At the eastern end of the Ave Habib Bourguiba, in the city centre, there is a giant clock tower that looms over all who pass. There I stood on my first day in Tunis with media activist Vlad Teichburg. He turned to me and said, “The revolution has come full circle.”
On Dec 17th, 2010 the Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, sparking a wave of uprisings and revolutions throughout North Africa. I watched from a distance via Facebook and Twitter in anticipation. 15M happened and then the call to “Occupy Wall Street.”
Two years later, I made my pilgrimage. The uprisings had led to the ousting of the de-facto dictator Ben Ali, and the democratization of the country. The first free elections in decades were held with the center-right Islamist Ennahda party winning a plurality but not majority. The Popular Front, a left-coalition, won a close second. Ever since, the balance of power had been precarious. Then, a month before the WSF, Chokri Belaid, the leader of the Popular Front, was assassinated resulting in a series of strikes and self-immolations. After the revolution, Tunisia was a country in turmoil.
I had come to Tunis with Global Square, a network of participants in the North African, 15M, and occupy movements, for the World Social Forum (WSF). It was the first forum to be held in an Arab/Berber nation and was a political gesture in light of the movement of squares.
Rami Brahem, a Tunisian activist working with Global Square explained to me, “During this time (at the WSF) you are invited to conferences where a man (rarely a woman) over 60 years moves and speaks for 3 hours while you're supposed to sit there, listening to talk about things that you generally already know. There is one exception in this forum and that is a small open space hosts a group called Global Square, composed of people who share a common ideal they called 'horizontality.'”
In 2000, at the height of the alter-globalization movement, there was an attempted shutdown of the World Economic Forum at Davos, which was derailed by the Swiss government. In light of this defeat, a coalition of Brazilian organizations with ties to the Workers Party and activists from ATTAC-France, stepped away from direct confrontations and opted for a counter-summit in the global south in which NGOs, trade unions, and social movements would come together and build another world. They called this event the World Social Forum (WSF).
The first forum was held in Porto Allegre in 2001 and inspired by the Zapatista Encuentro. Thousands of people came, twice as many as expected, and an open space was held. According to sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, “What the first WSF demonstrated was that the forum model of horizontal discussion among movements worked and had positive political consequences.”i
Following the forum, the WSF charter was created. There was also a desire to open up the planning process. Chico Whittaker, an early Brazilian organizer writes, “The International Council (IC) was created after the first WSF, on the initiative of its Brazilian organizers, to make possible that the world process that had been launched could be taken over by movements and organizations from around the world and not only from Brazil.”
In the following years, the IC planned forums, which continued to meet regularly and grew in attendance, but there were many challenges. Hosting tens of thousands of people from across the globe required mobility, coordination, cooperation of local governments, and financial resources. As a result organizations with ties to governments who had access to large sums of corporate money, were able to play a large role in the forum. This also meant that social movements, and, in particular, those that levied more radical critiques and/or came from impoverished communities, were not as able to participate.
At the WSF in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007, for instance, there were protests of the forum in response to its inaccessibility. The venue was located far outside the city, and the gates were highly militarized. The radio transistors ordered for translation did not work. Most of all, the fees for entry were too high for most Kenyans, and the fees for vendors precluded local vendors while favoring corporate contractors including Coca-Cola.ii
There are many examples of the contradictions of the WSF. Some progress has been made with regard to entry fees and translation, but the forum remains a contested space.
Most of us in the movement of squares had never met in person. Some of us met at Agora 99 in Madrid and were an informal delegation at Firenze 10+10, the most recent European Social Forum. Out of the experience this group planned to attend the World Social Forum in Tunis.
We saw an opportunity to coordinate with one another, learn from our experiences, and to open up the forum process. In the lead-up to the WSF we connected via e-mail, pads, and a series of mumble meetings. Our stated purpose was to work “toward, around, and beyond the WSF.” We called ourselves Global Square.
Upon arriving in Tunis we made our way to the WSF. The forum was held from March 26th-30th, at the University El Manar just outside the city limits. A sprawling archipelago of buildings cordoned off with imposing green gates. It resembled a military compound more than a site of learning. Tunisian workers with WSF badges stood guard asking for passes. There was a sliding scale registration by region, that favored North Africans.
This had the semblance of improvement over some past social forums, but all the resources that enabled the organizing of events within the forum such as tents, sound systems, and translation were hundreds of Euros each. This prohibited low-income people and those with language barriers (such as Tunisians) from organizing events. Instead, they could only attend events others had organized.
Global Square had made contact with the commissions established by the IC before the forum. We were promised space for our events, tents, translation assistance, and a sound system for free. None of this materialized.
When we arrived we didn’t even have space, so we occupied a square inside the gates. Then, we liberated tents, which had been provided to the forum by the Saudi Royal Kingdom and UNCHR, the UN Refugee agency. The nomads group, a friend of Global Square, offered us a sound system. In occupy-fashion we improvised and self-organized to meet their immediate needs. Shawn Carrie from Occupy Wall Street explained to passersby, “This is the first step. We set up camp. Tomorrow, the square will be filled with people.”
