News / Europe

Inspired by Arab Protests, Spain's Unemployed Rally for Change

People take part in a demonstration in Madrid, May 18, 2011.
People take part in a demonstration in Madrid, May 18, 2011.

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Lauren Frayer

Thousands of demonstrators are occupying squares in major cities across Spain, protesting high unemployment and lack of opportunities for youth, ahead of municipal elections on Sunday. Many of them say they've been inspired by similar protests across the Arab world.

Protesters have been camping out in the capital's main square for days. Volunteers set up food and medical tents, adorned with homemade revolution posters. Someone pinned an Egyptian flag up overhead.  

But this is not Egypt, it is Spain. Educated but unemployed youth who are frustrated by the poor economy and perceived government corruption have taken over Madrid's main square, Puerta del Sol - inspired by similar youth uprisings across the Middle East.

Pedro Escol, an unemployed scientist with a PhD, surveys the scene around him - piles of sleeping bags, revolution banners and angry youth.

"This situation in the square reminds me of Tahrir Square in Egypt," said Escol.  "We are brothers with them. We are brothers.  We have the same problems."

Escol says he's frustrated. He has a good education, but can't find work. He thinks politicians here are corrupt. And he says he was inspired by what young Egyptians did back in February. They took over a public square for days, calling for change. And it worked.

"Now I understand, that to take a square like [a] symbol is a very good way to force the government to talk about it, because the square is from the citizens.  It's our square."

What started as spontaneous gatherings in Tunisia, and then Egypt, have now formed a blueprint for protests elsewhere - even in Europe. Calls have spread on Facebook for similar rallies among Spaniards living in Germany, the UK and Italy.

James Denselow, a Middle East expert at King's College in London, says protesters in Europe are copying some of the same tactics used in Cairo's Tahrir Square - exercising rights Europeans have had for decades.

"In European countries you've had free legitimate protests as an often constitutionally-protected right for decades, whereas in the Middle East this is incredibly new, which is a reason why it's proving so infectious partly," said Denselow.  "I think there's a feedback loop in the sense that European countries are using lots of the same methods and tactics as groups in the Middle East, no better so than online social networking and Internet tools to organize."

Denselow says that while their political circumstances have been drastically different, with dictatorships in the Middle East and democracies in Europe, some of the economic conditions for youth in both regions are remarkably similar. Some Mideast regimes have fallen, and European governments have had their own stumbles.

"These are educated young professionals who are finding a workplace that is not accommodating them, whether it's in terms of people with degrees or people struggling to pay for their degrees," Denselow added.  "There's been a government brought down in Greece and replaced quite quickly by another unpopular government, and problems in Ireland too. Each country has its own unique characteristics that reflects a reaction to those protests."

In downtown Madrid, Angela Cartagena is a volunteer on the protesters' quite savvy media outreach team, giving reporters tours of the protest camp. She says organizers learned lessons from the supply lines and that sustained Egyptian protesters in Cairo last winter.

"We have a legal commission, a communication one which I belong to, an infrastructure sub-commission also inside," said Cartagena.  "We have a cleaning committee, which I think is very important. They're doing a great job, they're taking care all the time, cleaning the square, everything."

Cartagena says demonstrators are even calling for a Spanish "revolution."

"It depends on your concept of revolution," Cartagena noted.  "This is a kind of democratic revolution, in a sense. Of course it's not a revolution like in the Middle East, the situation is completely different. But we are also trying to make a new democracy. They are trying to get [their first] democracy, and we are trying to get a new one - a different one, a better one."

Spanish protesters are angry about government austerity measures and high unemployment, and their voices are directed at all Spanish politicians, not only those currently in power. But local and regional elections are being held Sunday, and polls predict losses for the ruling Socialist Party. The next general election for parliament, however, is scheduled to be held by next March.

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