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WSF in the Arab world

Sarah Mersch / sst
March 25, 2013

This year's World Social Forum (WSF) is the first of its kind as it's hosted by an Arab Spring country - Tunisia. Local activists hope it will boost the democratization process.

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis (photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Activists are expected to come together in Tunis to attend the World Social Forum (WSF), which kicks off on Tuesday (26.03.2013). This year's motto is "dignity" - just what people on the streets in Tunisia were fighting for some two years ago, chanting "work, freedom and dignity."

Tunisia's hosting of the forum has great significance, according to Mouhieddine Cherbib, a member of the WSF's organizing committee. "After the revolution, it certainly means a lot," he said. Asking questions about issues regarding social justice, economics and security in order to raise standards is important, Cherbib added. These discussions wouldn't have been possible under Ben Ali's dictatorship, he said.

Tunisian people take part in a demonstration (photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
The revolution is not quite over yet: protests after the murder of a secular opposition figureImage: AFP/Getty Images

"You have to imagine that a worker from Redeyef [a mining region in Tunisia's southwest] was unable to meet his German, French, Belgian or Mongolian counterparts. But today he can meet them, Cherbib said. "And that's exactly what the WSF is aiming for."

The questions raised at WSF panels are also at the heart of Tunisia's debates on democracy and justice, he added.

High expectations

The WSF was launched in 2001 as a counter conference to the World Economic Forum in Davos. More than 3,000 workshops, demonstrations and concerts are scheduled to take place in Tunis this week. Organizers expect up to 50,000 participants from around the world to discuss globalization and labor issues, women's rights and other matters concerning the future.

A women's meeting and a mass rally leading the protestors to Tunis' city center marks the start of the forum on Tuesday.

People play instruments as they attend the first day of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (photo: Jonathan Heckler, Agencia Freelancer/AP/dapd)
Demonstrators at the World Social Forum in 2012 in BrazilImage: AP

There won't be a special focus on the Arab world, but many members of Tunisian civil society are hopeful that the forum will boost the local democracy movement. The fight against extremists and an exacerbating economic crisis have battered the country. "Our process toward democracy is moving very slowly. I hope the forum can contribute to improving it," Cherbib said.

Troublesome logistics

Women's rights activist and board member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights Halima Jouini got involved in preparations for the forum to strengthen the country's transformation.

"We want things to change. We want more social justice, gender equality and democracy," she said, adding that Tunisia shouldn't have to endure dictatorship ever again. "We hope that this forum will allow us to take a deep breath and continue the fight for democracy and participation with regained strength."

It's the first time that Tunisia is hosting such a big event, and organizers faced numerous problems. Some of the half a million euros ($650 million) promised by governments and international donors have still not been paid. Accommodating participants from developing countries who can't afford hotel rooms is also a challenge. One thing, however, worked in their favor: Tunisian airport ground staff called off a strike at the very last minute.