United nations of the dispossessed meet in Tunis
Three reports, from Al Jazeera (1), Al Ahram (2) and Monthly Review (3).
The opening march of civil society organisations at last November’s World Social Forum: Free Palestine held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The meeting “set the stage for increasing the prominence of the Palestinian struggle in the Global South, as Palestinians and their allies gear up for the upcoming World Social Forum in Tunis this March” said ICAHD’s Salena Tramel.Palestine is a central issue for discussion this year. Photo from ICAHD
Activists say global finance undermines democracy as participants meet to discuss economic and social problems.
By Yasmine Ryan, Al Jazeera
March 26, 2013
Waves of protests over rising living costs and unemployment have taken place around the world in recent years [AFP]
As tens of thousands of activists from around the globe converge on Tunisia for the World Social Forum (WSF), the annual counter-hegemonic meet where opponents of neo-liberalism, free trade and austerity rally together, there will doubtless be some hard questions asked about what more ordinary citizens can do to push for greater social justice.
Over the past three years, the planet has been rocked by some of the most extensive protest movements in more than a generation.
From Cairo to Dakar, from Wall Street to Nicosia, protesters can shake and occasionally even oust politicians, but contesting the global economic status quo is a far greater challenge.
The slogan of this year’s forum, which runs from March 26 to 30, in keeping with the spirit of Tunisia’s January 2011 uprising, is dignity.
Most Tunisians describe their uprising as a struggle for dignity – the term “Jasmine Revolution” was only ever used by foreign journalists. They have been demanding affordable basic necessities, the right to employment and to a more just and equitable society.
“We need to have economic reforms that work for the people, not for the global economy.”
– Mabrouka Mbarek, Tunisian parliamentarian
Romdhane Ben Amor, a spokesperson for the WSF organising team, told Al Jazeera that organisers had initially hoped to hold the event in Egypt, but had opted for Tunisia due to its comparative stability.
“It’s the first time the forum is being held in an Arab country,” he said.
He estimated as many as 50,000 visitors from 128 countries would be gathering to discuss shared economic and social problems. The forum will begin with all these participants marching down the streets of Tunis, the capital, on Tuesday afternoon.
The issue of public debt would be one of the main topics on the forum’s agenda, he said.
“It’s a leading dilemma in Tunisia,” he said. “There’s no work, prices are rising, the government isn’t able to invest in society, and it’s all because of the debt.”
IMF in the house
The alter-globalisation activists are not the only people to have paid a visit North Africa a visit in recent weeks. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also been knocking on doors in both Tunisia and Egypt, “assisting” the governments in both countries to introduce their standard set of “structural reforms”.
In addition to its existing public debt, Tunisia is currently negotiating a $1.78 bn loan from the IMF to help keep its economy afloat, and the newly-formed government may sign the agreement this month. Yet the reforms the IMF is pushing the government to accept would, according to some economists, make life even harder for a population that so recently rose up in revolt over economic misery.
“We need to have economic reforms that work for the people, not for the global economy,” Mabrouka Mbarek, a member of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, told Al Jazeera. “It seems they have forgotten our history.”
The IMF, as Mbarek noted, has already played a central role in the Tunisian economy for more than 30 years. Critics attribute these policies with perpetuating the kind of inequalities and systemic unemployment that pushed the young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire and trigger the events that toppled longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Even Tunisia’s bread riots of the early 1980s came shortly after the IMF imposed austerity packages. The economic policies throughout Ben Ali’s 23-year rule were ironically praised as a “miracle” by the international community. A report issued during the 2010 World Economic Forum exalted the country as “the most competitive economy in Africa”.
Ben Ali’s veneer of economic liberalism and secularism led the West to turn a blind eye to his regime’s endemic corruption, repression and inequality.
Some protesters carried loaves of bread during the January 2011 uprising, symbolising the growing unaffordability of basic necessities. Previous rounds of IMF-backed reforms had wiped out much of the country’s agriculture and industry, creating an economy that is now heavily dependent on imported goods.
The current set of reforms would cut public subsidies at a time many commentators argue the government needs to invest in the domestic economy to help fuel job growth. They would also lead to further increases in the already spiralling cost of living.
Mbarek says the IMF is pushing for the reforms to be adopted in an undemocratic way, without any debate by the country’s elected officials. In a country that has already been experiencing almost daily strikes and protests for more than two years over economic conditions, she argued that these types of reforms would sabotage public trust at a crucial time in the democratic transition.
“It’s in everyone’s interests for democracy to succeed in Tunisia,” Mbarek, a member of President Moncef Marzouki’s secular leftist Congress for the Republic Party, said. “It seems that democracy is an enemy to the IMF.”
Egypt, likewise, is struggling to service a $35 bn external debt accumulated during the Mubarak years, with more money going to Western banks than to the Egyptian poor.
Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing-director said during a visit to Mauritania in January that “the Arab Awakening must also lead to a private sector awakening”.
Lagarde did not mention democracy or government once in her speech, focusing instead on what she said was a need for the Maghreb region to do more to attract foreign investment.
Many of the participants at the WSF view the economic reforms being pushed through under pressure from international lenders in countries such as Italy, Greece, and now Cyprus, as being fundamentally undemocratic.
It is not by chance that in 2001, the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the alter-globalisation movement rose from a continent where emerging democracies had been forced to swallow IMF-backed structural reforms for the previous two decades.
Since that meeting, successive forums have brought people together under the shared aspiration that “another world is possible”.
Those gathering in Tunisia today hope that someday, economic policy will be written for the Mohammed Bouazizis of the world rather than the bankers.
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan
Honouring the Arab Spring revolutions, this year’s World Social Forum is being held in its epicentre, Tunisia
By Salma Shukrallah in Tunisia, Ahram online
March 28, 2013
Thanks to the Arab Spring revolutions, Tunisia is playing host to the first World Social Form (WSF) held in the Arab world since its inauguration in 2001 in Porto Allegre. The organisers are keen to celebrate this year’s forum as stemming from the sweeping changes that spanned the region, beginning in host country Tunisia.
“We would not have been able to receive you if it was not for the people’s struggle in the region,” said WSF coordinator’s Abdel-Rahman Al-Hazeely.
In his opening speech, Al-Hazeely stated: “We are here for the people to stay united against neo-liberal policies,” marking the continuation of the forum’s decade-long heritage of social and political struggle.
WSF 2013 started on 26 March and is scheduled to last until 30 March. Sessions are bring held at Tunisia’s Al-Manar University and tackle issues of social justice, fair distribution of resources, equality, minority rights, and imperialism, among other issues.
This year’s forum is taking place amidst negotiations by Egypt and Tunisia with the IMF in the hope of securing several billion dollars worth of loans. As post-revolution governments continue to adopt economic policies that the forum’s participants have always opposed, signified by economic measures that typically accompany IMF facilities, the forum reflects a growing movement against post-revolution Arab governments.
Strong Arab presence
With strong Arab participation, the forum’s opening day witnessed slogans calling for “bread, freedom and social justice,” which echoed the demands and ambitions of the now two-year-old popular uprisings across the region.
Flags of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Morocco and Algeria dominated the scene, waved by participating groups as they converged on 14 Janvier (January) Square, named to commemorate the Tunisian revolution, where tens of thousands gathered to start the opening march.
“The people of Tunisia are free people … No to America, No to Qatar,” was one of the chants voiced by Tunisian groups in reference to the countries believed to be allies of the ruling Islamist Nahda Party.
Pictures of slain leftist figure Shokry Belaid, who was killed — allegedly by Salafists — in February, were seen throughout the forum. Young children wore his image on their jackets, while many wore pins with his picture.
The famous, “The people want the fall of the regime” slogan was also repeatedly chanted.
Barbed wire, police guards, and armored vehicles surrounded the Ministry of Interior located only metres away from the central square where the forum was launched, forcing the marches to redirect their path.
“The interior ministry are thugs,” Tunisian and Egyptian activists — whose struggle was largely directed against police brutality — jointly chanted when passing by security forces.
Other common chants condemned the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose parties now dominate parliaments in Egypt and Tunisia and from which the Egyptian president hails.
“Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide,” the Egyptians chanted.
