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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > January 2012 > WSF Process: Challenges and Opportunities

WSF Process: Challenges and Opportunities

Monday 30 January 2012, by Kamal Lahbib

In July 2011, Chico Whitaker asked that ever-present question, “And what now, for the World Social Forum?”

A few months earlier, Gus Massiah had laid out alterglobalization’s twelve Labours of Hercules in his paper, "Twelve hypotheses for an alterglobalist strategy" which reiterated the three questions that the World Social Forum (WSF) was, and is still confronted with – anchorage on a grass roots level, geographic, cultural and social growth and growth on a conceptual and political level, which require the deconstruction of traditional left-wing schemas, whilst at the same time ensuring that those behind the WSF process are committed to continuity within the liberation movement.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we worked in the Maghreb region (with a strong desire to extend into the Mashreq region) whilst taking into account one of the key criticisms of the Forums - the lack of concrete actions linked to those issues that are of vital importance to the people.

Indeed it is also with this in mind that we insisted, well before the revolts and revolutions in the region, that the WSF International Council (IC) be held in May 2009. The region was designated as strategically important and the events that followed this choice demonstrate its pertinence.

Whilst we could not have predicted these events, we devoted much of our energy in Tunisia and Egypt to creating a sense of solidarity and strenght within the workers ’movement in the Gafsa mining Basin , and to strengthening links with social movements in Egypt.

This vision was also the driving force behind the idea that emerged at the IC meeting in Paris of organizing the next WSF in one of these countries. It was spurred on by the enthusiasm of the revolutions and the explosion of new movements and social networks in newly liberated spaces, and a commitment to enriching the WSF process.

Whilst we were carried forward by our enthusiasm, we were not fully aware of the challenges ahead:

  the uncertain and arbitrary nature of politics within the region: the fall of dictators did not mark the end of the dictatorships, and in addition new horrors came to light;

  a lack of clarity in defining the nature of the Porto Alegre Charter, the raison d’être of the social forums and their aims, but also in defining a new way of conceiving of the WSF, the political role of social movements in relation to the electoral process, to political parties and to the State;

  organizational weaknesses within social movements.

1. Political uncertainty

The region as a whole is gripped by violence on the part of both States and demonstrators. Libya has already opened the door to civil war and Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are veering towards violence and an armed struggle. What took place in Egypt was not a revolution. Fresh demonstrations calling for the achievements of the revolution to be set in stone did not speak out in favour of withdrawal of military powers that continue to dominate the political field. The elections, as a democratic expression of the peoples’ sovereignty, revealed serious paradoxes, one (and not least) of which is the fact that the elections that resulted from the uprisings in the region, placed power in the hands of the Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. In Libya, the first declaration of the National Transitional Council announced the return of Sharia (Koranic) law. The revolutions and uprisings began with small scale participation of Islamic groups, and it was essentially the work of new youth-led social movements that lay at the heart of the population’s struggles for social justice, dignity and liberty over the last decades. This situation appears all the more paradoxical given that most Islamist movements have long refused to recognize the principles of institutional democracy, and participation in elections. Their ability to adapt to representative democracy has become evident only as an instrument for accessing power.

This is not however a new phenomenon. In 1991, in the first round of the Algerian legislative elections, the FIS won 188 of a total of 231 seats, (almost 82% of the vote) and the FFS won 25 seats. Following this, the democratic process was interrupted by the military, and Algeria and the Algerian people are still suffering the tragic consequences – with more than 200,000 deaths and a conflict that is ongoing. This is not a one-off scenario. For a long time, Hamas had confined itself to a position of rejecting elections, and in 2006 won the election with an absolute majority.

The closed system in Morocco meant that the Islamists were not able to take power as the Western Media had predicted, though the same cannot be said of Egypt, where the two Islamist parties brought home an absolute majority. Despite the Ennahda Party in Tunisia assuring respect for democracy and human rights, the danger of violent confrontations with the Salafists still lurks in the wings (their attitude towards the University, and the terror that they brought on a village near Bizerte are examples of this). This is in no way, a questioning of the results of elections, which, when they are respected, free and transparent remain a form of democratic expression. The social movement set itself the aim over this decade, of developing a new concept and a new way of practicing democracy. In particular, the legitimacy of alternative models to parliamentary democracy, especially given the millions of voters who do not participate in the vote and who thereby weaken the legitimacy of those institutions that emerge. We were not able to develop these alternative models on the ground, and we are more inclined to boycott elections, leaving the field open to detractors of democracy, and the electoral mafia.

