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Home / Resources / News / From Tahrir Square to Puerta del Sol: what unites Arab and European social movements

From Tahrir Square to Puerta del Sol: what unites Arab and European social movements


Photo: screenshots from “Back to the Square” and “The Square, the seed of occupy movement”

Article by Sarah Anne Rennick

In partnership with the Human Rights International Film Festival (FIFDH), European Alternatives organised in Paris a round table discussion on political mobilisation and social movements in Egypt and in Europe. Sarah Anne Rennick, a researcher on social mobilisation in the “Arab Spring” and the author of the following text, took part in this riveting exchange on how new forms of social movements have emerged on both sides of the Mediterranean and on how to achieve societal changes, together with Laura Enchemin (Indignados), Hicham Ezzat (activist in the Egyptian revolution), Shahinaz Abdel Salam (blogger and cyber-dissident) and François Pradal (journalist and member of Egypt Solidarity) 

The last two years have seen a flurry of protest activity and the birth of new social movements across the Arab world and Europe, and while on one hand these movements seem to concern ostensibly different struggles – Arab citizens in a fight against authoritarianism; European citizens mobilizing against economic contraction – one can’t help but notice important similarities between them. Most obviously, perhaps, are the motifs that the Arab and European movements share. The frequent donning of the Guy Fawkes mask, for example, or the common demand for dignity, are but a few examples. More strikingly has been the use of identical protest tactics: images of tent camps erected in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol and Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrate the proliferation of “occupation” as a common strategy of these movements. Such similarities are not mere coincidences. On the contrary, they reveal a process of diffusion of the Arab Spring not only across the Middle East and North Africa but also into Europe. These shared symbolic dimensions indicate the affinity that the various Arab and European protestors feel, as well as their own perception of each other’s movements as part of the same struggle.
While the targets of protest may vary between different countries, the overriding objective of the Arab Spring movements and those such as the Indignados in Europe is social justice. A distinct sentiment of injustice – whether it be political, socio-economic, or both – permeates these movements. The diverse protests demand nothing less than a recalibration of the social contract: a profound change in state-society relations, based on increased participation and redistribution, and towards a new vision of democratic practice. This common quest for social justice and the fight against political and/or economic oppression render the Arab and European movements remarkably like-minded. Yet even beyond their actual goals, the movements in the Arab world and Europe bare important similarities in their organizational structures. Informal and lacking clear hierarchy, these movements attest to a more fluid and horizontal form of internal decision-making. Moreover, many of these movements have emerged not from the efforts of seasoned activists but rather from movement entrepreneurs: individuals with limited prior political experience who took action thanks to innovative forms of participation as well as an acute sense of injustice. The movements of the Arab Spring and their counterparts in Europe have thus not only diversified how mass protest movements take place, but also the profile of activists. Their contribution to participatory politics and the reinvigoration of political consciousness is in itself a significant accomplishment.