Of Llamas and Wikipedia… An Arab Spring, a European Summer? – 8 June 2011

This has nothing to do with Llamas or wikipedia really.. it’s a KoW in-joke, apologies..

I don’t know what the news is like where you live, but the international news in the UK is dominated by talk of Syrian crackdowns (and the presumably doomed attempt tonight to persuade China and Russia to condemn them in the Security Council), the reinstatement and then scrapping of the Bahrain Grand Prix because of the crackdowns and repression there (currently an estimated 47 medical doctors are being held in not-so-secret secret detention for having treated protesters and the widespread use of live ammunition to break up demonstrations), the vacillations of the Libyan insurgency/liberation and how much help we’re providing to the Libyans.. which appears to be more than we’d initially promised and the ‘election’ of some nit to keep running world football.. the said same chap who accused the English of not understanding ‘fair play’. We invented it no less! It says so on the third page of my 1823 edition of the East India Company Guide to Fair Play, complete with bren gun and rubber baton.

But what is entirely missing from my daily dose of international news (and associated analysis) is the prospects for a ‘European summer’. To find news of the Greek protests, which do not appear to have eased off, and which are increasingly acrimonious between the police and protesters, requires delving into the foreign press. The Greek protests strongly point towards a large disconnection between the Greek political and economic elites and ordinary Greeks who seem far less sanguine about public spending cuts than the British. It is far hotter there, of course, which is enough to shorten anyone’s fuse. But similar things have happened in Spain (where protesters have created a tent city in Madrid) to protest about the economic mismanagement, austerity measures and widespread unemployment, and there have been violent attacks on British holidaymakers in the Algarve, some argue, because of the rampant unemployment in Portugal, which have again caused protests. Thus far the Italians have restricted their discontent to students marching on banks in Rome in May, and voting out Berlusconi’s party in some of his key power centres.

However, one can see the seeds of a Arab spring contagion on Europe – the unifying themes of high unemployment, economic mismanagement from 2008 til now, politicians imposing austerity cuts on public goods mostly used by the middle and working classes,, city financiers seemingly still being paid rather well, and the general perception that worst is still to come. The widespread analysis that Europe is muddling through, forestalling a major economic crisis to provide Spain and Italy with a soft-crash-landing may carry a great of currency and caché with European political elites (and it may also be rational) but without the buy-in of the electorate (and really we’re talking about the young and politically motivated) there is trouble brewing up in Europe.

We are worryingly close to a repeat of ‘the 68’, but without an overarching political ideology. What unifies these protest movements are the objects of their discontent, and the transnational transmission of methods and ideas will mean that each of these movements retain their national character, and national peculiarities, but will also have a unifying thread of international collective action.

The disconnect between elites and ‘the people’ is worrying, because it is indicative of the extent to which our political, economic and even academic elites fail to understand the whims, desires and demands of the politically motivated elements of society. This fracture is ‘easily’ repaired by lowering the unemployment in the 19-27year olds, and somehow ensuring the corporations are taxed at the full corporation tax rates, and that those earning over £100,000 are paying their fair share of taxes and aren’t earning transaction based bonuses, but performance-of-investment based bonuses. Whether the relationship can be repaired quickly enough to avoid having created a discontented generation is to be seen. In the UK there’s not a great prospect that this group will be able to pay off their debts, or even take on a mortgage before they’re very middle-aged.. the good times, they have stopped. For intelligence and security agencies, managing the line between legitimate protest and civil disorder is painfully tight and sensitive. But failing to manage it properly runs the risk of alienating that group further.

My question to Kings of War readers is this: is there a universal thread running through the Arab spring revolts? Personally, I tend to think it’s overplayed and that there really are a large number of local grievances that have fed off the bravery of early ‘revolutions’. The bottled up angst against repression, the political motivation of being freed or being able to pursue Arabist or Islamist agendas has provided a false veneer of whole continent spontaneity, but the links can be found in the timings alone.Some of these enterprises are deserving of our support, others not. The  European summer, however, seems to me to have a large number of commonalities that make it potentially much stronger than the Arab spring. Your thoughts, as ever, are welcome.

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