It would also be false to say that democracy is helpful to its adversaries. Democracy has no restrictions; it recognises plurality and the competition of those forces present whilst providing freedom and transparency for the peoples’ legitimacy. Today it is clear that for Islamist groups, the only possible choice left open to them in this period of social and financial crisis is to adapt to the standards of representative democracy in order to make electoral victories, that is to say maintaining a moralizing discourse, and the imposition of restrictive measures in the name of religion but within a framework of ultra-liberalism, which will avoid the mistakes of previous governments in terms of moralizing on public life, which will suit the West. The Islamist governments that are in power in Tunisia and Morocco (to which we should also add Libya) have reiterated their respect for international agreements, and this includes agreements with the EU and the free trade agreement with the USA. Western interventionism only serves to reinforce this tendency which is based on the idea of “political integration of the Islamist movements by way of democratic elections.”

In the same way that the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to the breaking up of other entities, and opened the door to neo-conservative supremacy and free market economics, the revolutions gave way to victory for the Islamists and this phase marks a new era of fierce battles for public liberties, both collective and individual, as well as around economic models.

Nothing can stop the peoples’ enthusiasm for freedom, dignity, democracy and social justice. We have overcome the fear caused by State violence and terror. What remains to be seen is how these aspirations will be interpreted, and it is the political alliances resulting from power struggles in an open political field that will determine how these aspirations will be interpreted and set in stone.

Furthermore, this movement, reinforced by the crisis in Europe and America, has prompted angry protests all over the world, and we are as a result confronted with new political paradigms, and the need to review our strategies and ways of working on a level that goes beyond what is perceived as the ‘big alterglobalist mess’.
By way of their letter to the IC, our good friends in Egypt aimed to share with us their political difficulties and uncertainty. A remarkable amount has been achieved in terms of growth, both in terms of the size of the movement and depth of reflection, since meeting in May 2009 in Rabat. A huge amount is happening in Egypt, with the creation of peoples’ committees, and neighbourhood committees…
We are currently in a phase similar to that of 2005-2006, when we applied for the organization of the multi-centre Forum in Morocco. We remain subject to the arbitrary nature of the decision-making of political powers which fundamentally have not changed, though show some subtle variations in Tunisia where, despite everything, there remains a certain duality of power. The repressive police and military apparatuses that propped up dictatorships and authoritarian regimes for fifty years have not been dismantled.

Uncertainty in Egypt is even greater, and for those currently in power the desire for security trumps the push for a democratic opening. For the Egyptian authorities, gatherings of any kind have the potential to turn in to, or deteriorate into a protest movement or challenge. Political uncertainty stops the economy from rebooting, and stops investors and tourists (who are from a Western world which is itself in crisis) from re-establishing confidence. It is clear that under current conditions, it is hard to imagine the military allowing a gathering as subversive as the WSF.

The crisis in the West increases uncertainty in the global South. Greece, Italy, Spain, France and the Euro zone are sinking deep into financial crisis, the effects of which we are experiencing, and will continue to do so in the coming years. Amongst those who will be first to encounter the effects of the crisis are the eight to nine million North Africans living abroad, and this will have a direct impact on the transfer of funds back to their home country. In 2005, migrants in Europe sent 14 billion euros back to their country of origin. According to the UN’s Population department, in 2009, Algeria received $2,120,000,000 in funds transfers, Egypt $7,656,000,000, Morocco $6,730,000,000 and Tunisia $1,716,000,000 out of an annual total of $300 billion of funds transfers which represents a large item in the balance of payments and the GDP of countries in the South.

The threat of the USA-Israel bloc attacking Iran serves only to reinforce uncertainty and the risk of unrest in the region, and this has social and economic consequences. In addition, there is nothing to suggest that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be found in the near future.

Lastly, revolutions and insurrections in the region are characterized by religious conflict which is dubbed as ethnic or tribal conflict - within the Islamic tradition (Sunni and Shi’a) between Muslims and Christians (as seen in the tragic events in Egypt) and between Jews and Muslims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These conflicts exacerbated by prolonged support and interference from the Gulf States, Turkey, Iran, the Americas Europeans the Arab League NATO, and the procrastination of the States in denial of the crimes committed first by Gaddafi, and today by Assad.

