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Much in common between UK and Arab protests, says Cambridge academic


London: The call by British protesters to transform Trafalgar Square in London into Cairo’s Tahrir Square acknowledges that the struggles in the Middle East and those gathering momentum in Britain “share a profound connection,” according to a Cambridge University academic.

“Both are movements of the disempowered many against the small groups of wealthy elites who run our world, often in charmed collusion,” says Priyamvada Gopal, whose research interests include colonial and post-colonial literature.

“It is simplistic to assume that protests in the west and the Middle East are fundamentally different because ‘they’ are fighting ‘blood-soaked’ despots while ‘we’, after all, live in liberal democracies.

Student activists, joining Saturday’s mass march against government cuts, said they are seeking to copy protests in the Middle East and North Africa, by making Trafalgar Square the focal point of 24-hour sit-ins and rallies this weekend.

Gopal, who lectures at Cambridge University’s Faculty of English, said claims all young Arabs only want free elections is “untrue” and were a generation seeking to “redeem the full promise of freedom from colonialism, which was never only about getting rid of western rule.”

“Those calling on protesters in the west to look east actually have it right. The extraordinary levels of social and economic vulnerability impacting ordinary people from the American midwest to the Middle East have shared origins in the global concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands,” she said.

“It is time to dispense with the myth that only western capitalism can teach the world to be free and to turn instead to those people who are drawing on the anti-colonial struggles in their national histories to fight for dignity and justice.”

The academic contributes to the teaching and supervision of postgraduate students at Cambridge in such masters’ courses as English Studies: Criticism and Culture.

In an article published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, she argued that if imperialism once played itself out across racial and geographical lines, it is now a “global economic system which affects us all, albeit in different ways by exploiting labour, expropriating and privatising resources, concentrating profits and institutionalising inequality.”

“What unites the interdependent ruling elites of Britain and Bahrain is the priority they give to the entitlement of the few at the expense of the many, often embodied by dodgy business deals,” Gopal said as an example.

In the West, she said, ballot boxes were provided but “elected representatives feel free to ignore mass demonstrations and work against the general wellbeing, deploying lies and hysteria where necessary.”

“It is perfectly possible to crush collective demands, push millions into unemployment and deprive people of fair wages and benefits while adhering to democratic letter if not spirit.”

“Both capitalist democracies and dictatorships use political means to concentrate wealth, power and privilege. In Britain and the US, the right to fight corporate power collectively – and effectively – through unions is under ongoing attack,” Gopal said.

“In Britain, the state uses demonisation, brute force and disproportionate punishment to contain mass demonstrations and talks of making some peaceful means illegal.”

She argued that turning Trafalgar into Tahrir was sharing vision and taking ownership of our societies “against the increasing absolutism of corporate power and privilege, wherever it manifests.”

“This not about the ‘us’ of the west versus the ‘them’ of the Middle East, but that more fundamental clash between the barbarism of economic plutocracy and the civilisation of social justice.”