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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Mittelmeer Institut Berlin (MIB)

Young Tunisian activists' perspectives on the WSF 2013

“We are the youth in-between two periods” 


From 26 to 28 March 2013 the 11th edition of the World Social Forum took place in the Tunisian capital. Tens of thousands of activists from 4,500 organisations and more than 120 countries met in Tunis to discuss how “another world is possible”.


This year the World Social Forum (WSF) took place from 26 to 30 March 2013 in Tunisia, and thus for the first time – as many observers highlighted – in an Arab transition country. Under the slogan of “dignity”, referring to the Tunisian revolution, which had made the WSF for the first time possible in this country, more than 30.000 participants from all over the world debated, demonstrated and celebrated for five days at the Campus of El Manar University and in the center of Tunis about how “another world is possible”.

The resonance to this event within the German press as well as among activists has been as diverse as the topics and political claims brought forward during the WSF itself. While the dominant media discourse presented the WSF “made in Tunisia” most prominently as a battlefield of polarization between the governing Islamic party and its secular opposition, more nuanced approaches critically discussed the diversity, or randomness respectively, of its topics and questioned whether its form of organization is still up date. However, even among the latter, the question of neutrality and independence in relation to governmental and religious groups, as claimed in the Charta of the WSF, was a common theme.

But how – in contrast to this dominant media perspective, which is necessarily shortened and generalized here – have Tunisian participants perceived “their” first WSF? Three young activists, who we met in the context of our participation in the WSF, shared their ideas, critiques and visions about the WSF, Tunisia, and its revolutionary process.[1]


“We have to change this mentality”

We meet Samira [2] in the cultural space located between the two main entrance gates of the university campus, but outside the “paid area” of the WSF. With her young organization “Blech7es”, which aims to support, promote and connect young artists and musicians in the Tunisian cultural scene, she has put up a tent, next to the stage where young Tunisian bands provide the sound of the WSF all day long. Samira stands next to the table with self-made T-shirts carrying political slogans, books and bags. With the money they make here, they will pay the rent for a space for their meetings, workshops and concerts. It is very difficult to find a place for cultural events in Tunis, she explains, because “people are against culture. They think culture is something only for the rich people. We have to change this mentality”.

Asked about how the revolution has affected their work, she says that it has become easier to organize and to found associations. But there is still no real interest or support by the cultural ministry and the state, she adds quickly. “Why don't we do another revolution, for social reasons for example?” she wonders. For her, the revolution is not over yet, even though most of the people continue their normal life and are not active anymore. In her opinion, the WSF won't change anything. Instead, she argues it is important to work on cultural issues, to change this mentality. 


“No revolution. But a new type of politicization, maybe”

We meet Rafik at the other end of the WSF, sitting next to a fireplace at the self-organized “anarchist space”. It is the last evening of the WSF and we are waiting for the food of the solidarity kitchen. “We squatted this place near the migration space for the refugees, where we want to meet and discuss with others, and cook together”, he explains. He participates in the WSF only to support the refugees who came from the Choucha camp at the Libyan border[3], to inform about their situation and to fight for their rights. As a member of a solidarity group, Rafik has collected money for their transport and tried to make their participation in the WSF possible, because the WSF organizers did not officially support them. As a result, their bus was blocked on the way to Tunis by the military.

It is not the only critic, Rafik pronounces about the organization of the WSF in Tunisia, in which he participated from the beginning. He tells us about the internal problems, especially between big and small civil society organizations, about the difficulties of young associations that wanted to help in the mobilization and that brought new, alternative views in the process. “These young associations were excluded from the WSF preparation process because – as they were told – they do not represent the WSF, while the big organisations (among them the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the Tunisian Forum, Tunisian Association for Democratic Women (ATFD), the Tunisian Association for Research on the Situation of Women (AFTURD), the Union of Unemployed Diplomats) hired a private company to organize the forum, recruit and pay (!) the 'volunteers' and design the logo and website. All tasks which were offered to be done by young Tunisian activists 'for free' before.” For these kinds of reasons, Rafik quit the WSF organizing team and joined the Choucha protest, which he sees as a new type of politicization in Tunisia that only exists since 2011. However, he hesitates to speak about a “Tunisian revolution”: “it was more a spontaneous moment, and since Tunisian people are not very revolutionary but rather peaceful people, they have returned quickly to their normal life”.


“But we are optimists”

It is Saturday evening, the closing demonstration of the WSF is over, and we meet Jamel, a member of the movement “la Nouvelle Génération” at a roof top bar at the central street of downtown Tunis. “La Nouvelle Génération” was founded in 2009 by a group of students in Tunis to address the crisis of the Tunisian educational system, but  - taking the university as a mirror of society, as he explains us, – also debating on cultural, political and women’s issues. They are horizontally organized and base their work on initiatives, he highlights. Every two months they publish a cultural journal to promote their ideas, independently from other sources. However, “remaining independent is difficult if you are searching for funding. All the associations we asked for money wanted to include us in their political agenda. In the Tunisia of 2013, there is freedom of speech, expression and organization. But how to speak, publish and organize without money?”, he asks and tells us about their problems of communication and lack of money to rent an office or print information material.

He speaks of a “revolutionary process”, not of a “revolution”. It s not over, he highlights, just as Samira and Rafik did. “President Ben Ali left, but we still have the same system. There were no real changes in political and social terms, so that we must continue to fight, for independent media, for a real independent justice, for equality between the regions, for a better and more equally distributed educational system and for a real independent Tunisia”. Instead, he sees that change rather happened in the personal experience of people: “You can say what you want now, but the government also does what it wants. We are the youth in-between two periods. But we are optimists”.

In this respect, he also sees the WSF in Tunisia in a positive way, as an opportunity to show the world that Tunisia is a stable and secure country, so that the tourists will come back. “Also, it was great to meet so many activist from all over the world,” he resumes. On the other hand, he critically remarks: “we discussed many social problems without those people personally concerned, since the WSF only took place at the University campus in the capital, far away from the popular neighbourhoods where the Tunisian revolts started. Therefore, it was a forum of elites, students, professors, professional NGOs, rather than a real social forum connected to the real problems of Tunisia and its revolts”.


Listening to these three young Tunisian activists, this years WSF appears not only a as a platform for the “big questions” of an Arab world in transition, such as conflicts between Islamists and its secular opposition, between the old regime and young democrats etc., as it was so prominently brought forward in the international media. Instead the young activists’ perspectives help to understand the WSF in Tunisia, related problems and aspirations in the context of the everyday struggles of political activism since 2011, faced by this “youth in-between two periods”.


Inken Bartels, Project “Mediterranean Institute Berlin”/Humboldt University Berlin, in cooperation with Joscha Metzger.



[1] Text and translation of interviews by Inken Bartels (Project “Mediterranean Institute Berlin”/Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, Humboldt University of Berlin). Interviews were conducted by Joscha Metzger (Human Geography, University of Hamburg).

[2]  All names of interviewees changed.

[3] The Choucha Camp was opened in February 2011 at the by UNHCR to accommodate hundreds of thousands people fleeing the Libyan war towards Tunisia. While most of the refugees (about 20.000 in 2012) have been “resettled” through a UNHCR program or have left Tunisia on their own, about 1300 refugees still remain in the camp which the UNHCR wants to close in June without offering a solution for them.