2. Conceptual ambiguity and perceptions of neoliberal globalization

When we revisit the genesis of the social Forums, we are struck by the simplicity how of such a brilliant idea was implemented. It is clear that a democratic environment accounts for a lot, but it reveals many differences between our perception of the forums and that which prevails in the West and in Latin America.
The first Social Forum in Morocco took place in 2002, and we have now been involved in the process for ten years. The authoritarian and dictatorial governments that prevail in the region mean that we struggle to establish a space where we can converge. We are forced to work either clandestinely, or in exile, and at best outside a legal framework that is tolerated as much as it is repressed in controlled spaces. This is the first rift with the process, as it presupposes agreement on the part of the authorities in the WSF host country.

In these circumstances, it is clear that a space such as the WSF is only comprehensible as a place where forces that are suppressed by the State can converge, regardless of their ideological commitments, and the nature of their organization (NGO’s or political parties). This complicates adherence to, respect for, and assimilation of the WSF Charter of Principles. This was the case at the Tunisian Social Forum which was seen as a gathering of the partisan and non-partisan left, but also of Tunisian Islamists. In addition, after being banned by Algerian government, the Maghreb Trade Union Social Forum in Algeria had to be held on the premises of a political party. This is also the case for the presence of political parties at meetings in Egypt. Trying to make the WSF and the overall process into a space which excludes parties, in order to safeguard its autonomy, diversity, openness and to guard against the power struggles and hegemonic ambitions of current politicians that have not been able to undo their vanguardist tendencies or their bureaucratic cultures, means that from the outset, we are put in a position of conflict with the left, which accuses us of legitimizing a democratic façade, instead of making the WSF into an instrument for challenging power.

The third rift arises from the fact that under such conditions, it is difficult to provide a space which is not based on declarations and the political standpoints that condemn the regimes that are in place, and which does not call for actions for change in the system.

This context, and the perception of the function and mission of the WSF, means that the question that is central to the WSF (that of crisis in a capitalist and neoliberal system) is only touched upon lightly. This might be explained by the cohabitation of political and economic systems that capitalism and neoliberals suffer from, and which aspire to a savagely unfettered market, in a system dominated by an oligarchy that accumulates political and economic power, and which privatizes, from their position of power, public assets for personal and family benefit.

In addition to problems linked to freedom of circulation and the granting of visas, the demonstrations and world summits which are related to the G20 (that not many are aware of), and climate urgency (a debate that remains confined to universities and expert circles) are not the mobilizing factor. Fundamentally, it is social issues such as unemployment, access to basic services such as health, water, electricity, justice and education (as well as public service sectors that are undergoing a process of privatization that furthers the relentless march of capitalism) that draw people to political systems and democracy.

Given these facts, and contrary to what is happening elsewhere within social movements, we are not going through a phase of disintegration of the social forums cycle, rather we are in a phase of initiation and consolidation, with much work ahead, admittedly that will take place under critical conditions in terms of social, political, economic and financial issues.

3. Social movements that lack strength

Despite the dynamic nature of social movements in the region, it is important to note their weaknesses, which stem from the following:

  Fragmentation, either because of political cleavages which mirror partisan conflict, or because of thematic or cause-based approaches (movements for women’s rights, disabled rights, just economies, and particularly association movements) which remain isolated and refuse to take part in general systemic approaches outside those that are directly linked to their cause. The ‘diplômés chômeurs’ (qualified and unemployed) movement in Morocco which is one of the biggest in terms of size, strategic actions and suicide actions, limits itself to calling for integration in public services. The central issue of gender equality and the protests that it has solicited have been diluted and at times appropriated by authoritarian and dictatorial powers to counterbalance Islamist movements. This contributed to the isolation of one of the core movements of efforts to build a democratic society. The trade unions are either ancillaries of the dominant political system (as in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt) or they are involved in industrial sectors such as in Morocco and Mauritania, with a strong hold over the informal economy (estimated to be about 70% in Morocco).

  The policies of governments, international institutions and other financial bodies further this fragmentation by way of adopting specific legislation (micro-loans, economic interest groups, laws relating to informal teaching and control over the co-operative system) and financing that reinforces compartmentalization and transforms some organizations into service providers in order to subject them to the strategy of market integration.

