Shortly after I moved to Madrid after visiting Cairo, an Egyptian friend tweeted solidarity with the hashtag #SpanishRevolution.
A revolution? In Spain? Was this his attempt to make my new home seem more exciting?
The link he posted led to video of a packed Puerta del Sol — a square in the center of Madrid. And so, someone 2,000 miles away introduced me to a major new movement just two subway stops from my apartment.
Three days earlier, on May 15, demonstrators across Spain took to the street proclaiming “Youth Without Future” and “True Democracy Now.” It was one week before regional elections and Spanish protesters, frustrated with high unemployment and bank bail-outs, took to the streets to express deep dissatisfaction with the dominant government parties.
A Global Movement
While obviously very different in sentiment than the protests in the Arab world — where demonstrators demanded the end of end decades-long dictatorships and stood up for basic human rights and freedom of speech — the Spanish protests gathered energy from these events around and were also fueled by a global movement, encouraged by social media.
Spaniards are no strangers to protest, and the slogans accurately expressed how many feel, especially those affected by Spain’s 21 percent employment rate — the highest in the European Union.
Stories of friends and family moving to other EU countries like England and Germany in order to make a living are common. They are often highly educated people who want to remain in Spain, but feel they have no choice or career options at home. Frustrated, several of my friends who participated in protests in the past, complained that they no longer thought it made a difference. They thought May 15 would be just another demonstration.
But, late-night clashes on May 15 led to the arrest of a few demonstrators, and once released, protesters went back to the streets. Within two days, the number of those marching, camping and assembling in squares all across Spain swelled.
Although the protesters are clear that they’re on the streets, not on Facebook, social networking quickly organized the movement and brought their demands to an audience far beyond Spain, including platforms that follow revolutions such as those in the Arab world. Online support from the global community caused the Spanish movement to flourish and encouraged the demonstrators camped out in the squares to stay put for more than the past three weeks. Here’s a photo slideshow I shot during the protests in Spain:
Although not as popular in Spain as Facebook, Twitter was an effective tool conveying news to the outside world. Hashtags in English such as #YesWeCamp and #SpanishRevolution were added to the ever-multiplying list of those in Spanish. New Twitter handles @takethesquare and @esrevolution_en tweeted news from Sol in English. The movement’s manifesto was immediately translated. Twitter users who closely follow the Arab revolutions may have been informed of the Spanish movement by tweets of support from popular users like columnist Mona Eltahawy and blogger Tarek Shalaby.
By May 17, a YouTube video of Egyptians offering advice and encouragement to the people of Spain began circulating on Facebook. A banner over Puerta del Sol which read “People of Europe Rise Up” was unfurled, but it was clear that the protesters in Spain were encouraging the world to rise up, not just Europe.
Inspired by what they heard about Tahrir, community-led medical clinics, nurseries, media centers, clean-up teams, information centers, classes, and popular assemblies were quickly created in the Spanish camps. Small two-man tents, blue tarps held up with rope, and homemade signs multiplied as the days went on — more striking, a newfound sense of self-empowerment, and belief in people power that may not have existed had the protesters not watched a revolution unfold on their television and computer screens a few months earlier.
Connecting Tahir and Madrid
Maria Sanchez-Muñoz, a 23-year-old Spanish graduate student living in Cairo, wanted to hop on the next plane home to be a part of the protests, but she couldn’t. Instead she followed what was happening via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the El Pais website. Like many others, she watched SolTV, which live-streamed Puerta del Sol during the first week of the camp. Two weeks ago, Sanchez-Muñoz and about 50 of her fellow Spaniards gathered in front of the Spanish embassy in Cairo, where they read DemocraciaRealYa’s manifesto. Though few Egyptians joined them in front of the embassy, Sanchez-Muñoz reported that her Egyptian friends have offered constant support.
“People here are really proud of Spanish people. Almost everyone I know has posted something about it on Facebook,” said Mohamed Wereida, a 26-year-old business consultant in Cairo.
Although headlines and images in the media have linked Sol to Tahrir, some Spanish are uncomfortable with the Tahrir-Sol comparison. Many I spoke with were clear that although the camp’s aesthetics may be reminiscent of Tahrir, the Spanish protests do not require the bravery and grave risk of the Middle East demonstrations.
“The real connection between Egypt and Spain is the way the protests are taking place. It might be the first time in Spain that this many people are acting after being called through a social network,” said Cristina Tellez, a 31-year-old unemployed graphic designer who lives in Madrid. “And the most interesting thing of all is that it is something the politicians can’t control. That is the most important thing we learned from the Egyptian Revolution.”
However, Basel Ramsis, a 37-year-old Egyptian filmmaker living in Madrid, suggested that Facebook and Twitter are not as reliable as people believe, calling Facebook’s ability to actually gather people “weak” after less than five people showed up for a recent demonstration he attended in the city of Granada. Ramsis, who was in Tahrir during the Egyptian revolution, and has been in Puerta del Sol nearly every day since May 15, added that “Facebook and Twitter have very important roles. They make people aware, but they do not make people attend demonstrations.”
Ramsis believes the public discussions that occur at the heart of the Spanish movement, the citizen assemblies, cannot happen on social networking. “It happens when people are in the street, not online.”
In the next stage of the movement, called Toma los Barrios, or “Take the Neighborhoods,” less focus will be on large encampments like Sol. Instead, smaller popular assemblies will meet (and are already meeting) in neighborhoods all across Spain.
Tellez learned of an upcoming assembly in her neighborhood from a poster attached to a street pole close to her apartment, not from an announcement on Facebook. Although she attended protests in Sol that were announced on Facebook, she said it’s now more likely that she’ll attend an assembly in her neighborhood. Tellez explained that she’s inundated by posts and invites on Facebook. She said that now, a paper sign hanging up in her neighborhood better captures her attention, and makes her believe her opinion truly does matter.
Michelle May is a Madrid-based travel writer and educational psychologist. She is writing a memoir about her experiences in the Middle East. You can read her blog here: www.meshelmay.com