The packed lecture hall could have been anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in similar meetings, counter-conferences and teach-ins to build an international anti-capitalist movement. What was crucial about the World Forum on the WTO in Beirut in Lebanon last week was that for the first time the anti-capitalist movement had come to the Middle East.
As US cluster bombs fell on Afghanistan, activists from all over the world met to discuss building a movement to resist war and globalisation. At least 800 people crowded into the opening rally to hear JosŽ BovŽ and Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the leaders of the great struggles against French colonial rule in Algeria.
There were differing views about the WTO at the conference, and debates about the way forward. Ben Bella summed up the mood of many of the Arab activists when he told the crowd, 'We know that the WTO is only meeting in Qatar because it is afraid to meet anywhere else. We need to organise a movement which is capable of throwing the WTO out of the Middle East as well.'
Kanj Hamade, one of the organising team for the conference, says, 'As soon as we found out that the WTO was going to meet in Qatar, we began organising to oppose it, and to stop it meeting in the Arab world. 'Everybody in Lebanon knows about the anti-globalisation movement. People are really interested in the fight against international capitalism and the multinationals.'
Julia, another student activist on the organising team, said, 'We organised meetings and events in different universities to tell students about the issues of the conference. We set up an exhibition called 'Globalisation and Terrorism', with pictures and films. We have been showing the video of Seattle, and the BBC programme about Ariel Sharon and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.'
The conference created a space for activists across the Middle East to meet, debate and organise together. Human rights campaigners, trade unionists and anti-globalisation activists from Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Syria all took part alongside delegations from India, Africa, Europe and the US.
Trade unions representing agricultural workers from Lebanon's impoverished south organised three buses to the opening session of the conference. For many of these groups the debates of the last few days have been a rare chance to meet and discuss ideas and tactics openly. As a Syrian student explained, 'It is extremely difficult for us to organise. Our situation is full of contradictions. We have come to the conference to show our opposition to globalisation, but one of Syria's leading economists, who advises the government, has also been invited to speak. We know that we can't rely on people like that to stop globalisation.'
Members of the Anti-Globalisation Group from Syria electrified the atmosphere when they announced that the Syrian government had rejected the WTO and called for demonstrations in Damascus against the meeting in Qatar.
One of the group's activists took the microphone to announce, 'We have to leave the conference because we need to be out on the streets with our people who are demonstrating. We invite everyone here to come and help us bring Seattle to Damascus.'
The hall filled with applause whenever British activists spoke about the success of the anti-war movement. Lindsey German, speaking on behalf of the Stop the War Coalition, argued that anti-capitalists need to throw themselves into building the anti-war movement:
'Ordinary people stopped the Vietnam War. The US lost the Vietnam War twice. They were defeated in Vietnam, but they also lost the war at home because the American people organised against them.'
Many activists stressed the importance of using the example of campaigns in other countries to put an alternative to the barrage of propaganda from the WTO. The World Forum on the WTO shows that there is a new generation emerging across the Middle East which feels part of the anti-capitalist movement. Kurdish activists handed out a newspaper at the conference written by young people in Sulaymaniyyeh in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Underneath a picture of the anti-capitalist protest in Prague last year there were articles discussing the movement against globalisation. Meetings about the war on Afghanistan have been organised in a number of different universities.
The video from the protests at the G8 summit in Genoa will be shown alongside exhibitions of pictures from the anti-war demonstrations in London. The impact of the debates at the conference has gone far beyond the numbers who actually attended. Several of the debates were shown live on Lebanese and Arab TV, and the final declaration of the conference was printed in the major newspapers.
There is a new sense of hope. As a student activist said to massive applause during the final session of the conference, 'Capitalists in the Middle East and in Europe are all part of the same system. What we need is a movement of workers' unity across the world to smash this whole rotten system.'
Afghanistan and war on the world's poor
The war on Afghanistan dominated many of the debates within the conference. Kanj explained why, for many activists in the Middle East, resisting the war and resisting globalisation are part of the same struggle:
'People are conscious that there is a link between the anti-capitalist struggle, the struggle in Palestine and the resistance to the war against Afghanistan. All of these things are different expressions of the same capitalist and imperialist system.' Heather is a student from the US, and a longstanding activist in the alternative media.
She believes that campaigners in the US have a lot to learn from people in the Middle East: 'This conference has been a real eye-opener. Many of my friends in the US don't make the connection between the issues of oil, war and anti-capitalism. People here have been working on linking up the anti-capitalist movement and the anti-war movement.'
Many people in the conference argued that the war on Afghanistan is part of a wider war on all the world's poor. Globalisation is wrecking the lives of millions across the Middle East. Samer Hussein is on the executive committee of the Lebanese farm workers' union. 'Globalisation creates unemployment all over the world,' he said. 'In Lebanon the government is privatising the telephone system and the airlines. There are plans to privatise the state electricity company. This is an organisation which employs 20,000 people. The average size of a Lebanese family is five people. So that's 100,000 people depending on those jobs, and 100,000 people who won't be able to buy food or drink if those jobs are cut.'
It is clear that being part of an international movement has inspired people across the Middle East. As Samer explained, 'I know people in Europe are opposed to globalisation. I saw the demonstrations in Genoa, Madrid and Brussels on satellite TV. Globalisation affects everybody, whether they live in the North or the South. The war on Afghanistan means that it is more urgent than ever to build on that feeling of international solidarity.'