Inside the Spanish revolution

“We want a new society. This one doesn’t work any more.”

There are thousands of people in Spain right now who feel that they are on the cusp of something very important – a revolution, even. The streets of Madrid are thick with a sense of optimism and hope, crammed with protesters of all ages carrying placards and posters, many scrawled with slogans such as "They do not represent us!" and "In defence of our dreams!".

The city's main square has become a tent city, occupied by groups inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. Everywhere you look, there are banners demanding change and "real democracy".

No one had seen it coming, not even the activists. What started as a fringe protest against rising unemployment and the Spanish government's multibillion-euro bank bailout escalated after several activists were arrested by police and held for 48 hours.

A demonstration against the arrests was organised in the city's main square, Puerta del Sol, and numbers soon snowballed when word got out over the internet. What began as a group of fewer than a hundred activists reached an estimated 50,000 within less than six days.

The protesters whose arrests had sparked the initial demonstration were released and immediately returned to the square. By the time they arrived, the demonstration was no longer just about their treatment at the hands of the police. It was about government corruption, lack of media freedom, bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and privatisation.

"We cannot find a job, we cannot find a house, we cannot find health from the state," said Alejandro Jalón, a 20-year-old student. "I am here because I think we can change something."

Consensus approach

The young people's sense of optimism is sincere. The protesters at Puerta del Sol are interested only in action, not rhetoric. In the square, they built a makeshift campsite, including everything from a children's nursery and a library to a kitchen offering free food donated by local businesses.

In the space of a few days they had created separate working commissions to form proposals for change to current government policy. A social and migration commission would look at immigration policy, the health commission would focus on how to deprivatise health-care services. Other commissions were formed to handle politics, education, the economy and the environment.

Among the camp's immediate demands were calls for electoral reform, the dissolution of the Spanish parliament's second chamber, and an end to a much-despised policy of "salaries for life" for politicians.

The movement itself has no single leader or figurehead; all decisions are made by consensus at general assemblies, held twice daily. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, attend the meetings, and no decision is taken until every single person is in agreement.

The meetings are long and laborious – occasionally lasting more than four hours at a time – but seem so far to have been successful.

"The leadership is our assembly, where the decisions are taken by consensus," says Nadia Moreno, 29. "Many people think that this doesn't work – the reality is we are where we are after six days because of this consensus."

Hopes for a new society

Although the movement is driven by highly political young people between the ages of roughly 20 and 35, a large cross-section of Spanish society appears to support the occupation of the square. There is a festive atmosphere, with families, music and workshops of every kind imaginable taking place throughout the day. Everyone who attends is encouraged to submit suggestions, using ballot boxes, to each of the commissions. All of these are later scrutinised, tabled and debated.

The organisers say that they think the huge success of the camp, which has since spread to more than 60 other Spanish cities, stems in part from what has taken place in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Egypt and Tunisia was a very important catalyst for the movement in Spain," says Beatriz Pérez, a 29-year-old spokeswoman for the movement who also acknowledges the influence of the recent UK student protests.

"I think the people are in the street because they have hope – that's the most important thing," she says.

The feeling of hope is such that many at the camp believe it could be the start of a social and political revolution. It is the first sign, they say, that the uprisings across the Arab world are about to spread across Europe.

Manuel Ferreira, a 66-year-old retired engineer, says the scenes at Puerta del Sol remind him of the student protests in France during the summer of 1968. "It's the same war against capital, against power, against politicians, against the establishment and so on," he explains. "It [the Puerta del Sol protest] is more significant, because through Facebook and the internet, this movement is worldwide . . . I think I am living a new world order."

The start of the demonstrations coincided with regional elections across the country, which the right-leaning Partido Popular (People's Party) won by a landslide.

At one point last week, an electoral committee assembled by the government declared the camp "illegal". But even though there were strong rumours of an impending police "clean-up" operation, and seven riot vans gathered at one side of the square, protesters have remained at all times in a defiant spirit.

"If they take us from the square tomorrow, the only thing that they will get is that they will make us stronger and we will come back stronger," says 22-year-old Juan Martín. "We want a new society. This one doesn't work any more."

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue