‘No more violence!’ The chanting women drown the chair’s voice. She shouts for one minute of silence for the Tunisian and Arab martyrs of the revolution and the crowd go quiet.
It is the Women’s Assembly (above), the opening of the World Social Forum (WSF) on 26 March. The large lecture hall in El Manar University in Tunis is packed. Women from every part of the world talk, sing, chant and connect.
Tunisia was the first revolution of the ‘Arab Spring’. But it is a tense time for Tunisians who support that revolution. Pictures of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was shot dead last month, are everywhere. There are profound differences over the new constitution; elections are still to be held; there is fear of religious intolerance and the secular state seems in danger.
Continued unemployment damages Tunisian hopes. The campaigners against EU border controls are at the WSF. They believe that flimsy boats full of young people will cross to Lampedusa in Italy as the weather improves. Hundreds of young men drowned in 2011 and 2012 attempting to leave Tunisia and get through tight EU border controls. ‘[After the revolution] there were no controls, everybody wanted to leave, mostly for economic reasons,’ said Walid Fellah, a Tunisian media activist at the WSF.
In these circumstances, the 70,000 people estimated to attend the five days of the WSF are welcomed at every opportunity by Tunisians.
The Charter of the WSF
The WSF is about campaigning and activism. The Charter of the WSF forbids a common platform or hierarchy and no final statement is issued. The aim is to provide an open space for debate, discussion and joint action. This process is sometimes criticized for not achieving clear results and for favouring rich North delegates and attendees over poor South ones. It is a process which continues to attract campaigners and activists and which has been copied many times since it was started in Porto Alegre in 2001. One researcher has said that some 200 forums have been held based on similar principles.
Algerian delegation blocked at the border
On the first day, news spread quickly that a large human rights delegation from Algeria had been turned back at the border. But an earlier group have got through. Benjael Madia talks about her brother’s disappearance: ‘He was taken on 4 May 1994. He was taken by military security. They took my [other] two brothers as well. One remained for 45 days and was then released; the other spent five years in prison. And then the judge said “Sorry, we made a mistake”.’ But there is still no news of her remaining brother.
Benjael says there are 8,000 disappeared in Algeria. Families of the disappeared have to campaign outside Algeria; they cannot operate inside. So they use the WSF to campaign with SOS Disparu (SOS Disappeared).
Fighting for community radio
Maria Pia Matta campaigns for laws opening up radio frequencies. She works at community Radio Tierra in Santiago in Chile, and says: ‘France adopted a law in 1980 with Mitterrand [the French socialist president] which meant the opening of some private radio stations, but at the same time… [provided for] 700 community radio stations.’
She is here with a delegation of North Americans, Latin Americans and Haitians. They are at the WSF to encourage support for laws granting community access to radio frequencies.
La Via Campesina
La Via Campesina, the international small farmers’ organization, is at the WSF campaigning against land grabs, unfair free-trade agreements and in defence of small farmers. ‘The Indian government is contributing to more crises with its policies of liberalization,’ said Jairam Nadini from India, adding that small-scale farmers are leaving the land and migrating to cities.
Jose Riffaud, a small famer from France, says La Via Campesina are at the WSF because: ‘…this region [North Africa] is part of the world we do not have members… and we want to develop [connections].’
Unions pledge solidarity
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) pledged solidarity with Tunisia’s biggest union the UGTT at a union rally with trade unionists from Brazil, Turkey, Tunisia and others. Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the ITUC, said: ‘Another world is possible. Workers’ power: that is what will build that other world.’
WSF’s slogan is: ‘Another world is possible.’ Thousands of diverse workshops, debates and campaigns will hopefully drive thinking and action towards that other world.
Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod
Photo: Isabelle Merminod