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Supporting Syria’s revolution at the Tunis World Social Forum

By Marcus Halaby

Causes that you are on record as supporting sometimes have a habit of following you around. And so it proved to be with the Syrian revolution in Tunisia. I didn’t, I might add, go to the World Social Forum in Tunis with the sole intention of attending events on Syria; probably like most people, I had unrealistic ambitions of attending meetings on a whole range of topics. But all the same, Syria kept coming up.

As well it might. Syria’s revolution, like Libya’s, is as much a fault-line on the Arab left as it is internationally. Tunisia’s government – led by an Islamist party, Ennahda, that played little role in the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali – has broken relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and professes its sympathy with the revolution. This on its own is enough to make some Tunisian leftists and secularists suspicious of a struggle for democratic freedoms little different to their own, except in its intensity and prolonged duration.

To this might be added the baleful influence of Arab nationalism, in whose name Assad’s Ba’athist regime still claims to be defending “secularism” and “resistance” against US-backed “jihadists”.

There were pro-Assad marchers in evidence on the opening demonstration of the WSF on Tuesday 26 March, waving Syrian regime and Palestinian flags and praising Assad for his “support” for the Palestinian cause. We would later learn that these were Tunisians, members of a nationalist youth organization of Ba’athist and Nasserist orientation.

After attending a meeting on Syria the following day, at which the Syrian-based Palestinian Marxist Professor Salameh Kaileh called for a global campaign of solidarity to combat the lies and slanders against the Syrian people and their revolution, I was invited to an event on women’s rights and LGBT rights in the Arab world on the second day of the WSF.

But Syria came up there as well. One of the speakers was Razan Ghazzawi, a Syrian activist detained twice by the regime for her work in support of media freedom, and the Tunisian Ba’athists turned up to heckle, accuse her of being an “agent” (for who exactly left unstated), and claim that Syrian women were supporting Assad against the “jihadists”. They even criticized her for making her contribution in English, prompting them to ask her if she was “really” Syrian, a question that she turned right back at them.

The final day, however, would see them at their most provocative, physically assaulting Syrian and Brazilian activists at a pro-Syrian revolution stall, trying to seize and burn their flags and blocking off the exits from the venue while they tried to break out of the cordon placed around them by the official WSF volunteers.

A complaint made by Professor Kaileh, amongst others, to the WSF organizing committee was met with an announcement that there would be no more events on Syria for the remainder of the WSF – purely symbolic, given that there were only a few hours of it left, but still shamefully giving Assad’s shabbeeha international what they wanted.

We decided not to let this pass. Marching with a contingent of members of the (New Anticapitalist Party-aligned) French trade union Solidaires, and supported by Kurdish, Moroccan and European activists, we decided to hold a peaceful protest in support of the Syrian revolution on the WSF’s closing demonstration.

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