“El-Ghanoushi is a murderer,” chanted Tunisian activists, holding the head of the Nahda Party accountable for Beleid’s death.
Street cafes and restaurants were crowded with the masses who came to participate. Political side chats could be heard coming from all different corners. Arab activists were sharing experiences.
Other countries strongly represented by activists were France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Mali, Nigeria, China and Japan, among many others.
Palestine: special focus
Meanwhile, Palestine got a large share of participants’ attention. Pictures of Samer Issawi, who has been on hunger strike for over 200 days, were widely carried around.
“Oh you merchants of religion … Palestine is that which deserves jihad,” was one of the chants condemning Islamists who call for jihad against their opponents instead of focusing on Israel.
Palestinian flags, stickers and posters were spread across the city centre. Hung on the walls of the university campus, where the forum sessions were held, was a tens of metres long Palestinian flag that covered the façade of one of its central buildings, with songs honouring the Palestinian struggle commonly sung in the forum.
At the opening session, Azza Saadat — wife of Ahmed Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — read a letter that her husband had sent from an Israeli prison.
“I send these words of the Palestinian prisoners to Tunisia and to the family of Shokry Beleid whose martyrdom had an impact on the whole world … I am telling you from the darkness of these prisons that your movement gives light to our [prison] cells,” read the letter.
“The Tunisian revolution has brought back hope of unity, hope that had been destroyed by oppressive regimes,” Saadat continued. “It has regained the Palestinian cause … The success of the movement is linked with ending Zionism as the Zionist state remains the main tool of imperialism.
“We [Palestinian prisoners] promise we will end the Palestinian division and bring back unity to accomplish Arab liberation. No for negotiation and yes to resistance in all its forms … Yes to the right of return which will never be compromised … Yes to the Palestinian state with Al-Quds as its capital … Freedom to all the prisoners and we will be the winners,” concluded the letter.
The Arab left
The WSF has traditionally been associated with leftist struggles. “The left in Tunisia is working on forming one united party for the coming transition period … That was the project led by Belaid,” Mohamed Bouzied, a Tunisian activist said.
Belaid’s wife, Bassma Khalafawi, was the first to speak in the opening ceremony. “This forum aims to accomplish social justice worldwide and is worth your efforts … Obtaining equality and freedom worldwide is worth your efforts, and despite my sorrow saying this it is worth the blood of the fighter Shokry Belaid,” she said, her words met by loud cheers and applause.
“Welcome to Tunisia despite political assassinations … We will struggle against violence, terrorism and growing poverty despite state efforts to scare us.”
“The enemies of what you struggle for use the same tactics worldwide to circumvent the interests of the wretched. But worldwide there is a strong movement,” Khalafawi said. “A better and more beautiful world is possible,” she concluded.
Most of the Egyptian participants belonged to the left or civil society sector. Leftist and Nasserist political figures also participated in the forum.
Prominent Nasserist leader Hamdeen Sabahi participated in the opening rally and gave a talk. Egyptian leftists figures included Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, Shahenda Meqled, Ahmed El-Naggar, Karima El-Hefnawy and Wael Gamal. Tens of young members of the Egyptian Popular Committees also made a strong presence.
By Jordan Flaherty, Monthly Review/mrzine
March 27, 2013
Tunis–Tens of thousands of people marched through downtown Tunis on Tuesday in a spirited march celebrating the beginning the 13th World Social Forum — the first to be held in an Arab country. The majority of marchers were from Tunisia and neighboring nations, but there was substantial representation from Europe, as well as from across South America, Asia, and Southern Africa. An enormous annual gathering that bills itself as a “process” rather than a conference, the WSF brings together by far the largest assembly of international social movement organizations, aimed towards developing a more just and egalitarian world.
The WSF was first held in Brazil in 2001 and is billed as an alternative to the wealth and power wielded at the World Economic Forum, an elite annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland. Tuesday marked the official opening of the WSF, but official sessions start today and continue through March 30 at the El Manar University Campus. The theme of this year’s Forum is “dignity,” inspired by the movements collectively known as the Arab Spring, launched here just over two years ago.
