The “miracles” of the Arab Revolution: Notes from the World Social Forum International Council meeting, Paris May 2011.

Among the incredible feats achieved by the revolutions that have been sweeping the Maghreb-Mashreq region in the past months, there is one that perhaps won’t make the news but is not less remarkable.  At the International Council meeting of the World Social Forum, held in Paris between the 25th and the 27th of May, presenting the work of the Expansion Commission, tasked with deciding the next venue of the WSF global event, its spokesperson told his colleagues the following. Never before, in the history of the WSF (whose first edition was held in Brazil in 2001), the decision regarding the venue of the next event had been so quickly taken with absolute consensus. The decision followed days of intense reflections and deep analysis of the regional events of the past months.

Whereas, particularly tense in the past (some still use the expression “they made a Berlin” to indicate a very confrontational behaviour reminding of the difficult debate to decide the venues of the 2009 and 2011 world events at the IC meeting held in the German capital in May 2007), everyone quickly agreed in Paris that the next WSF had to celebrate the Arab Revolutions and shall, therefore, take place in either Tunisia or Egypt. The uncertainty will be lifted after the elections will take place later this autumn in those countries and the regional outlook will become clearer. At the same time, the members of the Maghreb-Mashreq Social Forum will sound the ground to establish which venue could offer the best conditions to hold a global event of the size and importance of the WSF.

The process of reaching such consensus took an impossibly short time in the face of at least two previous applications to the IC by two other locations to host the 2013 WSF. Activists from Montreal and Santiago de Compostela had already, at the IC meeting held after the Dakar global event in February 2011, offered their cities as hosts and further offers were later made by Portuguese and Croatian activists. However, those activist unanimously converged with the growing consensus and after briefly considering the possibility of organising a multi-polar, distributed and decentralised Social Forum of the Mediterranean including perhaps both Tunis and Cairo alongside Zagreb, the final decision confirmed that the forum will take place in one location to be decided by the same activists of the Maghreb and Mashreq region based on regional considerations as analysed by local actors.

This decision followed the several remarks on the effect that the events started in December 2010 had on the WSF. Many activists noted that they gave the twofold opportunity to the WSF to project its political profile on the grounds of a practically universal convergence of intents and, on the other side, to engage and influence the regional process by supporting local activists and acting like sounding boards of their claims and struggles the world over. As an Egyptian activist noted, such engagement of the WSF and its transnational networks, acknowledges the crucial relevance of the Maghreb-Mashreq in global politics and the scope of its transformations whose reach may indeed contribute to change the world.

But no degree of over-enthusiasm prevented the members of the IC to reflect on the potential political implications for the activists of the region of the decision to hold a WSF in that region. But another Egyptian activist remarked that “what the revolution united, the WSF will not separate”. No conflict, it was promised from all sides, will mar the decision, later this year, on where to hold eventually the 2013 WSF. If divergences of opinion and political positions and strategies are widely acknowledged among the activists of the regions active in the IC and among them and their future local partners in organising the global event, nonetheless no alliance building, strategic bargaining and Machiavellian machination will shape the political work of the next few months. No Berlin will happen along the Southern shores of the Mediterranean.

The first session of the meeting was indeed entirely dedicated to reports from almost all countries of the region and to an engaged plenary conversation. A member of the Maghreb-Mashreq Social Forum introduced the conversation highlighting the recent developments in the region. He remarked how, whereas in Dakar in February the general atmosphere at the forum was of great excitement, even euphoria, things have greatly developed since, exposing challenges and the risk of a mounting counter-revolution in the countries where the insurgencies had prevailed (Tunisia and Egypt) and increasingly violent clampdowns in other countries affected by popular revolts.

This fast developing regional outlook shapes the contours of several challenges to the uprisings and the novel institutional arrangements advocated and struggled for by activists in the different local contexts. Such challenges can be grouped in the following broad categories: state violence and repression; foreign meddling; counter-revolution; and the so-called “Islamist threat”.

State violence is rampant in states like Libya and Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. In the latter cases state violence has either prevented institutional change and the demise of the regime (Bahrain) or greatly delayed it (if, as it is felt, Yemen’s president will soon enough capitulate) and exacerbated the intensity of the social conflict between warring factions. In the former examples, it has either caused the descent of the country  into outright civil war (Libya) or threats a human cost of enormous proportions (as it stands now, the deaths in Syria are reported topping 1400 and over 11,000 have been the politically motivated arrests by the forces of the regime).