  It follows then, that repression, violation of rights and in particular the right to form associations means that civil society has not been able to develop freely and autonomously. However, this does not mean that these movements have not been able to develop a strategy for change. In Morocco, the changes that have taken place (reform of personal statute, the recognition of cultural rights and the Amazigh language, new approaches to development, the issue of the fight against impunity, transitional justice, reconciliation, individual and community reparation, the fight against corruption) are the undeniable facts of civil society, in the face of fragmented and weakened partisan forces, and a lack of social anchorage that has led them to dishonest political compromises which cost them their credibility. Tunisia and Egypt are going in this direction with new associations and social movements emerging that are more and more engaged in the political and social domain.

4. What challenges do we face in holding the WSF in 2013?

The outlook appears rather chaotic and the solutions unclear. Despite this, great opportunities lie before us. We are living in a time that is completely different to anything the WSF has witnessed before.

a) Regardless of the outcomes, the actors and the conflicts of the current revolutions, there is no question of going back on these newfound voices, initiatives, aspirations to freedom and dignity, democracy and social justice.

b) There is now an unprecedented number of social movements, protests and demands; not only have these demonstrations now been present for over a year, they also argue in favour of peaceful demonstration, and have not degenerated into violent movements caused by State violence and Western interventionism. Instead they have grown and energized demonstrations and social movements, which, despite their corporatist nature, highlight the importance of social issues in a neoliberal system.

c) The indignés movement which spoke out against exclusion, injustice, the crisis and unemployment, and in favour of new forms of managing public policies captured the attention of people the world over.

d) Throughout the region, young people who were dubbed ‘disenchanted with politics’ initiated new forms of political action, organization and philosophy, but also a new strategy of communication which is also central to the practice, aims and philosophy of the WSF.

With these considerations in mind, were confronted with four problems:

a) The location of the 2013 WSF: We are more convinced than ever that the Maghreb-Mashreq region would be an excellent location for the next WSF. Apart from its geographically strategic position, it is the only place (aside from the USA perhaps) that can offer such an opportunity for political, geographic and cultural growth.

If Egypt is no longer possible, regarding the possibilities that remain and that would provide a minimum level of political stability for the WSF to be held, as we had set out in our Plan B, Tunisia provides the best environment for success at the next WSF.

This would mean sacrificing the Maghreb-Machrek Social Forum that had already been planned, as it is humanly, politically and financially impossible to run two forums (regardless of their format) in the same country within five months of each other.

b) The format of the 2013 WSF: It is important to review the format of the WSF. Quantitative aims may result in failure. What is important is the political and qualitative political impact of the next WSF, without imposing restrictions on participation. This could take the form of a WSF with multiple centres, which would lighten the load somewhat for local organizers. If we are to succeed at this this crucial stage, there must be a collective investment. Whilst the environment is socially favourable, its institutions are hostile, and there are some security risks.

c) Methodology: It is necessary to open a discussion on the methodology of the WSF in order to refocus the debate, and begin developing answers to the questions that preoccupy us, but also to find methods of common and global action that will stand up to those challenges that social movements fighting for dignity, democracy social justice, freedom and equality are facing. Ideally, on reaching the end of the WSF we would possess a ‘livre blanc, noir ou rouge’ that would outline the development of the main theories and practices in the struggle for democratic change: How, as a peaceful movement, should we manage our relationship with armed groups, with political Islam and Islamic political parties in power, with political parties, and especially those on the left? How should we react to the electoral process which is the best way (?) of peacefully resolving conflict resulting from power struggles? How can the Charter of principles be safeguarded whilst meeting the expectations of solidarity and involvement in the fight for democracy? How can new political practices and new forms of managing public policies be initiated? These questions will undoubtedly be reformulated around objectives that contribute to the dynamics of change.

d) Human and financial resources: Needless to say that the choice of either Egypt or Tunisia does not take away from the need for an international presence in joining a movement that came into the public eye hardly a year ago. Secondly, there must be sufficient financial resources for welcoming these international participants, and for holding the forum in a region that remains poor.

In 2005, when the Moroccan government reviewed its position on holding a multi-centre WSF in Morocco, we began the “processus continu” (or ongoing process). Since then, much has been achieved, and we are sure that the process will be reinforced in Tunisia, through integration of the region and through adapting to the challenges that we face. It goes without saying that if the proposition of Tunisia is adopted, an ad hoc committee will need to be put together in order to continue preparations with the Tunisian, North African and Egyptian social movements.