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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



The long-term impact of the new protest movements

August 24, 2014

In early 2011, the Spanish blog entrepreneur Julio Alonso joined other netizens in switching his attention from internet issues to his country’s profound economic and political crisis. The story below recounts this transition as well as giving us Alonso’s particular take on the indignados (15M) movement, shaped by his technological expertise. It is translated and adapted from an interview by Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid towards the end of 2011. This is the fifth instalment in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website. In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

09_julio-alonsoMy name is Julio Alonso. I am the founder and CEO of Weblogs SL, a company that manages digital publications written by a 250-strong editorial team. Currently we maintain more than 40 specialist publications in Spanish and Portuguese which are followed by some 13 million unique users every month.

I hold an MBA from the Rotterdam School of Management (1994) and a Law Degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (1991). I am also MBA “Honoris Causa” by the Escuela Europea de Negocios (2011) [1].

I like to think of the 15M (or indignados) movement as a frame of mind shared by a vast number of people. 15M was a collective realisation that Spain’s political system is broken. This is a system that serves the powerful, not the people. As someone put it on Twitter: “The problem is not that the system is corrupt but that it corrupts”. Back in the pre-internet era this system may have been the least evil option available, but in the 21st century it no longer meets people’s needs or aspirations.

Internet freedoms

I arrived at the 15M movement through the online protests against the ‘Sinde law’, a copyright law drafted under US government pressure. It was eventually passed in January 2011 and we Spanish netizens thought it would erode our freedom of expression and invade people’s privacy [2]. So a group of us wrote a manifesto on Google Wave, a platform that no longer exists. We could have used Google Docs, another tool that allows a lot of people to co-edit a document by adding a paragraph here, changing a verb there, modifying the text as they go along.

The manifesto was very widely shared. Numerous people joined the effort and republished it on their own blogs or webpages. However, we were unable to mobilise people on the streets. The one time we tried to do this, there were only 500 of us.

These days we like to talk about ‘internet freedoms’. Yet as the internet becomes ever more central to the exercise of our freedoms, this phrase will soon become ‘freedoms’, full stop. When our protest failed to mobilise people offline we realised there was a limit to what we could do as amateur campaigners faced with professional lobbyists. We concluded that the only weapon at our disposal was voting. If only we could influence Spanish voters, perhaps politicians would start paying attention to us.

Read more…

The five modes of self-tracking

August 8, 2014

John Postill:

By Deborah Lupton

Originally posted on This Sociological Life:

Recently I have been working on a conference paper that seeks to outline the five different modes of self-tracking that I have identified as currently in existence. I argue that there is evidence that the personal data that are derived from individuals engaging in reflexive self-monitoring are now beginning to be used by agencies and organisations beyond the personal and privatised realm. Self-tracking rationales and sites are proliferating as part of a ‘function creep’ of the technology and ethos of self-tracking. The detail offered by these data on individuals and the growing commodification and commercial value of digital data have led government, managerial and commercial enterprises to explore ways of appropriating self-tracking for their own purposes. In some contexts people are encouraged, ‘nudged’, obliged or coerced into using digital devices to produce personal data which are then used by others.

The paper examines these issues, outlining five modes of self-tracking…

View original 817 more words

We don’t know how to participate

August 6, 2014

In this fourth episode of the freedom technologists series we hear from Margarita Padilla, another IT specialist active in Spain’s civil society, most recently in the indignados (or 15M) movement. The story below is once again translated and adapted from an interview by Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid in December 2011 (see my earlier post on Daniel Vázquez). The  interview is freely available on YouTube (in Spanish). In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

My name is Margarita Padilla. I am a 53-year old hacker and a self-employed entrepreneur. I work with other women at a small cooperative in Madrid dedicated to developing free software projects.

I acquired a political education during the 1970s workers’ movement, a worldview made obsolescent by the post-Franco transition. Eventually the class struggle became history, an anachronism, so I was fortunate to run into the squatter movement — my first political upgrade.