Allegedly, in response to state violence and in accordance with the Right to Protect, foreign actors, mandated by UN resolutions and International Criminal Court arrest warrants have empowered NATO to directly strike as in the case of Libya, have heightened sanctions as in the case of Syria and have exercised varied but generalised degrees of pressure on all governments of the region. In several instances, during the IC meeting, the foreign powers’ genuine desire to help was vigorously questioned. But the profound reformulation of the regional geopolitical dynamics is not limited to a rebalancing or an aggravation of power relations between regional actors vis-a-vis “Northern” powers (mostly Europe and United States or the G8). Some activists even suggested that Tunisia might want to join the European Union and be taken into its political sphere of influence while, at the same time, the Gulf Collaboration Council (GCC) accepted Jordan’s membership application and invited Morocco to join its ranks in an attempt to widen its regional and global political clout. It was through the GCC that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia contributed forces and resources to suppress the Bahrain uprising.

Issues of hypocrisy and double-standards were highlighted and reference to neo-imperialism repeated. The combination of these predatory attitudes from outside and repressive forces from inside constitutes a dramatic grip that risks strangling the still consolidating social movements in the region both where the movement is still forming and struggling, and where it has succeeded in opening up the political system. A further challenge in this sense is constituted by process of differentiation that is taking place in the originally unitary movement against the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt.

The third area of concern is constituted by the counterrevolution. As many in Tunisia and Egypt repeat, the dictator has fled but the dictatorship is still in place. The forces of the former political powers are regrouping and recycling themselves in the new political processes and institutional arrangements. Moreover, they have resources and organised structures both of coercion and of cooption. These forces, as in the case of Bahrain for instance are fully supported by key regional allies of the ruling powers, in that case the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Tunisia, months after the revolution, plainclothes security agents have returned to the streets to indiscriminately beat peaceful protesters; media activists and even mainstream journalists are intimidated as the hiccupping transformative process advances along a bumpy road. In Egypt, activists are rather conscious that in the current political environment progressive forces are much less organised than their adversaries, namely the former members of the ruling party, that though disbanded and made illegal will still provide logistical infrastructure and the crucial networks to contest and win election as “independent” candidates, and the Muslim Brotherhood and its political offshoots. The resistance against the early elections (scheduled for September) was won in a referendum in which the parties who could most benefit from early elections outnumbered those who asked the interim military government to hold on to its transitional role until all democratic forces could formulate coherent strategies and learn to play the electoral game.

The forth challenge is widely referred to, not only in the countries affected but the world over, as “The Islamic Threat” (in bold and with great emphasis added). Activists at the meeting stressed that the revolts in the Maghreb-Mashreq were caused by a complex mixture of motivations linked to a) the deteriorating quality of life that for some reached the point of inability to fend for themselves and their families in the context of an aggravating economic and food crisis; b) a radical critique of the dominating role played by the international financial institutions and powerful foreign governments in global development regimes; and c) more broadly a denunciations of global imbalances heightened by decades of unfettered neoliberal market ideology imposed on their countries by those governments and international institutions with the collusions of corrupt local dictatorships. For the Islamists instead, though they are concerned with the imperial role of foreign powers, origins, implications and counter-measures to the regional predicaments have a moral foundation grounded in the teachings of the Qur’an. Their politicisation and the shrewd strategic alliances of Islamist activists with, for instance, the Egyptian military junta will certainly frustrate the progressive forces’ attempt to reform the state and ensure its separation from the domain of religion. Across the region, moreover, Islamist organisations can take advantage of decades of grassroots activism and mobilization and profuse financial support from the Gulf as stressed by a Tunisian activist.

A Tunisian activist vibrantly declared that the Islamists are a fascist force, profoundly anti-democratic. He stated that “there are no democratic Islamists”. He also acknowledged that there are different roles among the different groups, that there are those more trained to instrumental and disingenuous forms of dialogue and those who are more militant. But in the end both Salafists and the Mulim Brotherhood will come together as one to deny the victory to the people’s revolution and impose a confessional dictatorship. An Egyptian activist echoed his words stressing that “whereas people hope for a Turkey model [for Egypt and Tunisia] the Pakistan model could be around the corner”. For him “the Islamists don’t have any social agenda, if they go to parliament, they won’t defend the right to health or housing but they will talk about hijabs and against sexual freedom and other moral issues.”

Egyptian activists stressed their acute awareness of the high likelihood of an electoral victory by a complex coalition of Islamic forces and their strategic allies in the army the September elections. The issue is not limited to Egypt. In the whole region Islamic activists, brutally suppressed during the previous regimes, are conquering the centre stage of the political arena after decades of, more or less, clandestine existence. Progressive activists, as their counterparts abroad (and more reactionary actors in the United States and Europe), see with high suspicion Islamic activists. Others raised their voices to highlight that the Islamic movement is a galaxy of diverse groups only a fraction of which, namely Salafist activists, have positions radical enough to make them incommensurable with the demands of an autonomous state under the rule of a law constructed on the foundations of human rights and whose institutional configuration is determined by parliamentary deliberation by members elected in a free and universal suffrage.