As of last night, the WSF had reported registration by more than 30,000 participants from nearly 5,000 organizations in 127 countries spanning five continents. Since that estimate, thousands more have registered on-site. The officially announced activities include 70 musical performances, 100 films, and 1,000 workshops.
Tuesday’s march traveled three miles from downtown Tunis to the Menzah stadium, with chanting in multiple languages and representation from a wide variety of movements from the Tunisian Popular Front to Catholic NGOs to ATTAC, a movement challenging global finance. At the Menzah stadium, an opening ceremony began at 7:30 pm with female social movement leaders from Palestine, South Africa, Tunisia, and the US taking the stage, including Besma Khalfaoui, widow of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, who was assassinated last month. According to Forum organizers, only women were chosen for the opening as a response to the rise of conservative religious governments in the region as well as patriarchal systems around the world. “We decided this because women are the struggle in the region,” said Hamouda Soubhi from Morocco, one of the organizing committee members. “They are struggling for parity, they are struggling for their rights. The new regimes want the constitutions to be more religious, and we want to take our stand against this.”
In short speeches — each about 5 minutes in length — the women projected a vision of a global movement that was inexorably rising, as the audience roared in approval. “We are trying to hold our government accountable for what it has done and continues to do around the world,” said one of the speakers, Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice, a US-based coalition of social movement organizations. “Some of the most inspiring movements and people are gathered here in Tunis. Together, we can change the course of history.” Among the loudest cheers came when speakers mentioned left political leaders and movements, including the jailed Palestinian leaders Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa’adat, as well as sustained applause for Hugo Chavez and the Occupy movement.
After the opening speeches, legendary musician Gilberto Gil took the stage. Known for his politics and musical innovation, Gil was a leader of Brazil’s tropicália musical movement of the 1960s and more recently served as Minister of Culture in the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As a sea of people from around the world danced ecstatically, Gil played a set that ranged from his own songs to pieces by Bob Marley and by John Lennon.
Among the opening sessions this morning was a press conference led by members of La Via Campesina, an organization representing more than 200 million poor farmers from 150 local and national organizations in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. “The false solutions of the government have been affecting us worse and worse,” Nandini Jayara, a leader of women farmers in India told Al Jazeera. “I feel the WSF is a stage for us to share our problems and work together for solutions.”
Over the past decade, the WSF has been credited with a number of important international collaborations. For example, the global antiwar demonstrations on February 15, 2003, which have been called the largest protests in history, came out of a call from European Social Forum participants. In the US, labor activists who received international attention for a successful factory takeover in 2008 at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory said inspiration came from workers in Brazil and Venezuela that they met at the World Social Forum.
Among the many movements seeking to launch new campaigns and coalitions are indigenous activists who are seeking to educate activists from around the world about the problems in the climate change solutions, such as the “cap and trade” strategy put forward by the United Nations and mainstream environmental organizations. “We have to look at the economic construct that has been created in this world by rich industrialized countries and the profiteers that have created this scenario,” said Tom Goldtooth, director of Indigenous Environmental Network, an international alliance of native peoples organizing against environmental destruction. “We have ecological disaster, and that is capitalism’s doing.” Goldtooth’s organization is also seeking to raise awareness about REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a United Nations program promoted as an environmental protection strategy that Goldtooth calls “genocidal” because it promotes solutions like carbon trading that he says will lead to mass deaths of poor people due to environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. “We’ve come to a time where there has to be a transition to something different, Goldtooth added. “Our communities are saying we need some action now.”
Every year, some Forum attendees must overcome travel restrictions from various countries, and the WSF is also plagued by infighting from a sometimes fractured left. Among the incidents reported this year, Human Rights Watch reported that Algerian border authorities illegally barred 96 Algerian civil society activists from traveling to Tunisia. Meanwhile, in Tunis, a group identifying themselves as Tunisian anarchists said that they were boycotting the Forum and appeared at the opening march, parading in the opposite direction of the rest of the crowd.
“For us the forum is already done. We have succeeded,” declared Hamouda Soubhi in an interview with Al Jazeera at the close of the opening ceremony. “Tomorrow will be problems, as there always are.”
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six.