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Beginning in Tunisia, 2011 has seen the large parts of the world convulsed by
protest. The Middle East and North Africa, Europe and the United States have
each witnessed challenges to existing power structures not seen in decades, in
some cases centuries.
The protests have various proximate causes. In Egypt and Tunisia world
commodity price movements causing inflation in markets for basic foodstuffs
were significant. In southern Europe policies of austerity aimed at saving the
Euro are fundamental.
In the United Kingdom and US decades of stagnation in real
wages for ordinary people coupled with fury at the financial system in general,
and investment bankers in particular, have been prime motivators. Yet despite
these differences there are also fundamental similarities.
The protesters are leadlerless. Some, for example in Syria (Hamza Ali
al-Khateeb) and in Tunisia (Mohamed Bouazizi), are inspired by individuals. But
these individuals are martyrs, not leaders.
This can be witnessed in the long and torturous policy discussions held at The
"Occupy" protests in London and New York. The agenda of the protests is chaotic
and poorly defined, but being leaderless also imparts a great strength. When a
group has a leader, if that leader can be eliminated or discredited the protest
is weakened. That is not a possibility with a leaderless protest.
These protests are also greatly aided by new technology. Communication is
online, there is little by the way of great speeches, Twitter hastags being
more significant. As the protesters are generally much younger than the elites
which they oppose, greater use of new technology is inevitable.
Finally, the occupation of public space, taking over city center squares,
remaining there day and night until some set of objectives can first be agreed,
then attained, is the signature modus operandi. This form of protest may or may
not be new, but it feels new. Both the protesters and the elites feel it is
That makes it as good as new. Since the industrial revolution, the Western
world has been at the forefront of human development. In simple economic terms,
in methods of production and communication. In the arts, in political and
personal freedoms, thought and philosophy. Perhaps most importantly through
European imperialism the West came to dominate the globe in a way no single
cultural bloc had ever done before.
Much has been written about how China is set to become the world's dominant
economic power, thus striking a blow against a keystone of Western dominance.
This can hardly be denied. Much has also been written on the implications of
the revolutions across the Middle east and North Africa, the Arab Spring.
One effect that has inspired rather less comment has been the spread of this
type of protest to the West. Western media largely report the Occupy wall
Street protest as the inspiration for other protest across the world. But this
new form of protest took the ancient route out of the Arab world, through
Inspiring the young Spanish Indignados to occupy squares in cities
across their country, before moving across the Atlantic to America. There is
little, if anything, new in the "Occupy" protests that was not already present
in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
While it is not correct to say nothing new has come out of the Arab world in
recent times, it is a very long time indeed since the West has followed the
Arab world. For all the bellicose rhetoric of Islamist fundamentalism, Osama
bin Laden could scarcely dream of such success.
It has been noted the loss of compliant dictator allies in the Arab world could
diminish Western influence. This change, however, represents not just renewed
confidence amongst Arab nations, but a blow to Western intellectual and
political leadership. The protesters may not acknowledge or even be aware of
the leadership of the Arab spring.
That will not alter the facts. Some Wall Street protesters have remarked that
there is greater freedom of assembly in Cairo than in New York. In London, they
camp outside St Paul's Cathedral because protest at the Stock Exchange or the
City is simply not permitted.
In North Africa the protesters have removed the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia.
With the North Atlantic Treaty Organization acting as an auxiliary air force
the regime in Libya has been annihilated. In Bahrain the protests were crushed
with the support of troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
How successful they can be in the West remains a matter of conjecture. The
extent to which the euro crisis is successfully managed must be of critical
importance. As will the management of the ongoing financial and housing crisis
in the US.
The quality of Western political leadership fails to inspire, in the European
Union and on the Capitol in Washington individuals seem to prefer the political
safety of deadlock to radical action. Yet while the Arab protester could cry
out for democracy, those in the West are left with less inspiring rhetoric.
Perhaps the Western protesters need a form of inspiration more familiar to
their Arab counterparts. If the authorities seek to make an example of some
individuals in order to end the protests, they will create martyrs. That could
be the factor which transforms the discontent into something more focussed and
I am no more inspired by the methods of the Western police in London and New
York than I am by those of the politicians.
Dafydd Taylor is a UK-based political analyst.
(Copyright 2011 Dafydd Taylor.)
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