A global intifada

2011-08-20 13:47

It would be hard to argue that the rioting that erupted in British cities this month was of exactly the same nature as the ongoing revolts across the Arab world or the massive social ­protests which have rocked ­Israel, Greece, Spain, Italy, ­Portugal and other countries.

The indignados – the angry ones – in each country have their own reasons to rebel. Yet they do all seem to have some things in common even though the mix of economic, social and political causes is clearly not the same everywhere.

Youth unemployment, social injustice, police brutality, the excesses of unregulated capitalism, the arrogant consumerism of the rich and the misery and helplessness of the poor, the widespread sense that the country’s resources are in the wrong hands and are being spent in the wrong way, and the alienation of much of the population from the centres of power – most of these factors are present, in one form or another, in the various places.

Almost everywhere, a single incident has been the spark that set fire to the tinder lying about. As is well known, in Tunisia it was the self-immolation of an unlicensed street vendor who was struggling to feed his ­family.

In Israel, a ­25-year-old video editor grumbled on Facebook that she was tired of spending half her salary on rent. Her moan was heard: tent camps sprang up across ­Israel in ­protest at the price of housing, the soaring cost of living and the 10 or 20 billionaires whose family-owned businesses control banks, insurance companies, supermarket chains and media companies, among other things.

In Syria, a nationwide rebellion was triggered when the ­police brutally manhandled children who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa. When angry parents protested, live ammunition was used to ­disperse them.

In Britain, a security operation against West Indian gangs in the poor London suburb of Tottenham turned violent when the police shot dead Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. His killing sparked an orgy of rioting, arson and looting which spread to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham,
Nottingham and Bristol.

In the Arab world, youth unemployment has been the main motor of the revolution, itself the product of the demographic explosion of recent decades.
In almost every Arab country, overcrowded schools and ­colleges turn out half-educated youths for whom there are no jobs.

In Spain, youth unemployment is said to be as high as 45%, and in Greece it is 38%. Little wonder that mass ­protests have erupted in both countries.
Israel has low unemployment but it has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the ­industrialised world.

One in four Israeli families lives ­below the poverty line.

According to a poll in the ­Jerusalem Post, if the leaders of Israel’s tented revolt were to form a new political party, they could win 20 seats in parliament, becoming the second ­political force behind the right-wing Likud and ahead of the centrist Kadima.

The fragmented Syrian opposition, too, would be well ­advised to form a political ­party. Rather than seeking to overthrow the regime by force – probably a doomed enterprise – it should hold the government to its promises of reform and challenge the half-century rule of the Baath Party at free ­elections.

While Israelis protest against the monopolistic tycoons that control large swathes of the economy, Syrians protest against the small group of big businessmen who have grown immensely rich while the middle class grows ever poorer and the masses struggle to survive.

In Britain, there was shock and outrage at the riots. The right wing of the Conservative Party has pushed for the police to be armed, and for the army to intervene if need be.

Half-a-dozen people lost their lives in the four days of ­riots and 1 800 people were ­arrested. What if a full-scale ­rebellion had broken out against the government?

 Decent, well-behaved, democratic Britain might not have ­responded all that differently from the autocrats in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
In Syria, there are said to have been some 15 000 to 20 000 ­arrests over five months and about 2 000 deaths.

When allowance is made for the different levels of development, and the very different political traditions, there seems little room for Western complacency or the facile condemnation of others.

Arab governments have been much criticised for shutting down the internet and social networks to prevent protesters gathering. But is this not exactly what British Prime Minister David Cameron has demanded?

“When people are using ­social media for violence we need to stop them,” he said.

Criminal gangs, he added, had been behind the wave of ­arson and looting. Is not this the very same language used by President Bashar al-Asad of Syria? He, too, has spoken of criminal gangs which have to be crushed.

In all the countries where the people have rebelled, the social contract has been broken and needs repair. A common sense of nation needs to be fostered.

But Britain’s leaders speak only of punishing the hooligans. In Syria, the regime is stuck in the criminal folly of killing demonstrators daily.

In Israel, the protesters have not yet focused on the real ­problem in their country: the occupation, dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians.
In every country, the underclass needs to be given hope or even greater violence is ­inevitable.

» Seale is a British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press)

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