Thunder in Tunis – Day 1 of a World Social Forum Diary
World Social Forum opening demo Tunis

Thunder in Tunis – Day 1 of a World Social Forum Diary

Date: 26 March 2015

Thunder rumbled as we got off the tram at assembly point for the opening demonstration of the World Social Forum in Tunis. The skies, which had been drizzling  on and off all day, let out a full-on downpour. Before we even started marching we were soaked.

The Global Justice Now delegation has come to Tunisia to take part in workshops with activists and social movements from around the world on energy justice, food sovereignty and free trade deals. The banner we brought to the demo, now soaking wet, reads “No to TTIP: Stop the corporate power grab”.

Yet inevitably, the events of last week at the Bardo museum in Tunis, where a small group of jihadists opened fire on tourists, killing 21, have overshadowed the event. It was the first attack of its kind in Tunisia and shook the country deeply.

An opening demonstration is normal at the World Social Forum – a chance for the global progressive movement to demonstrate its strength, its diversity and its determination to build a world of democracy and justice for all. But the demonstration now had to respond to the Bardo attack. The tone was set for a demo rejecting conservative ideologies of both a religious and neoliberal variety.

And despite the rain, spirits were high. We chanted against corporate power and for climate justice. We marched in solidarity with the people of Palestine and of occupied Western Sahara. Peasants of La Via Campesina marched alongside anti-debt campaigners and rural African women – many nationalities united in saying that another world is possible, and in our wet socks.

The World Social Forum first came to Tunis two years ago. It was a fairly successful attempt to bring the anti-globalisation movement together with the Arab Spring in a country where the revolt against an authoritarian government had had a reasonably successful outcome. The Tunisian trade union federation and other progressive forces had been keen for the WSF to boost the left in the country in a context where the first free elections had been won by a moderate Islamist, economically centre-right party.

Two years later subsequent elections have brought a secular coalition to power but in a domestic context of growing jihadist activity in the south of the country. In many countries the Arab Spring is in retreat, with reactionaries gaining the upper hand. The streets of Tunis are full of police, many of them heavily armed and the university where the Social Forum takes place is no exception. Clearly this is a reaction to last weeks’ attack, but it is also hard for the WSF to feel like a liberatory experience with so many guns around. But for this reason, the WSF is needed in Tunisia more than ever, to demonstrate an alternative not just to the violence and oppression of fundamentalists, but to repressive state power which otherwise seems like the only other option. The Tunisian movements know this, which is why they’ve put so much effort into it for a second time.

This sense that the 2015 World Social Forum takes place at crossroads for the world was not lost on Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras, who has sent greetings to the event. He said “Our common responsibility to build a different prospect for the world is much greater these days, at a time that blind fanaticism, violence and social regression appear as alternative perspectives before the menacing force of the markets … The movements ought to block decisively the way to them by winning the hearts and minds of the poor and the oppressed.”

Syriza is full of people who became politically active as part of the anti-globalisation movement, and in some ways Syriza’s election victory in January has its roots in that movement’s high point around 14 years ago when the WSF first emerged. A lot has changed since that time but the WSF remains vital challenge to global capitalism as well an place where movements can plan their struggles across borders for a better world. That’s what we’re going to be doing in the next few days – whatever the weather.

This first appeared in today’s edition of the Morning Star.