Why we occupied the World Social Forum

At the Tunis meeting of the World Social Forum in March. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

At the Tunis meeting of the World Social Forum in March. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

At the eastern end of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in the center of Tunis, there is a giant clock tower that looms over all who pass. There I stood, on my first day in the city, with media activist Vlad Teichburg. He turned to me and said, “The revolution has come full circle.”

On Dec. 17, 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 on social media in anticipation. That spring, the 15M movement began in Spain, and then came the call from Adbusters to “#occupywallstreet.”

Inspired by these movements, the organizers of the World Social Forum decided to meet in Tunis from March 26 to March 30, 2013. It was to be the first such convergence in an Arab country. The stated purpose was to work “for a collective reflection on social movements, on the meaning of new struggles, and on the World Social Forum process itself, as well as the perspectives and strategies for the future, so as to guarantee the effective fulfillment of another possible and urgent world for everyone.”

In this spirit I made my pilgrimage to Tunis. I wanted to reflect on new struggles, but what I found were inflexible and outmoded structures. It was only in the cracks — the spaces in between — that I found the possibility of another world.

The forum

In 2000, at the height of the alter-globalization movement, activists attempted to shut down the World Economic Forum at Davos but were 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. They called this event the World Social Forum.

The first forum was held in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001 — inspired, in part, by the Zapatistas’ encuento meetings. Thousands of people came, twice as many as expected, and they self-organized with an open-space methodology. 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.”

After that, a charter was written outlining the World Social Forum’s purpose, which included being an open, de-centralized, non-party and non-governmental space for cross-cultural exchange of experiences. In addition to the charter there was a desire to extend the planning process to other groups. Thus, an ad hoc body called the International Council was formed with representatives from over 100 NGOs and trade unions.

In subsequent years, the International Council became the de facto steering committee of the World Social Forum. The forum continued to meet regularly and grew in attendance, but it faced 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 and access to large sums of corporate money were able to play a major role in the forum. This also meant that social movements — especially those that levied radical critiques or came from impoverished communities — were left with less leverage in the process.

At the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, there were protests against its inaccessibility. The venue was located far outside the city, and the gates were guarded with military force. The radio transistors meant for translation did not work. Worst of all, the cost for entry was too high for most Kenyans to afford, and the fees for vendors precluded local businesses while favoring corporate contractors, including Coca-Cola.

Over the years, some progress has been made with regard to entry fees and translation, but the forum remains a contested space.

The occupation

Most of us who participated in the movement of squares — from Tahrir to Puerta del Sol to Zuccotti — had never met in person. I had the chance to meet a few of my counterparts at the Agora 99 meeting in Madrid and at Firenze 10+10, the most recent European Social Forum. Out of that experience came a group that planned to attend the World Social Forum in Tunis.

We saw an opportunity to coordinate with one another, to learn from our experiences and to open up the forum process. In the lead-up to Tunis we connected over e-mail, collaborative writing pads, and a series of Mumble conference-call meetings. Our stated purpose was to work “toward, around and beyond the WSF.” We called ourselves Global Square.

Rami Brahem speaks to the Global Square assembly at the World Social Forum in Tunis. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

Rami Brahem speaks to the Global Square assembly at the World Social Forum in Tunis. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

Upon arriving in Tunis we made our way to the forum site at University El Manar on the edge of the city. As a sprawling archipelago of buildings cordoned off with imposing green gates, it resembled a military compound more than a place of learning. Tunisian workers with WSF badges stood guard asking for our passes. The cost of registration was on a sliding scale according to region, favoring North Africans.

This arrangement was an improvement over the past, but to organize events within the forum required such things as tents, sound systems and translation equipment, all of which cost hundreds of euros. This prohibited low-income people and those with language barriers (such as Tunisians) from convening their own discussions. Instead, they could only attend meetings others had organized.

Global Square made contact with the commissions established by the International Council before the forum began. We were promised space for our events, tents, translation assistance and a free sound system. But none of this materialized.

