The 2013 World Social Forum in Tunis

A banner reading "Welcome World Social Forum" over which has been spraypainted "ACAB" and "Forum du Capital"
Banner, during the opening march of the Forum.

The 2013 World Social Forum has been an interesting experience: as with past Forums I’ve attended, it’s been huge, chaotic, and layered with different uses of the space and counter-protests. I didn’t go to many of the talks and workshops this time, because I was primarily interested in how the space was used: the power dynamics of where activities were placed, who was included and how, the difference between intended uses of areas and how they actually ended up being used, and so on. This is part of the broader Mapping Movements project that Tim Highfield and I are working on. I have far too many thoughts to digest just yet (and many pages of notes, and a whole heap of pictures), but there are at least a few themes that have emerged which I can cover in brief.

It will come as no surprise for those who know much about the WSF that in many ways the space replicates structures of hierarchy. From the opening performance, which began with long speeches on a stage that the audience were expected to listen to dutifully, through to the organisation of individual rooms, often in lecture format with a microphone tightly controlled by the facilitator, the space of the Forum does not quite lived up to the claims of horizontality that are so frequently made. There are also plenty of critiques of the consumerism of the Forum: expensive (by local standards) food, stalls selling knick-knacks, WSF t-shirts on sale.

Behind a screen two men meet and another talks on the phone.
People used empty spaces to talk, make phonecalls, and rest.

On the other hand, there is a significant difference between what the organisers intend for the space of the Forum, and how it actually ends up being used. At one end of the spectrum are overtly oppositional uses of space, such as the creation of an autonomous camp within the Forum and anti-capitalist, anti-state graffiti. There were also many uses of space which were not as the organisers intended, but which were not oppositional: workshops which spilled out from lecture rooms into the more open space of the corridor, or people sitting in empty rooms or under trees to rest for a while or to meet. There were also ‘alternative’ uses of space which were not intentional, but rather the result of planning gone awry – workshops that didn’t run because people couldn’t find the room, or because the facilitators didn’t end up making it to the Forum.

For me, writing perhaps more as an activist than as a researcher (insofar as it’s possible to separate out those roles), what is notable is the difference between the Forum as it is and the Forum as it might be. I have my doubts about the goal of the Forum, and remain unclear as to what many of the attendees get out of this international gathering when so many struggles must be strongly linked with a particular locale. But insofar as an international (or global, although the many flags waved at the Forum emphasise the former characterisation) gathering is useful, there are many ways in which it could do more to embody the politics which those involved The clocktower on Ave Habib Bourguiba, and Tunisian flags.espouse. The Forum might have a safer spaces policy prominently displayed (and created by participants). Participants might have picked up rubbish ourselves, and invited the women who were employed as cleaners to attend any forums and workshops they liked. Food could be cooked communally, and served in ways that avoided too much waste (although most of the plates and cups were paper instead of plastic, at least). There could be clear child-friendly spaces assigned, and accessibility could be prioritised.

I’m aware, however, that doing much of this is not easy, and will always be a work in progress. Given how recently most autonomous organisations were banned in Tunisia and the challenges which Tunisia still faces, the effort which was put into the Forum was impressive. Many volunteers gave their time and energy, and I am particularly thankful to those Tunisians involved in the Forum (either formally, or in a more oppositional or informal capacity) who were patient with my lack of French or Arabic. The Forum was meant to be held in solidarity with Tunisia’s revolution, so perhaps the best measure of its success is how Tunisians evaluate it. How effective was it as a space for Tunisians to talk about what comes next, to make links with each other or with organisations around the world, or as a support for the revolution? What did Tunisians want from the Forum? Of course, there will be no single answer to this. As the chaos of the WSF subsides I look forward to seeing what Tunisians thought of it and what, if any, long-term effects it might have.

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