WSF Tunis

Tunis: A tale of two World Social Forums

2 April 2013 by Nick Dearden


The WSF needs updating for a post-Arab Spring, post-Indignado world, writes Nick Dearden. The problems and the possibilities were both on show in Tunisia

The Tunisian World Social Forum has been the most energetic, lively, youthful forum held in recent years. You could be in no doubt that this country is living through an incredible awakening, where all questions about the future are still unanswered, all possibilities open.

Ferocious debates were held on the role of Islam in this renewed society, the liberation of women and sexuality, imperialism and trade unionism – not to mention debates which got completely out of hand on Western Sahara and Syria. At any point on any day, half a dozen impromptu demonstrations were held on a variety of subjects, mostly to the sound of revolutionary hip hop.

The forum was plastered with pictures of anti-imperialist ’heroes’, some more savoury than others. Pride of place was taken by Chokri Belaid, the left-wing opposition leader assassinated only weeks before the forum was held. Belaid pulled together a range of parties and factions into the Popular Front and gave many activists here hope in a radical future government.

The fundamentalist Islamic Salafist group also made an appearance to argue their case against the secular radicals. Among the more unusual stalls were those of the Iranian government, Brazilian oil company Petrobras and USAID (the latter left rather quickly after a demonstration against them).

In the youth space – constructed of tents previously donated by the UN – three stages played host to a range a music, from electronic Arabic folk to three self-conscious looking teenagers playing alternative rock covers (with pretty good guitar work).

Alive with ideas

For all of Tunis’ laid back, French ambience – a world away from the noise, pollution and confusion of Cairo – Tunisia’s youth are alive with ideas, and don’t fit neatly into any expectations you might have of them.

For debt activists, Tunisia has particular interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. , owing to its national assembly’s decision to audit the debts run up under dictator Ben Ali. This is a direct challenge to France and the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.

http://imf.org
, eager to make new loans to the government to allow it to repay and recycle the odious debt of the past, and use these new loans to impose economic conditions on Tunisia. An IMF package is believed to be in the final stages of being discussed – a debt audit provides the first step in a very different direction.

The politics of the potential audit are made all the more exciting by the offer of help from Ecuador, the country which held the first official debt audit in the world and used the audit to declare its debt illegitimate and secure a multi-billion dollar write-off. Ecuador’s government has recently declared another audit, of its investment treaties which often act as ’corporate rights’ charters, preventing the government interfering in the profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. -making of transnational corporations in order to protect peoples’ rights.

For Tunisia to follow some of Ecuador’s policies would be a real nail in the coffin of neoliberal economics. It would also be a blow to the French government, already smarting at Tunisia’s refusal to allow its airspace to be used for the French war in Mali. But nothing is certain here. Many activists express real frustration that things have not moved faster.

Rethinking and updating

By contrast with the Tunisian energy, the ‘non-Tunisian’ World Social Forum (the bit of the event where many European, Latin American and Asian activists spent much of their time) felt bland and well past its sell by date. Geographically somewhat separated from the area where most Magreb issues were discussed (a problem created by the organisers), the space was more like a giant policy seminar than the vibrant coming together of activists and groups intended.

The World Social Forum was initiated in 2001, an expression of the anti-globalisation movement - which brought unaccountable institutions of global ’government’ like the IMF and WTO WTO
World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.

into the mainstream of protest – as a way of bringing people together to forge new alliances and strategies for change.

Today, too many sessions are dominated by the same speakers who have been making the same speeches for 15 years, with little progress made on reaching out to new movements and building comprehensive alternatives, despite a constant refrain that ’we need to better connect up’ our issues and organisations. Even within the international section, language and national groups often stuck together. One astonishing meeting looking at the European Central Bank Central Bank The establishment which in a given State is in charge of issuing bank notes and controlling the volume of currency and credit. In France, it is the Banque de France which assumes this role under the auspices of the European Central Bank (see ECB) while in the UK it is the Bank of England.

ECB : http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/Pages/home.aspx
was dominated by German activists who didn’t even mention the crisis in Greece.

The World Social Forum was formed long before the movements of the Indignados or Occupy, with their focus on participative decision-making and ’taking politics to public spaces’. Probably the best aspect of this WSF was the handing over of an outside space to a group of international activists from Occupy and the Indignados, working with local groups, as the Global Squares Movement.

Starting off as a European hub, the space became more and more Tunisian, eventually moving to the centre of town where an assembly of thousands of people came together, the vast majority of contributions being in Arabic.

During the lifetime of the World Social Forum, very significant victories have been won by the networks formed and nurtured here. The World Trade Organisation and the Free Trade Area of the Americas were stopped in their tracks. Food sovereignty and a ban on genetic modification are now enshrined in many countries constitutions. The right to water and the rights of peasants are now recognised by the UN.

Yet despite these victories, we face a mountain of injustice, with crises of the environment, of the economy, of militarism and war, in many ways worse than they were 15 years ago. As new revolutions bring a new generation of activists into the global justice movement, the WSF needs a major rethink to equip it for these challenges. More focus on participation, on planning, on open spaces, on genuine learning rather than regurgitating truisms. At a national level there needs to be a better way of ensuring new activists can come and take control of the forum – a limit on how often any one individual can attend would make an interesting guideline.

Activists should look forward to the continuing of the revolution in Tunisia and the start of the revolution in the World Social Forum.



Nick Dearden is the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

Other articles in English by Nick Dearden (31)

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