The square was located inside the Climate Space, where there were socially responsible and eco-friendly workshops sponsored by Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant. For instance, the workshop from Mova Brasil, a literacy project for young people and adults, was developed in partnership with Petrobras.iii
The square, while a bit haphazard, did not have these institutional strings. We had come independently, and the result was truly an open space for cross-cultural dialogue. Among us we had translation ability, because we were ourselves an international group. Every day we held open assemblies with translation available in English, Spanish, Italian, French, and Arabic on an as-need basis which seemed to work. We held workshops on facilitation and tactical media, and open assemblies where everyone could speak regardless of organizational affiliation.
On the second day a young Tunisian student from the University spoke of being tortured twice during the revolution. He said, “I am angry, and I just want to find people that feel the same way.”
On Sunday March 31st the IC (International Council), the de-facto steering committee of the WSF, began a series of meetings to assess the organization and future of the IC and WSF. They were being held at the Hotel Majestic on Ave de Paris in the city centre.
I made my way on foot, dodging pushcarts and train cars. After experiencing the WSF I wanted to see the organizers in person. A notable example of Art Nouveau architecture, the Hotel Majestic had curved corners and sweeping terraces. A banner was draped elegantly over the entrance and read, “Forever Majestic.”
After entering I was led by a security guard to the back conference room. The room was arranged so that all the IC members were in the center around a boardroom table draped in white fabric and lit by chandeliers. It was made clear that only IC members could speak. The rest of us could merely observe.
Many of the IC’s own members have criticisms of how it operates. Chico Whitaker, for instance, is one of the most prominent critics. He wrote a series of proposals for the IC to review in preparation for Tunis. Whittaker wrote, “As a body that does not "direct" the Organizing Committees of each Forum, but exists above them, the IC carries with it an ambiguity that creates a permanent tension on the non-directivity of the process.” Then he stated, “What I would like to propose is radical: in our next meeting, on the occasion of the WSF in Tunis in March 2013, decide to dissolve the IC.” He then went even further and asked for the movement of squares to step up. He stated, “the New Movement could even incorporate them (the IC) into its own strategy.”iv
In the IC meeting there were hours of speeches by representatives of various trade unions and NGOs, who all expressed their disappointment with not getting what they wanted out of the forum. Then, Whitaker spoke and delivered his self-described “bomb.” The facilitator cut him off, announced a lunch break, and explained that the IC would eat first, followed by the rest of us.
During the break Jasper Teunissen, who had come with Global Square and was part of the occupy movement in the Netherlands, approached Whitaker. They had a brief dialogue about the proposal. Whittaker explained that everyone should have a seat at the table. Teunissen said that there shouldn’t be a table. Then, Whitaker smiled at Teunissen and said, “I am 82 years old. I’m diabetic. I need to go now and have lunch. We will talk later.” He did not give a time or place for this discussion.
It must be noted that Chico Whittaker, while a kind elderly gentleman, is also coming from the political establishment of Brazil. His organization, GRAP, is funded by Petrobras.
After break, the IC announced that they would allow people other than the IC members to take turns speaking, so some participants in Global Square got on stack. They were placed at the very end and given three minutes each to speak. Saif, a 15-year-old Tunisian boy who had been coming to Global Square, stated, “I just have one question: why do the capitalists have an anti-capitalist forum?" The meeting came to a close.
Some of us from Global Square stayed back to debrief. We picked up microphones and pretended to be IC members. We joked about forming committees for committees. Then, in a spontaneous occupy act, we removed the table. We rearranged the space and made a circle, so that everyone could speak. The Hotel workers were laughing with them and supportive of the idea. They aided in the preparation by checking the sound system.
The next morning the IC members came and sat in the circle as if it was planned. Perhaps it would be more embarrassing for them to admit what actually happened. They formed working groups in which there was much discussion but the only decision was to meet again in six months with the location yet to be determined.
After returning to New York I have little confidence that a new social forum is possible. Perhaps the IC will prove me wrong. The “New Movement,” however, will continue to organize at a local level. I talked with Rami Brahem again. He told me the Tunisian people were ready for horizontality. He declared, “The virus is everywhere!”
- Wallerstein, Immanuel, “The World Social Forum: Great Successes, Shaky Future, Passe?” World Social Forum: Critical Explorations. 2012
- Mbatia, Wangui and Indusa, Hassan on behalf of the People’s Parliament, “The World Social Forum 2007: A Kenyan Perspective,” World Social Forum: Critical Explorations. 2012
- Marex, “Social and Environmental Projects Sponsored by Petrobras Take part in the World Social Forum held in Tunis,” http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Social-and-Environmental-Projects-Sponsored-by-Petrobras-Take-Part-in-the-World-Social-Forum-Held-in-Tunisia-2013-03-26/. March 26th, 2013
- Whitaker, Chico, “World Social Forum: space or movement? Thinking about the WSF International Council future in new perspectives.” http://chicowhitaker.net/artigo_eng.php?artigo=44. January 4, 2013.
- A different version of this article appeared on http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-we-occupied-the-world-social-forum/Waging Nonviolence.