Galvanised by Arab revolutions, WSF 2013 begins in Tunisia

Salma Shukrallah in Tunisia, Thursday 28 Mar 2013

Honouring the Arab Spring revolutions, this year's World Social Forum is being held in its epicentre, Tunisia

Galvanised by Arab revolutions
Egyptian and Tunisian politicians and activists come together during the opening march of the World Social Forum in Tunis (Photo: Egypt's Popular Current)

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.

Short link: