TUNIS - Following in the wake of the wave of revolutions dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, which originated here nearly two years ago, North Africa is gearing up to host the World Social Forum (WSF) for the first time.
While Egypt was initially considered for the role, organizers finally settled on Tunisia. Now, this country of 10.7 million people will welcome visitors from all over the world in March of 2013, in a gathering organizers estimate will number upwards of ten thousand participants.
Tunisian civil society is mobilizing on numerous fronts. Several large organizations have banded together to design the framework of the event, sending delegates to the steering committee, which serves to guide the preparations.
Forming the backbone of the steering committee is the Tunisian Platform for Economic and Social Rights, whose president, Abderrahmane Hedhili, along with the group’s project coordinator Alaa Talbi, play key roles in laying the foundation for the massive gathering.
“The World Social Forum will be a great opportunity for civil society in Tunisia,” Hedhili told IPS. “Especially from the point of view of bringing reconciliation to those groups with diverging points of view, finding new solutions for local problems and helping to establish the democratization process at every level, we see very strong potential.”
A number of working groups have also been established, overseeing issues such as women’s rights, youth and culture. Hedhili stressed that beyond the ‘showcase theme’ of the Arab Spring, a range of topics are on the agenda, from the global economic crisis to social, cultural, environmental and religious issues.
Amélie Cannone, co-chair of the Paris-based organization AITEC and a veteran of the WSF, has been following the developments and is moving to Tunis for several months to provide extra organizational support.
She recalled that “during the last WSF that took place in Dakar, Senegal, in February 2011, the fall of Mubarak was announced, and this triggered incredible joy and hope all over the floor”.
It quickly became apparent to all those present – as well as scores of activist around the world who had been closely following the Arab Spring – that the courage and determination of Tunisian and Egyptian activists should be honored by selecting a North African country as the setting for the next WSF.
As Talbi put it, “the Arab world is the new centre of social movements”. Thus the WSF can help strengthen Arab social networks and serve as a foundation for cooperation with international movements as well.
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So far, most of the energy for the upcoming meet has been coming from the capital, Tunis. But Marwen Tlili, a young citizen and social activist based here, felt that other regions of the country should not miss out on the excitement.
He gathered a small group of fellow activists and organized a bike caravan during the month of October, in an attempt to widely broadcast news of the WSF and reach out to local groups in towns such as Kasserine and the city of Gafsa, encouraging them to make their own contributions to the WSF.
By the end, the bike caravan had traveled over one thousand kilometers and disseminated information about the WSF in dozens of locations around the country.
“I think our caravan had a profound impact on those people we encountered,” said Tlili. “In Tunisia, to see a group of cyclists pass through your town is not as common of a sight as it may be in Europe or Canada. It impressed people and brought positive publicity for the upcoming Forum.”
Organizers also hinted at plans for more bike caravans ahead of the WSF, including possibly one caravan departing from Morocco and another originating in Italy. Both would chart a course bearing towards the Tunisian capital.
Cannone also stressed the importance of transnational cooperation, as well as the urgent need to mobilize youth and women, work that the Maghreb Social Forum has been doing on the regional level for several years already.
The ecological dimension will not be left out either, according to Cannone.
“The current economic model based on intense extraction of natural resources has been especially prevalent in the MENA (Middle East-North Africa) region,” Cannone stressed.
“Thus the WSF, which has incorporated a lot of people from the alter-globalist movement, will be sure to take the environmental problems seriously, and will promote a paradigm shift to local economies, including new models of production, social protection and decent living conditions for all.”
Tlili shares her enthusiasm about the potential inherent in such a massive event: “The World Social Forum should be an opportunity for people to change their lives. We want to encourage especially the youth, with the revolution fresh in their minds, to get active and to do positive things in their own communities.”