As tens of thousands of activists from around the globe converge on Tunisia for the World Social Forum (WSF), the annual counter-hegemonic meet where opponents of neo-liberalism, free trade and austerity rally together, there will doubtless be some hard questions asked about what more ordinary citizens can do to push for greater social justice.
Over the past three years, the planet has been rocked by some of the most extensive protest movements in more than a generation.
From Cairo to Dakar, from Wall Street to Nicosia, protesters can shake and occasionally even oust politicians, but contesting the global economic status quo is a far greater challenge.
The slogan of this year’s forum, which runs from March 26 to 30, in keeping with the spirit of Tunisia’s January 2011 uprising, is dignity.
Most Tunisians describe their uprising as a struggle for dignity – the term “Jasmine Revolution” was only ever used by foreign journalists. They have been demanding affordable basic necessities, the right to employment and to a more just and equitable society.
“We need to have economic reforms that work for the people, not for the global economy.“
– Mabrouka Mbarek, Tunisian parliamentarian
Romdhane Ben Amor, a spokesperson for the WSF organising team, told Al Jazeera that organisers had initially hoped to hold the event in Egypt, but had opted for Tunisia due to its comparative stability.
“It’s the first time the forum is being held in an Arab country,” he said.
He estimated as many as 50,000 visitors from 128 countries would be gathering to discuss shared economic and social problems. The forum will begin with all these participants marching down the streets of Tunis, the capital, on Tuesday afternoon.
The issue of public debt would be one of the main topics on the forum’s agenda, he said.
“It’s a leading dilemma in Tunisia,” he said. “There’s no work, prices are rising, the government isn’t able to invest in society, and it’s all because of the debt.”
IMF in the house
The alter-globalisation activists are not the only people to have paid a visit North Africa a visit in recent weeks. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also been knocking on doors in both Tunisia and Egypt, “assisting” the governments in both countries to introduce their standard set of “structural reforms”.
In addition to its existing public debt, Tunisia is currently negotiating a $1.78 bn loan from the IMF to help keep its economy afloat, and the newly-formed government may sign the agreement this month. Yet the reforms the IMF is pushing the government to accept would, according to some economists, make life even harder for a population that so recently rose up in revolt over economic misery.
“We need to have economic reforms that work for the people, not for the global economy,” Mabrouka Mbarek, a member of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, told Al Jazeera. “It seems they have forgotten our history.”
The IMF, as Mbarek noted, has already played a central role in the Tunisian economy for more than 30 years. Critics attribute these policies with perpetuating the kind of inequalities and systemic unemployment that pushed the young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire and trigger the events that toppled longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Even Tunisia’s bread riots of the early 1980s came shortly after the IMF imposed austerity packages. The economic policies throughout Ben Ali’s 23-year rule were ironically praised as a “miracle” by the international community. A report issued during the 2010 World Economic Forum exalted the country as “the most competitive economy in Africa”.
Ben Ali’s veneer of economic liberalism and secularism led the West to turn a blind eye to his regime’s endemic corruption, repression and inequality.
Some protesters carried loaves of bread during the January 2011 uprising, symbolising the growing unaffordability of basic necessities. Previous rounds of IMF-backed reforms had wiped out much of the country’s agriculture and industry, creating an economy that is now heavily dependent on imported goods.
The current set of reforms would cut public subsidies at a time many commentators argue the government needs to invest in the domestic economy to help fuel job growth. They would also lead to further increases in the already spiralling cost of living.
Mbarek says the IMF is pushing for the reforms to be adopted in an undemocratic way, without any debate by the country’s elected officials. In a country that has already been experiencing almost daily strikes and protests for more than two years over economic conditions, she argued that these types of reforms would sabotage public trust at a crucial time in the democratic transition.
“It’s in everyone’s interests for democracy to succeed in Tunisia,” Mbarek, a member of President Moncef Marzouki’s secular leftist Congress for the Republic Party, said. “It seems that democracy is an enemy to the IMF.”
Egypt, likewise, is struggling to service a $35 bn external debt accumulated during the Mubarak years, with more money going to Western banks than to the Egyptian poor.
Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing-director said during a visit to Mauritania in January that “the Arab Awakening must also lead to a private sector awakening”.
Lagarde did not mention democracy or government once in her speech, focusing instead on what she said was a need for the Maghreb region to do more to attract foreign investment.
Many of the participants at the WSF view the economic reforms being pushed through under pressure from international lenders in countries such as Italy, Greece, and now Cyprus, as being fundamentally undemocratic.
It is not by chance that in 2001, the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the alter-globalisation movement rose from a continent where emerging democracies had been forced to swallow IMF-backed structural reforms for the previous two decades.
Since that meeting, successive forums have brought people together under the shared aspiration that “another world is possible”.
Those gathering in Tunisia today hope that someday, economic policy will be written for the Mohammed Bouazizis of the world rather than the bankers.