Without even a place to meet, we decided to occupy a square inside the gates. We liberated tents that had been provided to the forum by the Saudi Royal Kingdom and UNCHR, the U.N. refugee agency. Another group friendly to Global Square offered us a sound system. In Occupy fashion, we improvised and self-organized to meet each other’s immediate needs. Shawn Carrié 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. The workshop led by Mova Brasil, a literacy project for young people and adults, for instance, was developed in direct partnership Petrobras.

Our occupied square, while a bit haphazard, had none of these corporate strings attached, and the result was a truly open space for cross-cultural dialogue. We could handle translation ourselves because we were an international group; every day we held open assemblies with translation available in English, Spanish, Italian, French and Arabic on an as-needed basis, and that seemed to work. We held workshops on facilitation, tactical media and open assemblies in which anyone 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.”

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 three hours while you’re supposed to sit there, listening to them talk about things that you generally already know.”

“There is one exception in this forum,” he added, “and that is a small open space hosted by a group called Global Square, composed of people who share a common ideal they call ‘horizontality.’”

The table

After the forum, the International Council began a series of meetings to plan the future of the council and the World Social Forum. The meetings were held at the Hotel Majestic on Avenue de Paris in downtown Tunis. After experiencing the forum I wanted to see its organizers in person.

I made my way there on foot, dodging pushcarts and train cars. An example of art nouveau architecture, the Hotel Majestic had curved corners and sweeping terraces. A banner was draped elegantly over the entrance that read “Forever Majestic.”

The International Council of the World Social Forum meets in downtown Tunis. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

The International Council of the World Social Forum meets in downtown Tunis. (WNV/Marisa Holmes)

After entering I was led by a security guard to the conference room. The room was arranged so that all International Council members were in the center around a boardroom table draped in white fabric and lit by chandeliers. It was made clear that only council members could speak; the rest of us could merely observe.

Many of the International Council members themselves have voiced criticisms of how it operates. Chico Whitaker, a Brazilian activist who helped organize the first World Social Forum, is one of the most prominent critics. He wrote a series of proposals for the council to review in preparation for Tunis. “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,” Whittaker wrote. “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 — which he called the “New Movement” — to step up and resist the current process. He suggested, “The New Movement could even incorporate them (the IC) into its own strategy.”

At the International Council 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 proposal — his self-described “bomb.” The facilitator cut him off, announced a lunch break and explained that the International Council members would eat first, followed by the rest of us.

After break, council members announced that they would allow people other than themselves 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, said, “I just have one question: Why do the capitalists have an anti-capitalist forum?” Shortly thereafter, the meeting came to a close.

The virus

Some of us from Global Square remained in the room to debrief. We picked up microphones and pretended to be International Council members. We joked about forming committees for committees. Then, in a spontaneous act of occupation, we removed the table, rearranged the space and made a circle. The hotel workers were laughing along with us. They even helped out by checking the sound system.

The next morning the International Council members came and sat in the circle, giving no indication that the new format wasn’t intentional on their part. They made vague statements concerning the critiques made the day before, and then they went on with business as usual. They formed committees in which there was much discussion, but the only decision made was to meet again in six months at a location yet to be determined.

After returning home to New York, I am uncertain what the future holds for the World Social Forum. The convergence has been a catalyst for movements around the globe to connect for more than a decade. However, it continues to face many crippling problems.

If there is to be another World Social Forum, imbalances of power must be addressed much more deeply. It must be mobile and de-centralized, utilizing new technologies to broaden participation. Resource allocation must be critical and democratic. The roles and tasks of the organization must be made visible and accountable. Only then will the forum achieve a horizontal space.

It is clear, even to International Council members themselves, that a new direction is needed. But they are too comfortable in their current structures. Bringing about change will require them to face the contradictions of their own power. I hope that they take this opportunity to learn and grow from the “new movements” that inspired them to meet in Tunis in the first place.

I recently spoke with Rami Brahem again. He saw the desire for horizontality spreading more and more in his country. He told me, “The virus is everywhere!”

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