By Eric Hoddy
The World Social Forum kicked off on 24 March with a demonstration through the streets of Tunisia’s capital under the slogan, ‘The peoples of the world united for freedom, equality, social justice and peace’. Several hundred activists, NGO workers, journalists and members of the public braved what I was told to be some rather unusual rain and flooding to participate in the show of solidarity, which had added to it the sub-slogan ‘people of the world against terrorism’ in reference to the Bardo Museum attack days earlier. Held in the cradle of the Arab Spring, around 70,000 delegates attended over the week, representing 5,000 grassroots movements and organisations from 128 countries around the world. NGOs, social movements, trade unions, solidarity and advocacy groups were there in all their shades and colours, from local Tunisian organisations working on economic and social empowerment to transnational peasant movements advocating for sustainable forms of agriculture.
Throughout the week people bustled between the groups’ stalls and tents that occupied the El Manar University campus. Its lecture theatres and rooms were sometimes overflowing, having been transformed into debating and discussion chambers in an impressive set of workshops organised around themes such as social justice, citizenship, environment and economic alternatives. To give some idea of the scale, the workshop programme took up a sizeable 33 pages in the WSF booklet, and one of the most frustrating parts of the week was trying to decide which workshops to go to and which I would have to miss.
The workshop joint-led by the Vigilance Committee for Tunisian Democracy and the National Independent Coordination for Transitional Justice in Tunisia was interesting, though with transformative justice in the back of my mind I was disappointed by its concern for only political violence and the way in which political and civil rights violations were being prioritised over economic and social rights. Some of our local project partners participated in the WSF too. The Observatoire presented some work on the health of vulnerable people in the Gafsa region while AFTURD held several workshops throughout the week that explored different dimensions gender and rural poverty and what could be done about it. In AFTURD’s workshop on social and economic rights of women we were shown a short film in which a young rural woman narrated her past experiences of violence. Her story reminded me of some of the academic literature I’ve been recently reading by critical feminists about the intersecting and interlocking of social hierarchies and oppressions that make life more difficult and violent – in this case, gendered identities, poverty, inequality and patriarchy.
Generally speaking, the World Social Forum represents something of a novelty in left thinking and politics. As ‘unquestionably the first large international progressive movement following the neo-liberal backlash at the beginning of the 1980s’ (Santos 2006, p.127), its two pillars of self-democracy and inter-cultural and transpolitical translation mark it out from the earlier activities of the left. Self-democracy refers to the WSF’s absence of leaders and hierarchy, emphases on networks and its flexibility and readiness to experiment. Translation meanwhile implies a rejection of general theory and universalism in favour of processes that allow for mutual intelligibility among different actors’ diverse experiences and practices across the world. For some sceptics however, the WSF is a vast talking shop that does little or nothing to dent the processes and patterns of marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination. Interrogating the WSF in relation to globalisation, Santos (2006) suggests that underlying this divide between sceptics and advocates is a confrontation between old and new perspectives: on the side of the old, assessments of the WSF are based on the criteria that prevailed in the social struggles up until the 1980s (strongly influenced by Marxism, structuralism, and emphases on social class etc.); and on the other the WSF is assessed according to its own epistemology – that is, a ‘counter-hegemonic’ epistemology that is itself is grounded on the idea of global epistemological diversity. As Santos (2006, p.128) maintains:
In this light, the evaluation of the WSF cannot but be positive. By affirming and rendering credible the existence of a counter-hegemonic globalization, the WSF has contributed significantly to enlarging social experience. It has turned absent struggles and practices into present struggles and practices, and shown which alternative futures, declared impossible by hegemonic globalization, were after all showing signs of emerging. By enlarging the available and possible social experience, the WSF created a global consciousness for the different movements and NGOs, regardless of the scope of their action. Such a global consciousness was crucial to create a certain symmetry of scale between hegemonic globalization and the movements and NGOs that fought against it.
Thus one of the most interesting and probably most useful roles of the World Social Forum is the way it connects local issues of poverty and violence to larger global forces and processes that often underlie them. For actors engaged with these challenges and struggles, the forum provides some space for networking across and between scales. It is probably true that before the WSF, the movements and NGOs fought against hegemonic globalization without being aware of their own globality (Santos 2006). In Tunis I wondered to what extent local groups and global organisations and movements were able to find common cause over the course of the week and whether they had managed to plot some future directions. Since my own particular research interests are around rural movements, representation and advocacy, I wonder how international organisations, movements and groups from elsewhere can find ways of supporting the emergence of rural representation in Tunisia – a country where none presently exist.
Everyone I asked was in agreement that holding the World Social Forum in Tunisia was of value to Tunisian democracy. To be sure, holding the event in Tunisia is some indication of how far the country has opened up since the Ben Ali days. One of the things I’ve learned is the sheer scale by which many of the tensions, conflicts and injustices that were repressed and buried during dictatorship years have now come to the surface during the period of transition. In particular, issues around minority rights and LGBT that had remained publicly unspoken about for decades have produced new discourses and repertoires of political activism, and these were evident in the WSF. The case represents quite a contrast to Egypt where such an event would be unthinkable and its practices forcefully repressed.
Challenges still abound for the country’s fragile democracy and its democratic forces however. As explained by the Independent Coordination for Transitional Justice in Tunisia, the government has decided to do away with accountability in its transitional justice process in favour of jumping straight to reconciliation. New draft laws for countering terrorism contain definitions that can be interpreted widely enough that even peaceful democratic forces might be accused of undermining the state, and there are renewed concerns about limitations on press freedom. But the value of locating the WSF in Tunisia shouldn’t be underestimated in my view. Most of the Tunisian attendees to the WSF struck me as being from among the younger sectors of society, and it was after all the youth who were among the most prominent drivers of the Arab Spring. The space for reflective thinking, cross cultural dialogue, exchange of experiences and linking for effective action provided through the WSF might well have beneficial implications for Tunisia’s democratic culture in 2015 and beyond. In most of the workshops I attended, the speakers would begin by thanking their visitors for standing in solidarity with Tunisia’s democratic forces against terrorism and violence and in the spirit of democratic values.
Santos, B.D. (2006). The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond. Zed Books: London