Something historic is happening in Spain right now. Indeed, we might be seeing the early stirrings of the Arab revolts spreading to southern Europe.
Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have descended upon Madrid’s central square, the Puerta del Sol — and in parks and squares in over 50 cities throughout Spain — to protest against rampant unemployment, a lack of economic opportunity and a political and economic system that persistently privileges the concerns of the financial sector over those of the people. All of this comes just days ahead of Sunday’s local elections.
What the disillusioned youth of Europe has been saying for months — and what was greeted at the time by many skeptics as utterly unrealistic — is finally happening: the Arab spring appears to be coming to Europe. As we observed in a piece that was written on the day after the first protests in Cairo, the uprisings in the Arab world were never just about ‘democracy’, as Western liberals would have it.
Instead, they were motivated to a great extent by economic anxieties, especially amongst the region’s unemployed and disillusioned youth. Given that Spain has some of the highest youth unemployment in the world — at 45 percent it is more than twice as high as it was in Tunisia or Egypt at the time of their revolutions — it was just a matter of time before the revolutionary wave would cross the Mediterranean and lead to protest across southern Europe.
As in Greece, draconian austerity measures, by depressing growth, have only added to the nation’s economic woes. Spain has not yet required the punitive EU-IMF bailout that Greece, Ireland and Portugal have all been subjected to, but the government’s attempt to stave off such a bailout has virtually enslaved its economic policies to the opinion of the IMF and foreign investors.
Next to these predominant economic concerns, the Spanish are confronted with a political system that limits the choice of the people between a corrupted conservative party and a co-opted socialist party. Agitating against this ‘sham democracy’, Spanish youths have become increasingly skeptical of their ability to affect positive change through the system.
Instead, youth organizers rallied an impromptu protest last Sunday, May 15th, under the banner ¡Democracía Real Ya! — real democracy now! — which mobilized over 130,000 protesters participating in some 60 cities throughout the country. Ever since, the M-15 movement, as it has come to be referred to in the Spanish media, has occupied central squares throughout the country, refusing to leave until its demands for real democracy are met.
In Madrid, despite a violent attempt by police to evict demonstrators (which only strengthened the resolve of the protesters — a Tahrir-style protest camp was set up, replete with tents to shelter from the sun and rain, furniture to sit and sleep on, speakers to relay important messages and rallying songs, as well as an improvised communications center. The square has been re-dubbed ‘Plaza de la Solucion’, and activists have hung hundreds of protest banners around the square.
¡No hay pan para tanto chorizo! There is not enough bread for so much sausage — or, for so many crooks, as Spanish slang would have it — was just one of the signs, along with those calling for revolution and a European popular uprising. “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep!”, “the system is the problem!”, and “nobody expects the Spanish revolution!” were some others.
Today, the electoral commission banned the protests starting tomorrow, as Saturday — the day before elections — is meant to be a day of reflection and campaigning is banned. The interior minister has vowed to keep up the ruling, in an ominous sign that the peaceful protests might escalate into a violent confrontation with police. Increasingly, the events are starting to look like a re-run of a familiar script.
Yet Zapatero’s ‘socialist’ government finds itself in a tough bind, for it can’t be seen to crack down violently on legitimate popular concerns just days ahead of local elections. This will make tomorrow (Saturday) a crucial day for the movement. Will the government start a crackdown? If so, how will protesters respond? If not, will protests continue beyond the elections? And if so, what shape will they take?
For an answer to these — and many other — questions, please keep following ROAR. We’ll try to keep you updated as good as we can about the largest protest movement to have rocked Europe in a long time. These are extremely exciting events of possibly historic dimensions. If the revolution ever spreads across the Mediterranean, it will be now. And the honor will be with the Spanish for having provided the spark.