Global Leftist Bazaar Visits Tunisia

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A Concert by Lara al-Olayan organized by the Palestinian Youth Delegation at the World Social Forum in Tunis on 29 March 2013. (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)

By: Jamal Ghosn

Published Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tunis – While the classifications of global north and global south are in vogue in leftist circles – in fact they were the officially adopted terms to divide the globe at the World Social Forum hosted in Tunis last week – attendance at the largest gathering of grassroots leftists organizations drew a different map of the earth.

Notably absent from the five-day event at al-Manar University were delegations from east of Iran, a chunk of the world where roughly half of the globe’s population resides. Also missing was representation from the former communist bloc.

There are a few logical explanations for this phenomenon: distance, the prohibitive cost of traveling, and the absence of “non-governmental” movements of this ilk in countries where the “Left” is or has been associated with the government. Regardless of the reasons, it does show that the nascent WSF, which concluded its thirteenth edition, is largely Euro-American-centric, even with its African excursions – Tunis 2013 after Dakar 2011 and Nairobi 2007. These are baby steps into lands that in recent history have been on the receiving end of “global solidarity.”

Palestine Unites

Palestine was heavily present at the WSF, from the opening procession on March 26 along Mohammed V Avenue to the closing Land Day march. If “Another World is Possible” was the overall theme of the anti-globalization forum, then Palestine was definitely the mascot of its Tunisia edition.

Portraits of hunger striker Samer Issawi in his wheelchair in an Israeli court adorned multiple walls of the campus. Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists from around the world got to compare notes. Many Tunisian groups would blast pro-Palestinian songs from their stands. Spontaneous pro-Palestine protests could be seen around campus at all times.

While a “Free Palestine” was a uniting goal, people differed on how to reach that goal.

A vocal group of Palestinian youth calling for armed resistance was cringed upon by the Abu Mazen authority representatives inside the “official” Palestine tent. Tunisian communists took offense at the presence of a banner portraying Khomeini at a Gaza photo exhibit and vandalized it. The latter incident was partly motivated by solidarity with the Iranian left, which is largely oppressed by the Islamic republic, but also a result of the built up contempt Tunisian left have against their own Islamist rivals in al-Nahda.

Syria Divides

“Jihad is in Palestine, You Religious Clerks!” That was the chanted charge often levied by the Tunisian Leftist Popular Front against Islamist forces and their calls for jihad in Syria. Tunisian jihadists in Syria was a dominant topic on Tunisian talk radio as news came out of a fatwa calling for women to take part in the jihad as sex servants. The veracity of this particular fatwa was contested, but the tensions between the Tunisian Left and Tunisian Islamists on Syria run high. Al-Nahda’s ties to Qatar, and by extension the Syrian opposition, shape much of the Left’s position.

But beyond Tunisia, Syria is still a very contentious issue in the Left. The anti-Imperialism versus anti-Oppression argument is still the dominant one and has not evolved much after two years into the crisis. A stand by the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution invited many questions about the revolutionary credentials of Syria’s rebels along with the wrath of many pro-Assadists. Many of the debates were heated, but the frequent visits by a disruptive group of self-professed “Shabiha forever” escalated the debates to confrontations, the last of which on Friday resulted in the beating of five solidarity campaigners and the destruction of their stand.

The Shabiha group was composed of Tunisian Arab nationalists who had set up shop at a tent a few meters away. They had the portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hanging on the side of their tent. They were questioned by visitors, often in a heated manner, on the reason they chose to put up the photo of Assad. The answer would almost always lead to the same loud chorus. One would question how the repeated chant – one that glorifies the monotheistic god, the nation whose borders were drawn by European colonizers, and the hereditary ruler – helps in garnering support for their cause in a progressive atmosphere, but then there were many causes that didn’t make much sense at the forum.

Governments of the Forum

Tunisian anarchists boycotted the WSF because of Tunisian government funding for the event. But that was not the only government involvement. For one, Tunisian informers sporting cheap aviator glasses and pleather jackets in typical Arab mukhabarat style were abundant on campus and along march routes. On the funding front, a lot of the “NGO” money spent to bring attendees to the forum could be traced back to governments or political parties. The development arm of Germany’s Social Democrats was present.

Iran was represented through many semi-official organizations that mostly specialize in Palestine. A contingent from the autonomy-seeking Ahwaz was vastly outnumbered.

The same cannot be said about the relatively small Moroccan official delegation, whose only concern was to assert claim to the Western Sahara and counter the colorful, numerous, and vociferous Sahrawi groups. It was a mismatch.

Perhaps, one of the most humorous sightings on the campus was that of a tent that carried the stamp of a certain “Kingdom of Humanity” in reference to the rule of the Saud clan in the Arabian peninsula.

An array of other minorities was also scattered around. The oppressed minority line is an easy one to garner sympathy, after all.

Brazil’s Petrobras was the most flamboyantly visible corporate sponsor. One of the cola-flavored soda giants had a shy and probably accidental appearance in one of the concession stands.

Event-led enterprising, largely absent in the days leading up to the WSF, strived as the days rolled by. Flags, pins, and t-shirt salesmen appeared in droves. Price gougers did too, mainly among taxi drivers and surprisingly, or perhaps not, at a Leftist pub that basically doubled its price for Celtia, a Tunisian beer, as crowds grew. “It’s not a Leftist pub. Leftists don’t go there anymore, it’s infiltrated,” said one radical young activist about this downtown Tunis watering hole.

Forum Revitalizes Tunisian Left

Outside the fences of al-Manar University, the Tunisian Left was feeling a jolt of energy. The assassination of Chokri Belaid in February was a shock to a fragmented and depressed Leftist scene that saw the Islamist al-Nahda rise to power after an uprising that was mainly led by labor unions and outlawed Leftist parties. It was seen as a wake-up call and the massive popular turnout for the funeral of Belaid was a snapshot of what a united Leftist front could be.

Tunisia’s General Labor Union was the main organizing force on the ground for the WSF. For a week, the various Leftist organizations had the Tunisian spotlight to themselves. It is yet to be seen if the momentum from the WSF would extend beyond the event, but most Leftist activists believe this is a turning point against the “Qatari-sponsored Brotherhood.”

However, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a friendly competition.

“Chokri Belaid is in hell!” A young Salafi yelled at another young man sporting a Popular Front t-shirt with Belaid’s image in a conservative neighborhood of Tunis. There was no response to the provocation, as this was “their territory.”

During the Land Day march at the conclusion of the WSF, Tunisian security forces scrambled to keep the Islamist marchers cordoned off from the Leftists, who were the majority on this day. That didn’t prevent a few sporadic altercations where Leftist youth felt the need to prove that they too have a territory.

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