Trafalgar into Tahrir?

Picture of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, EgyptAnti-cuts campaigners plan to turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square | World news | guardian.co.uk

I am planning to attend the march organised by the Trades Union Congress this coming Saturday (26th March), but I am very uneasy about the plans to organise spin-off events including the shutting-down of a number of shops in the West End and occupations of Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square. In the first case, some people attending want to get through, hear the rally and go home, and do not want to get caught in a police “kettle” intended to contain the disorder manufactured by fringe gangs of lunatics (the sort of groups which often get infiltrated by MI5 or Special Branch anyway). Among those attending are a large number of disabled people who are going to have personal needs to see to fairly soon after finishing the march, and getting penned in for several hours is going to be bad for their health.As for turning Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square, I’ve been to rallies in Trafalgar Square and remember one particular incident in which George Galloway exhorted the crowd to shout solidarity with the then besieged Fallujah (it was generally believed, rightly or otherwise, that those holding it were al-Qa’ida). The response was not particularly enthusiastic. Anyone familiar with the recent history of the Middle East, particularly the dictatorships outside the Gulf region, knows that the difficulties people are facing in the UK right now do not come close to what prompted the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt — we are not living in a police state, we have a free press (certainly compared to anything found there), we don’t have “emergency laws” which allow people to be locked up for years for no real reason by military tribunals without any appeal (or just locked up without any trial at all), we are not forbidden from wearing what clothes we like as long as they’re decent (traditional Muslim dress is effectively banned in several Arab countries, particularly for men).

Yes, bad things are happening. It’s worth demonstrating to protect the mobility allowance for disabled people, and to save community centres that provide activities for local elderly and disabled people from being closed. But if a group of people decide to provide these services out of their own pockets, are they going to have their doors kicked in by the secret police, their computers and equipment seized, and the organisers carted off to jail? No, they won’t. People have been locked up in some countries for things which would not be considered out of the ordinary here, because the state recognises that this is dissident activities (such as organising screenings of Gandhi). These conditions don’t exist in this country, and nor do the stifling corruption present in both Tunisia and Egypt under the régimes that recently fell, so talking about Tahrir Square just smacks of overblown revolutionary rhetoric. To anyone who’s experienced a really repressive political atmosphere, it’s offensive.

As for closing shops in Oxford Street, these people could do this any time, but choosing the day of a big demonstration simply detracts from the power of the demonstration and makes life difficult for anyone who wants to get on with their business (perhaps after the demo). I’ve been uneasy about this kind of activity since my sister had a narrow escape from a McDonalds which was attacked by a mob of “anti-capitalists” a few years ago in London. They have had years to build up a head of steam for their revolution but only manage brief and pointless bursts of violence. Some might say demonstrating achieves nothing, but that kind of activity will achieve one thing — curtailing other people’s right to protest, while leaving the system they claim to despise intact.

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