Tunisia has unfortunately seen an increment in terrorist attacks and, according to estimates, is the largest source of recruits to the Islamic State (IS). Some 30,000 dinars were found in the house of one of the Bardo attackers. Mounir asserted the importance of creating decent jobs to curb the attraction of unemployed youth to radical religious forces, telling us that amount was more than fifty times a teacher’s salary in Tunis. Tunisia’s rate of unemployment is at its highest since the 2011 revolution with a huge percentage being educated youth. Skilled but jobless young Tunisians are fast becoming cannon fodder for radical forces that have the money to offer youth dreaming of a better life, if not for themselves, for their families, explained Mounir.
But the Tunis Forum was not deterred by the Bardo attack. More than 1200 groups from 120 countries registered 1074 workshops with numbers of activists attending from countries such as France actually increasing after a call for solidarity following the 18 March incident. The most striking feature of this forum was its strong Arab and Mediterranean character with significant participation from not only Algeria, Morocco, Palestine and Egypt but also from Greece, France, Italy and Spain. For many, expectations were high as the 2013 Tunis Forum was reportedly the most vibrant and youthful WSF held in recent years. This was not surprising as the last edition was held barely two years after the revolution, and a few weeks after street protests pushed the Ennahda Government out of power accusing it of complicity in the February 2013 assassination of Chokri Belaïd of the Popular Front.
Space for regional solidarity and convergence
This edition might not have had the high numbers and energy of 2013, but it remained a highly stimulating space for solidarity, exchange and convergence of ideas and struggles. Palestine was one of the key motifs at Tunis and the closing march had thousands marching to the Palestinian Embassy, concluding with a resounding rendition of Fida’i. There were many workshops directly related to Palestine and it also figured in many thematic workshops, such as on social protection systems, health at work and corporate violation of human rights.
The World Parliamentary Forum, comprised of progressive legislators from the South and North, met for a whole day on March 26 and issued a motion that focussed on issues ranging from debt, corporate impunity, migration and peace. Later Hamma Hammami, leader of the Popular Front hosted a meeting in downtown Tunis for members of political parties that were at the WSF. In attendance were parliamentarians and activists from left wing parties such as Tunisia’s Progressive Peoples Party, (that had recently left the Popular Front), Socialist Workers Party of Algeria, Green Party of Ivory Coast, Quebec Solidaire, the German Die Linke, the French Parti de Gauche, the Belgian Red-Green Alliance VEGA and the Communist Party Bruxelles. In his opening remarks, Hammami was quite blunt in laying out the tasks ahead – emphasising that the global left had lost the habit of working together even as its enemies were coordinating their attacks on the economic, social and cultural rights of the working classes. Activists recognised that while struggles are concrete and local, the challenge is to formulate common positions to create joint international struggles on issues such as migration, debt and austerity. A young activist at the meeting argued that ‘the Left needs to go back to basics - do politics that is concrete and grounded and take the line from the youth in Tunisia who have become increasingly politicised after the revolution’.
Picture 4: Members of the World Parliamentary Forum during the WSF March
For some years, groups have realised that the WSF needs to adapt to the needs of social struggles in a rapidly changing global environment. In the 2013 Forum and previous editions, similar networks and groups ended up with a duplication of workshops and conferences, which created silos with networks mainly talking to themselves. The idea of promoting ‘convergence’ spaces between groups and thematic joint actions was quite successful at the 2015 Forum.
For instance, this process allowed more than 20 organisations working in the area of health and social protection to club their events into 10 joint activities (6 Workshops, 2 Conferences, 1 Theatre Play and 1 Convergence Assembly). This collaboration helped several organisations and networks working on similar issues to understand each other’s positions, debate and share perspectives. Working together towards the joint activities also allowed them to initiate work links and trust which are fundamental for carrying initiatives beyond the Forum itself. Key issues that emerged included the need to counter policies aimed at creating new avenues for profit making in the health sector, such as Public-Private-Partnerships or private insurance based health system models promoted under the proposal of Universal Health Coverage. Social determinants of health also held centre stage, and it was noted by European labour activists that while this discussion is very advanced in the South, people in the North are only now coming to grasp its centrality in the new context created by the financial crisis and austerity measures. The joint declaration from this convergence reads ‘Our discussions show that the crisis in health and social protection is in fact the consequence of the global neoliberal politics. [...] Inspired by our experiences, we believe that the time is now for collective action!’
Picture 5: Groups advertise one of the many Convergence Assemblies
The Greece convergence assembly on 28 March, held just before the closing march expressed its solidarity with the Greek people fighting against austerity and for another Europe. The assembly resolved to scale up solidarity for Greece with a call to international delegations to participate in the May Day demonstrations in Athens. Further, a Peoples Summit will be held during the June 2015 European Union (EU) – Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit which will be an important moment for exchanges between Latin America and European movements as well as from other regions. On the inaugural day of the Tunis Forum, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had written a letter of solidarity to the Tunis Forum. With the Syriza Government on a collision course with neo-liberal governments and European institutions, Tsipras knows it cannot be a national battle of the Greeks alone as a progressive future for the people of Europe is interlinked with the future of the Greek people.
What next for the World Social Forum?
During the Greece Solidarity convergence, there were several calls for the next WSF to be hosted by Athens. A common refrain was that ‘In Greece we are doing politics week by week, if not day by day. It is impossible us to take a commitment that will project us two years in the future’. Given the formidable logistics around hosting a WSF, the Greeks were also clear that a global event of this size would be more of a burden at a moment when there is tremendous political pressure and activists are ramping up to counter the European troika (European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund).
The International Council (IC) of the WSF met after the Forum at the UGTT office to assess the Tunis event and decide on future plans. After the meeting it was announced that the next WSF will take place in Montreal, Quebec in August 2016. The announcement wasn’t without controversy since the IC had earlier agreed that the WSF would be a biennial event. Further, Canada has a rightwing Government which will impact local organisational capacity and the participation of activist groups from both the North and South given high costs and visa difficulties.
Nevertheless, this will be the first ever WSF hosted by the global south of a northern country and that is exciting by itself. A collective of more than 140 groups representing labour, indigenous, feminist and environmental groups have worked tirelessly for the past two years to bring the forum to Quebec. The opportunity for the global south in the north to participate more actively in the WSF process is invaluable. In addition, the new ways of organising and activism emerging from the vibrant movements of the marginalised in North America could be a shot in the arm for re-vitalising and re-inventing the WSF. This is critical as the World Social Forum is the only act of its kind – a global platform for the left and progressive forces to share struggle notes, strategise and build another world that is not just possible, but more necessary than ever.
Picture 6: Palestinian activists at the WSF closing march
!Are researchers with the South Solidarity Initiative at ActionAid India and Peoples Health Movement (PHM), respectively. They can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views expressed here are the authors personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organisations.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick