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6. The Mediterranean Spring

September 3, 2014

In this post the Spanish-Syrian blogger and activist Leila Nachawati recounts her participation in Spain’s indignados (15M) movement in the wake of the Arab Spring, as well as her efforts to explain this movement to friends and colleagues in the Arab world and the United States. In doing so, she draws parallels and contrasts between the new protest movements that were born in 2010-2011 on both shores of the Mediterranean. I have abridged, translated and adapted the text below from an interview with Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid towards the end of 2011. This is the sixth instalment in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website (in Spanish, see also the interview transcript here). In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

20_leila-nachawatiMy name is Leila Nachawati. I come from Galicia, a region in northern Spain. I am of Syrian descent on my father’s side. I live and work in Madrid, where I write about human rights, freedom of expression and the social dimension of technology for media such as Global Voices, Al-Jazeera, El Mundo, and [1]

For me, Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement was a collective awakening. I read a Guardian piece that nailed it. The author said something like: “Who cares where we are going? It’s so great to be on the move”. It is a feeling of moving at last after a very long period of stagnation, of paralysis.

I believe in people taking to the streets when they feel strongly about an issue. For instance, at the time of the Iraq protests in 2003 I was living in the US and took part in several marches against the invasion. The mood was gloomy. By contrast, the atmosphere at Spain’s 2011 protests was completely different, it was festive and I felt really happy.

The first few days

After the 15 May 2011 marches across Spain calling for ‘real democracy now’ we all experienced the same “I’m not alone after all” euphoria. We all had the same urge to come out to the streets and share this feeling.

There were some overwhelming episodes, such as the moments of silence. Then, on the eve of the Day of Reflection that preceded the elections, we let out a collective silent cry at Madrid’s central square, Puerta del Sol. A more personal special moment for me was when my mother called me to tell me that she had spent a whole Saturday afternoon discussing local issues with her neighbours in Santiago de Compostela. To realise that what we had started in Madrid had spread to the Santiago street where I grew up was very moving. I could picture my neighbours, men and women of all ages, discussing the issues that most concerned them. It was something that had never happened before, at least not in this way.

I remember the month-long Puerta del Sol occupation as if it was all one enormously long day. I’m not sure what happened when – it has all become a blur. What remains are the sensations: a feeling of happiness, of being out there in the streets, spending time away from your computer, of going from asking for things via the internet or Twitter to having people right there, in the flesh. We had a need to touch one another, to be there physically, sharing the experience. There is an Instagram photo of me taken by my friend Quico. He’s added in a dusky red hue, and that’s how I actually remember that particular moment, even though it was nighttime. You can tell from my face that it’s one of happiest days of my life.

There have been difficult times as well. I would say we reached our lowest point in August 2011, during the Pope’s visit to Spain. I was saddened by some people’s overreactions to the visit, which where used by sectors of the mainstream media to criminalise 15M. This episode left me with a bitter aftertaste.

The Mediterranean Spring

Arab citizens, too, have awoken, in their case from a silent submission to autocratic regimes that had long enjoyed international legitimacy. These dictatorships banked on strong economic, political, diplomatic support from their foreign partners and were handed down from fathers to sons as if they were hereditary monarchies — or rather, hereditary dictatorships. A whole generation had fought them when they came to power but there came a point when that generation thought that change was unattainable. For many years there was no progress. All attempts at overthrowing these regimes had been brutally repressed without even allowing them to evolve.

As a dual Spanish-Syrian national, it was incredible to experience simultaneous mobilisations in both countries. Whilst Syria descended into an orgy of blood, torture and repression, in Spain there was much less repression but the same kind of awakening. The potential consequences of raising your voice in a dictatorship and in a democracy are, of course, radically different. When comparing the two cases, you also begin to value more our achievements here in Spain in the post-Franco era. These should never be glibly dismissed.

In June 2011 I accompanied a group of Tunisians who came to Madrid during one of the final days of the encampment. As they strolled around Puerta del Sol and saw the camping tents, the aesthetics of the posters and street art, the hand gestures, and all the other civic expressions, they were deeply moved. Some even cried or had goose bumps as they heard echoes of what they had lived in Tunisia, where it all started, in a very different cultural setting.

Being of mixed Mediterranean descent, I was thrilled to witness how the Other, the Southerner, was now seen in a new light. For the first time in my life, the images were not about violence, war, illegal migration or poverty but rather about dignity, freedom, and peaceful demands. The Mediterranean South was showing the North how to carry out a peaceful mobilisation.

New ways of participating

The 2011 protests were different from earlier ones in their new forms of participation and communication. In Spain we all saw how the citizens themselves or smaller, more nimble, media such as Periodismo Humano were able to capture events on the ground from the very beginning. Meanwhile both the traditional media and political institutions found it very hard to understand and interpret these events. The citizenry not only made history, but also wrote it, narrated it. The traditional media tapped into these sources for their own coverage.

The situation in Syria is extremely difficult. Most journalists are barred from entering the country. Only handpicked journalists can enter under strict supervision and they are carefully guided to those places that the government wants to show the world. For decades the foreign news media were not allowed in, so they were unable to report on what was really happening. Under such conditions it is hugely significant that citizens can now be not only witnesses but also narrators. They have become aware of the importance of telling their stories to the rest of the world. They know that if they don’t do it, nobody else will. This is a historic development in that it tears down the propaganda walls erected by repressive governments.

The convergence of video platforms such as YouTube and mobile phones has played a crucial role. In the Arab world not everybody has internet access but virtually everybody owns a mobile. At a demonstration, wherever you see more than a few people, you almost see more mobiles than hands. Everybody is busy recording the event. Then they share these contents, sending them to media such as Al Jazeera, uploading them onto their own platforms, or sending them to contacts overseas to do it on their behalf. When you share events in real time, this can attract more people. In Egypt, for example, Twitter was a used very effectively to draw people to demos: “Join us, we’ll all be there at 5 pm!”.

It is the first time in history that demonstrations – or rather, revolutions – follow a schedule, a plan. “On 25 January we have a revolution”. They would phone one another and say: “Let’s meet on Thursday. Let’s put everything else aside because on Thursday we’ve got a revolution!”. Which they actually had. They planned it and spread the word via both traditional and new media. Tools such as Twitter and Facebook were very useful in the first countries to rise up, such as Egypt. In the case of Syria, social media were more about telling the outside world what was happening rather than about mobilising people, which happened via traditional channels.

A decentralised movement

Thanks to the internet, Spain’s 15M was perhaps the most decentralised movement of all. The decentralisation and chaos that were so integral to the organisation of 15M mirrored perfectly the way the internet works. While movements in other countries had specific Twitter hashtags (one per country or event), in Spain these were countless – and constantly changing. That is why people who were not embedded in the movement went mad trying to understand it. It was something that you could only understand from the inside.

So we went from a very broad #SpanishRevolution hashtag to #acampadabcn for the Barcelona encampment, #acampadasevilla for the Seville encampment, to hashtags for smaller towns, almost villages, and so on. This expanded to places outside Spain via tags such as #acampadabuenosaires or #acampadajerusalem, even to countries far away from Spain such as Vietnam where you wouldn’t have expected it. Via the internet, and especially Twitter, you could gauge the reach of this global movement and get a sense of its decentralisation, which made it impossible to follow the various national struggles from the outside.

Freedom from cumbersome tech

15M presented small media like Periodismo Humano with a great opportunity. I am proud to have worked with a news organisation that achieved such superb coverage with very limited resources. It was quite an experience to see colleagues use a simple mobile phone to cover events as they unfolded. I vividly remember, for instance, my colleague Juanlu Sanchez running around trying to find a spare battery for his mobile. He depended on his mobile for his streamings, which were viewed in real time by thousands of people around the world. These viewers relied on Juanlu’s ability to keep his arm raised – and on his battery. Later some of the images he recorded went viral. Millions of people saw them, and they ended up in the New York Times.

That freedom from cumbersome tools allowed us to do a better job. I recall seeing a journalist from one of the traditional media organisations carrying a huge tripod. He was trying to join the event but didn’t know how to, or where the action was, or who to talk to.

15M viewed from afar

I was recently at the annual conference for Arab bloggers held in Tunis. I gave a presentation about Spain’s 15M movement. They had all experienced protests or uprisings in their own countries. Yet I still found it difficult to explain it because you have to have lived in Spain in the past few years to truly understand it, to realise that that kind of citizen participation was truly a novelty. It was particularly hard to talk to people who had lived through atrocious dictatorships and bloody repressions about Spain’s problems and why there, too, there was an urgent need to take to the streets and demand change.

My Arab colleagues saw themselves as the forerunners of Spain’s indignados. They had all internalised what had happened in Tunisia, how it then spread to Egypt, Spain and Wall Street and became a global citizens’ movement. They got very emotional when I played the song “Llegan Voices”, which is about the voices that travel from South to North, and how suddenly the North starts listening to the South.

Sometimes outsiders got the impression that 15M protesters had no concrete proposals. Two questions that cropped up time and again, including among friends in the US, were: “What exactly is it that you want? What are your demands?”. In America that happened before the movement spread to Wall Street. They now find 15M much easier to understand. After all, the demands are quite similar. They have to do with corruption in our institutions, with finding new forms of participation and political representation. With Occupy the meaning and significance of 15M have become a lot clearer.

A civic-minded movement

Thanks to the 15M movement we are no longer apathetic, no longer alone. We now feel that there are things we can do, indeed, that we must do. More than anything, it is a feeling of waking from a long lethargy. Politics has ceased to be a taboo subject or something we should leave to politicians. It affects us all and therefore requires that we get involved.

The movement has probably made a lot of mistakes. But I don’t think you can really expect accountability from such a diverse, leaderless collectivity. I don’t know how we could have done it any better, given that we all have our own unique trajectories, personalities, worldviews, politics and hopes. In the end, 15M was a lesson in civic-mindedness.

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[1] This last sentence is adapted from



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