Life or Death Struggles Emerge Over Arab Spring as Tensions Boil Over at Social Forum
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“This was like a dream come true,” said a radiant Sossi Mohamed Sadek, a Tunisian second year engineering student who was one of the hundreds of local volunteers at the World Social Forum in Tunis. “To see our university overflowing with over 50,000 people from Africa, Europe, Latin America, the United States, the Middle East—it was extraordinary. I came away with new ideas and new friends that will surely have a great impact on my life.”
Many Tunisians were thrilled to have hosted the eleventh World Social Forum, held from March 26-30, 2013. It marked the first time that the world’s largest global gathering of progressives—a gathering born in Brazil in 2001 out of the protests against corporate-dominated globalization—took place in an Arab nation. It came at a time when the world has been rocked by grassroots uprisings in the Arab world, but also increasing mobilizations to counter the climate crisis, and massive economic protests from southern Europe to “Occupy” groups in the United States to student movements from Quebec to Chile.
In recognition of the overarching danger of climate chaos, this was the first Social Forum to have a dedicated “Climate Space” with ongoing discussions about issues such as the need for food sovereignty, water justice and respect for the rights of indigenous and forest peoples. The climate sessions also denounced false solutions being put forward by many governments and corporations, including biofuels, GMO crops and geoengineering.
The debt/trade section of the Forum focused on ways to counter austerity measures, destructive free trade agreements and the onerous debts imposed by banks on both governments and individuals. Participants searched for alternatives to the undemocratic economic reforms being pushed by international lenders in countries such as Italy, Greece, and Cyprus, but also in Tunisia and Egypt, where the people are being asked to pay for debts incurred by previous dictators.
Interspersed throughout the forum’s hundreds of workshops, dozens of assemblies and street rallies were the challenges, contradictions and unresolved clashing visions since the early heady days of the Arab Spring.
One of the contradictions involves the role of women. The Arab Spring has spawned a new women’s movement in response to the rise of conservative religious governments in the region. According to Forum organizers, that’s why a women’s assembly was chosen to open the Forum. “The new regimes want constitutions to be more religious, and women all over the region are taking a stand against this,” said Hamouda Soubhi from Morocco. In the raucous, jam-packed women’s assembly, women cheered, chanted and applauded their sisters standing up to male oppression. “When we have situations like in Egypt where women are raped while attending demonstrations, we obviously have unfinished revolutions and need this kind of gathering to re-inspire us,” said a beaming, young Egyptian activist.
This clash between Islamists and secularists in the Arab world was present throughout the Forum. Plastered on the walls was the photo of Chokri Belaid, a Tunisian lawyer, Marxist, and leader of the leftist Popular Front who was murdered in February. Many Tunisian leftists used the Forum to denounce the new government run by the Ennahda party. But government supporters insisted that Ennahda is a moderate, tolerant Islamist party and felt that the secular vision was overrepresented at the Forum. At one of the closing assemblies, a government supporter encouraged forum goers to talk directly to Ennahda members instead of simply talking about them.
But it was the conflict in Syria that really spilled over into the forum in an ugly way, with supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shouting down and beating up opposition supporters—even women. Rumor had it that the Assad government purposely sent provocateurs to the forum. The atmosphere was so explosive that a group wanting to discuss nonviolent alternatives in Syria felt compelled to leave campus and meet instead in a downtown hotel.