Spain misses out on most lessons of Arab spring

Europeans, the young in particular, are just now waking up to the jarring consequences of years of austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. In Spain, unemployment has rocketed to some 21 per cent of the population overall and more than 30 per cent among the under-30s.

Demonstrators listen to a speaker at Madrid's Plaza Dos de Mayo May 28, 2011. Tens of thousands of protesters have joined those camped out for the past fourteen days at Madrid's Puerta del Sol, to protest against the government's handling of an economic crisis which broke out in 2008. REUTERS/Andrea Comas (SPAIN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST ELECTIONS POLITICS BUSINESS) *** Local Caption *** ACO12_SPAIN-ELECTIO_0528_11.JPG
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MADRID // A single misspelled sign in Arabic proclaiming revolution flutters amid all the others in Spanish demanding everything from world peace to social justice on a large wall in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square.

It neatly sums up the relationship between the ragtag band of protesters who have kept the square occupied for the past two weeks and the uprisings in the Arab world: slight and a bit uninformed.

"Of course many of us had a lot of sympathy with the Arab revolutions and it is close in time," said Ivan Martinoz, a spokesman for the protesters, who say that they have no clearly-defined leadership. But mention of the Arab uprisings as often as not draws a blank stare, and Mr Martinoz said that there were many different inspirations. "We looked at Iceland, for example. That was a great inspiration, how the people in such a small country rose up twice and threw out the government because they did not want to pay for the debt of the banks," said Mr Martinoz, a 37-year old audio-visual producer.

Europeans, the young in particular, are just now waking up to the jarring consequences of years of austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. In Spain, unemployment has rocketed to some 21 per cent of the population overall and more than 30 per cent among the under-30s.

Add to that dissatisfaction with what is seen as an ossified and unresponsive political class in many countries, a housing crisis as people lose homes they can no longer afford, and a growing gap between rich and poor and there lies a recipe for a hot European summer.

Yesterday the protests in Spain spread to more localities. And last Wednesday, the Spanish-style protests spread to Greece, one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis. Groups from Italy to northern Europe's more economically stable outposts such as the Netherlands, have announced "take the square" actions that echo the spirit of Tahrir square.

But many observers doubt that this will translate into a truly revolutionary movement. Simon Tucker, involved in social innovation at the Young Foundation in the UK, said at a recent gathering of social and new media activists that, "there will not be an explosion in the UK for now, there is not the same anger as in Greece and Spain. People are still relatively comfortable". But he does credit the Arab uprisings with helping young Europeans to overcome "a sense of boredom and alienation".

The protesters in Spain like to fashion themselves as revolutionaries and employ the language of the international antiglobalisation movement as well as left-wing and environmental groups. But there is no hard-core, militant youth in evidence in the Puerta del Sol and non-violence is emphasised at every turn.

The highly organised encampment resembles nothing as much as an easy-going, European summer pop music festival. It is a seemingly happy mix of guitar playing, travelling hippies and young to middle-aged professionals who provide the intellectual backbone.

While they acknowledge the differences with the Arab revolutions, such as the fact they have more freedom and are better off than the people in Egypt and Tunisia, some feel that they are also involved in a real uprising. "We are facing two dictators, not one. The two parties that always govern here are both controlled by the bankers," says Pepe Mora, a 31-year old cinema special-effects artist who lives in London because he cannot find work in Spain. He returned to Madrid and went to Puerta del Sol the day after the demonstrations started.

Such sentiments do not translate easily into a political programme and the protesters are struggling to come up with one. Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, who heads the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations says that this is a main difference from the Arab uprisings, where the initial goal was clear.

"Probably in Spain they have underestimated the extent to which Arab revolutions were more than getting together through Facebook. Because the experience here in Madrid is that these people are finding enormous problems to move beyond just gathering together," said Mr Torreblanca.

In fact, even the Facebook and social media aspect of the demonstrations seems to be different from what happened in the Arab world, where it was used out of necessity because other avenues were closed. One internet activist at Puerta del Sol said that his group had not studied the use of the internet in Egypt or Tunisia.

Such unfamiliarity with the details of the Arab uprisings is typical, says Lurdes Vidal at the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona. People have very little idea of conditions across the region.

More worryingly, sympathy with the Arab spring often does not extend to situations closer to home. "The uprisings in Arab world have given a new sense of dignity and honour, a positive fact in the eyes of the European, Western population but, at the same time, we have an internal debate on immigration, especially now with the economic crisis, and this has been very damaging."