In Tunisia, some activists suggested that stopping the Islamist advance will be the most crucial test for the nascent democracy. For such task a strategic alliance of radical, progressive and even liberal partners was being created. But a regional strategy was advocated: a process that lead perhaps to a regional meeting of progressive forces to take place maybe in Egypt and based on a minimal plan of action to save democracy from the risk of Islamist highjack. Memories from the past were referred to in order to clarify to all what the stakes were and what the risks: “We had a revolution in 1988” said an Algerian activist “and then we had a civil war that cost 150,000 lives!” This is not, and was not perceived as, scaremongering, but a real possibility against which some ideological intransigence will have to give in to a more pragmatic political approach.

At the same time the risk of demonising Islam must be avoided. “Reducing Islamism to obscurantism is wrong!” stressed an Algerian activist. Activists were just as firm on this aspect. A first step to establish forums of debate would be to engage in open and honest dialogues. Conditions for that dialogue to be truly genuine and transformative would be a more complex approach to the complexity of Islam, of its followers and of their political stances. Some also mentioned that Islam is Sunni, Shi’a, Druze and Sufi and that religious denominations draw an even more complex field if they start addressing the presence in the same region of Jews and Christians as a Moroccan activist energetically stressed. An Egyptian activist highlighted how the majority of Egyptians are Sufi Muslims absolutely foreign to the extremism of Salafist activists and not enticed by the politics of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

WSF’s contribution to the revolutions in the Maghreb-Mashreq

The revolution and all its complex dynamics will last years and during such long time span, it will suffer setbacks and counter revolutionary attempts. It would be naive to think otherwise. It is against this outlook for the medium term that activists have to be prepared and organise. It is in this context that transnational activist networks and global civil society forums could become tools of collaborative activism and spaces of debate and reflection. The World Social Forum could become one of such spaces of convergence and alliance building and its networks could constitute solid infrastructures of support to activists in the region. In particular, the Maghreb-Mashreq Social Forum, whose story is almost as long as the WSF itself and gathers dozens among the most active activist groups and networks in the region (Trade Unions, Human Rights organisations, women’s movements, peasant movements and a myriad of NGOs) will be a key referent of alliances and the catalyst of several events in the years ahead. In fact, activists stressed how, one of the most generalised political moods of the activists involved in the revolts was their distrust in political parties and traditional political organisations; the revolutions in the Maghreb and Mashreq do closely converge on many aspects with the wider alter-globalisation movement: its elaboration of forms of activism beyond hierarchical political parties and their attempt to instrumentally subsume each activist’s plight to their political manifesto and action agenda centred on the capture of the nation state, and towards new forms of political organisation facilitated by fluid practices of networking which reach transnationally but are constructed from the standpoint of local cultural dynamics and social struggles.

The following words succinctly and accurately mirror the evolving mood among activists in the IC, highlight the challenges faced by the revolutions and suggest possible ways for the WSF to contribute to the struggles of the people in the region. “In Dakar we were all excited and this morning, if I understand what I hear, it is not only caution but even depressing. We cannot let that happen. (…) The choices are Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh: these are the models. We must avoid that Pakistan and Afghanistan become the realities. What can WSF’s response be? The next two years must be considered as an emergency for the WSF process. It means that all meetings, whatever we do, we put it on hold and we focus on stopping the counterrevolution. All that we do in the world, in Montreal, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Galicia it has to be focused on that. A coordinated resistance from everywhere in the world. And in two years we can see if we won or lost, but we cannot just do nothing.”

The convergence of all activists referred above was repeated on this point as well. The WSF IC indicated that the next two years of the process will be articulated in the following manner. The next IC meeting will take place in Bangladesh in November after the South Asian Social Forum. The first IC of 2012 will take place in the Kurdish region of Turley alongside the Mesopotamia Social Forum in March and the following will be held wherever the next global WSF event will take place, either Egypt or Tunisia. Moreover, there will be a regional or perhaps a continental Social Forum in Tunisia in April 2012, a Solidarity Forum with Palestine in Egypt and perhaps a global seminar on the same topic in Brazil. In Montreal and Galicia, who had offered themselves as possible hosts of the 2013 WSF wide regional events will be organised which will focus on the revolutions and on the effects they have at the regional and global level as they contribute to develop alternative civilisational paradigms, migration patterns and labour and goods and services markets. In Galicia in particular, a global seminar is envisioned that will gather all the organisers of global, regional, continental and local forums to consolidate an extraordinary wealth of experience that spans over a decade a reaches to the four corners of the planet. And this may as well turn out to be a fraction of what the Social Forum movement can do in the two years to come, if we consider that in 2010 alone 55 events were organised by activists who recognise themselves as part of the global movement. In this light, it does not seem farfetched the statement by the Egyptian activist that suggested that the Maghreb-Mashreq revolutions may have started a transformative process that will change the whole world.

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