x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Tunisia may need a second revolution'

Inspired by the Arab Spring, thousands of activists have converged upon Tunis for the World Social Forum, but they are aware there's unfinished business.

Participants at the World Social Forum dance to drum beats on the sidelines of the event in Tunis.
Participants at the World Social Forum dance to drum beats on the sidelines of the event in Tunis.

TUNIS // A group of young men sporting berets and goatees stand under a string of Tunisian flags, checking the badges of streams of people pouring into Manara University in Tunis.

Reggae music hymning peace blasts out of speakers nearby, competing with noise from the "Free Palestine" tent village and enlivening a game of volleyball between young men and women from different countries, dreadlocks flying as they leap for the ball.

Welcome, comrade, to the World Social Forum, an annual conference of activists, social movements and others calling for a better world order. This year, the banners with slogans of peace, freedom and activism in French, Arabic, Portuguese, English, are fluttering in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab uprisings and an immense inspiration to revolutionaries worldwide.

"Every year we have a theme, and here, the inspiration is the Arab revolution," says Valérie Brulant, who travelled from France to join tens of thousands of activists manning stalls and holding workshops.

The last forum she attended was in Senegal in 2011, weeks after the Tunisian protests had toppled the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and just as Egyptians were rising up to oust Hosni Mubarak.

"We are so happy for them even if, for the moment, it's not finished," Ms Brulant says of her fellow Tunisian activists. "It's not the world they were dreaming of yet."

She is right. Although many Tunisians participate enthusiastically in the forum's sessions - from cartoons to citizenship, feminism to farming - their country has faltered since its uprising.

There are bitter struggles between secular and Islamist political movements, who unified to overthrow an autocrat but then found themselves with little common ground.

With its riotous flourishing of ideologies, the event in Tunis, however, seems the ideal forum for a confused country such as Tunisia.

Khaleel Teber, one of the organisers of the forum, is a handsome young man with a large, serious eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. Speaking in the downtown headquarters of the forum, a noisy and not very efficient place, he says that the event would have been unthinkable under Ben Ali.

"It was a dictatorship, all that obsesses them is freedom of speech and people meeting each other, and learning to make their country better," he says. But although the new government, an interim body tasked with writing a new constitution, has encouraged the conference and helped organise it, Mr Teber has no love for his new leaders.

"I think there's a will of dictatorship in the ruling party now," he says. "It cannot be hidden." In the office of the youth committee of the forum are pictures of Chokri Belaid, a recently assassinated secular opponent of the government, which is dominated by the moderate Islamist group Ennahda. "The World Social Forum has to do something against them," he says forcefully.

Mr Teber hopes that Tunisia's divided opposition will meet more professional, organised movements at the congress, and compete strongly in elections which are tentatively scheduled for November.

The forum is sprawling, with a haphazard approach to scheduling and locations. The chances of anyone feeling more organised after attending it seem slim.

"We are living in a space for freedom and democracy," declares Lotfi Mechichi, the dean of the university hosting the event, gesturing proudly at a courtyard where some people are stamping gaily on an Israeli flag, others are setting up bongo drums and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women leads a choir.

He acknowledges that there are strong differences of opinion here.

After a feminist rally at the opening of the event, a group of female scholars of Sharia stands outside distributing leaflets about the power of prayer and worrying about western influence on Tunisian women. Tunisian groups man stalls calling for greater democratic engagement, but a Turkish revolutionary socialist, Armazan Tulunay, a young woman with limpid agate eyes and a red kaffiyeh scarf, says that the Tunisians kicked out Ben Ali and maybe the time has come to kick out Ennahda, too.

"I think they need a second revolution," she says, dismissing the idea that an elected party has more legitimacy. "We prefer not to chose from bourgeois political parties."

But, says Mr Mechichi, the university dean, Tunisia these days - despite its growing problem of extremism, disillusioned leftist movement, ebbing police force and dubious judicial system - can handle these arguments and engage in debate. "This is the proof," he says, indicating the throngs around him.

"We are supporting strong messages," he adds. "How would we accept that after the revolution, there be no strong messages?"

 

afordham@thenational.ae