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2 March 2011

Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.

By Laurie Penny

I’m standing in Euston Road with 150 anti-cuts protesters, who have occupied the thoroughfare after being wrestled out of Camden Council’s budget meeting by a solid wall of police. “London, Cairo, Wisconsin!” yell the demonstrators. “We will fight, we will win!”

As two rows of cops contain the demonstration, an elderly lady in a woolly hat hands me a pamphlet about a local unemployed workers’ caucus and invites me to pet her Yorkshire terrier. It’s not exactly Tahrir Square — but is the comparison with the Middle East uprisings really so crass?

For anyone who’s seen pictures of heads split open by sniper bullets in Tripoli, claiming a common cause can’t help but feel insensitive. The brave people of Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, after all, are fighting the sort of police states that skip the CS spray and stop-and-search forms and go straight to the torture and British-made machine guns.

Suddenly, it seems rather a luxury to be fighting a right-wing government that merely wishes to impose brutal cuts for which it has no mandate. Clegg and Cameron may be stabbing us in the back, but they’re not yet shooting us in the head.

The desperate workers and welfare claimants occupying their local councils, however, refuse to be told that their fight is of no importance simply because more violent standoffs are taking place overseas.

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“What we’re fighting here is very, very different from what they’re fighting in the Middle East,” says Jess, a 20-year-old activist. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight.”

Telling British protesters to stop whingeing because the fight for self-determination is more perilous in the Middle East is a little like telling people not to build soup kitchens in Britain because there are starving children in Africa.

There is nothing exotic, however, about inequality. It was youth unemployment, graduate unrest and soaring food prices that catalysed the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia; meanwhile, in Britain, where Muammar Gaddafi was a “close personal friend” of successive PMs, youth unemployment is almost as high as in Egypt. The demographic driving the resistance, moreover, is growing in every major world city: unemployed graduates with no future and the tools to build networks.

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance. Across the world, ordinary people are being denied a voice, shut out of work and education, having their dignity trashed. While armchair liberals express sympathy with protesters in the Middle East, workers and students in Britain have begun to express something far more powerful: solidarity.

Solidarity, the watchword of this movement, hashtagged and chanted across the world, is not about pretending that there’s no difference between a flashmob in London and a riot in Tripoli.

Solidarity is the shared conviction that while the disposessed lead vastly different lives across the world, those lives may yet lead them to the same place of greater freedom. It’s not just a word; it’s a weapon.