Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

The West can learn harsh lessons from Arab Spring

While President Obama was in London extolling the Arabs for seeking the kind of democracy enjoyed in the West, the Spanish were occupying the main square in Madrid demanding the same things as the Arab protesters.

'Break the shackles of the past' was one banner seen among the tents of the 'indignados' ('the indignant'), while a more literary effort declared: 'If you don't let us dream, we won't let you sleep.'

Of course, you can draw too closely the parallels between Madrid and Cairo. A lot of Spanish angst - as Greek anger - has been caused by the financial crisis and the measures taken by their governments to cut the deficits.

But this is not a repeat of traditional union-led, Left-wing organised demonstrations against government of the sort we have seen so often in the past. Far from it. The peculiarity of European politics at the moment is that the revolt against cuts is directed against anyone in power to the benefit of the party in opposition.

The Spanish protests are not a Left-Right affair. Rather, like the Arab movements, they are demonstrating against the system and the parties held to be part of it.

The means of organisation - through social networks - is also the same as in the Arab uprising. The occupation of public places and the establishment of committees to handle food and rubbish draws on the north African example.

Some of the causes are also the same. Spain now has the highest rate of unemployment in the EU, with youth unemployment of 45%. The banking crisis has exposed - as in the Republic - a system in which financiers, developers and politicians hug each other all too closely.

Spain isn't on the point of revolution, any more than Ireland, or even Greece. But a situation in which the young feel excluded by existing political structures is not a sustainable one.

Looking around Europe, it is hard to find countries in which you couldn't see the similarities.

To claim that we in the West should congratulate ourselves on an Arab Spring which looks to us as its example is just to misunderstand its nature and our response.

The protesters in the Arab squares are demonstrating against autocracy and corruption. The demonstrators in Spain are saying the same about their democratic structures.

Where it all ends, no one knows. Theoretically, democracies should be more adept at adjusting to changing pressures.

But looking around America and Britain, that is an optimistic assumption at the moment. The Middle East has risen up just as the West has stumbled down with the financial crisis and recession.

There is no sign at the moment, in its leadership, that Western democracies see a way of re-invigorating themselves and giving hope to the coming generation. Rather, the measures taken to cope with the financial crisis are doing the opposite.

Far from it being a moment for self-congratulation, the Arab Spring should be causing us to look at ourselves and see what lessons it has for us.

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