News / Europe

'Arab Spring' Inspires Protests in Europe

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Henry Ridgwell

Mid-January in Tunisia and thousands of protestors throng the street of the capital Tunis. Anti-government demonstrations that began in the small town of Sidi Bouzid culminated in the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Then, similar protests took hold in Egypt, forcing President Hosni Mubarak from power.  And as demonstrations gathered momentum, they became known as the "Arab Spring."

Mary Kaldor was part of the opposition movement in Hungary during the Cold War.  She is now professor of global governance at the London School of Economics.

"People assumed that somehow the Middle East was different and that was based on assumptions that somehow Islam is different, 'It's not like us.' And that was an assumption that underpinned the war on terror, too. And I think what's so wonderful about the Arab Spring is that it's disproving that assumption. It's showing that Arabs are just a democratic as everyone else," noted Kaldor.

Just as the Arab Spring was building momentum, protests also erupted in parts of Europe.

In Athens, thousands of people demonstrated against the Greek government's package of spending cuts and privatizations - taking over Syntagma Square outside parliament.

"It's all about, I think, a failure of representation, a feeling that the political class is one class, 'We can't influence them, it's outrageous that they're suddenly saying that we have to pay for what the banks did.'  And I think that there's a similar feeling of outrage in the Arab world," added Kaldor.  "So I think there are very many similarities between what's happening in Europe and what's happening in the Arab world."

In London, British protesters railed against their government's austerity measures.  And such scenes played out in other parts of Europe, too.  In Madrid, protestors occupied the central Puerta del Sol square, in a self-proclaimed emulation of the demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square a few months earlier.

"I think there are clear differences for what's going on in different countries," explained Owen Tudor, international secretary for the Trades Union Congress in Britain. "We're talking about democracies in Europe, dictatorships across much of north Africa.  But many of the causes of what's happened have been very similar. It's about the economic crisis."

Tudor says unions were key in instigating strikes in Egypt that led to the fall of President Mubarak.  European trade unions are increasing support for their Arab counterparts, and receiving advice from the Arab street.

"They have also, in their turn, been coming to Europe, talking to trade unionists in Britain, across Europe, and have been an inspiration in many cases to people and saying, 'You can build support, you can win these arguments,'" added Tudor.

Some observers see the Arab Spring grinding to a halt in Libya and Syria.  But Professor Kaldor says the protests have already changed the geopolitical landscape of the Arab world.

"1989 brought an end to the Cold War. I think what 2011 did was to sideline the war on terror. It marginalized al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden may have been physically killed in Pakistan, but he's been politically killed by the demonstrations in the Middle East," she said.

The end result of the protests in Europe and the Arab world remains uncertain.

But analysts say 2011 will be etched in the memory as a year of momentous change.

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