Another turning point in my political development was the Atocha (Madrid) bombings of 11 March 2004 (11M for short). It was an experience of utter shock followed by a government cover-up and spontaneous protests on 13 March (13M). It was also an intuition that, from then on, events would happen in either an 11M or 13M register.

Later, in a post-2008 scenario, I began to wonder why nothing was being done about the crisis. This search for answers led me to the 15 May 2011 demo in Madrid, and then to the Puerta del Sol encampment. Sol was a joyous encounter with something we had assumed was there but no one had actually seen.

A moving moment

Perhaps the most moving experience at the Puerta del Sol encampment was ‘moment zero’ – the start to the day of reflection, a period of 24 hours prior to an election in which political campaigning is not allowed. This was on 20-21 May, six days after the occupation of Sol. I was reminded of the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve, one for each chiming of the clock at Sol (it is customary to eat the grapes at Sol, where the encampment was located). It was the same time and place, but with the added uncertainty of not knowing what would happen. Nobody was really sure about the legality (or otherwise) of the encampment. It is different when a political party calls for a rally, where you have a rough idea of how many people will turn up. But how many people 15M could mobilise, if that’s the right word, was anyone’s guess.

I arrived at around 8 p.m. and started walking around Sol, running into people I knew, groups of friends that kept expanding. At one point we went off to get some dinner. We were eating with the excitement of having to finish early because soon it would be midnight. “Let’s get the bill or we won’t make it”, “Yes we will”, “We won’t, hurry up!”, not knowing what to expect. When we got back we found huge crowds. I was at the far end of calle Arenal, still a long way from Sol. I could picture all the side streets around Sol being equally packed, and marvelled at the spectacle of a much larger crowd than on New Year’s Eve. Read more…

How Spain’s indignados movement was born

August 1, 2014

In this third instalment of the freedom technologists series we hear the extraordinary story of the IT specialist Daniel Vázquez, one of the original occupiers of Puerta del Sol square, in Madrid, where Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement was born in May 2011. On the first night of the occupation, Daniel set up the soon-to-be influential Twitter account @acampadasol. The story below is based on a long interview he gave to a fellow indignado, the documentary filmmaker Stéphane Grueso (@fanetin), who we met in the previous post. The two-part interview (in Spanish with English subtitles) can be viewed on YouTube. Here I have translated and adapted selections from that interview (see Spanish version). In a future post I will share some anthropological reflections on this narrative, with particular emphasis on four themes: free culture, viral reality, non-violence and historical agency.

My name is Daniel Vázquez. I am an IT specialist from Madrid (Spain). I work with new technologies, especially on free software and civil society projects. Over the last 12 to 13 years I have participated in a number of projects, such as a self-managed cyberspace server called, or most recently with a collective called I am also part of 15hack and of a small cultural association named aLabs.

After the death of Franco in 1975, my parents’ generation accepted a new democratic order along with the re-instauration of the monarchy. It all came in the same pack. I didn’t sign it, and I want this to be discussed once again. My parents are now retired, and so are most of their generation. Those of us who came after them know nothing about how this came to happen, so we want to talk it over.

When people become aware that politicians represent market interests and that sovereignty no longer resides in their country but rather with actors they cannot reach, or vote for, or criticise, that’s when the discrediting begins. In Spain we have a two-party political system. This system consists of finding jobs for friends and cronies and to take it in turns to share power. As simple as that.

How I arrived at the scene

For me the 15M (or indignados) movement started with a trip to Lavapiés, a barrio in central Madrid. I was there to help a group of people who wanted to take a small van with a PA system to the 15 May demo. I was doing it on behalf of a local radio station named Onda Precaria. There was a new immigrant movement linked to this station taking shape at the time. It was made up of street vendors in Lavapiés who wanted to join the demonstration as a single bloc.

Read more…

Freedom technologists and their practices

July 24, 2014

This is the second in a series of 42 blog posts devoted to exploring the connection between freedom technologists and the new protest movements. See the first post here, the next post here, the whole series as a document or as blog posts.

In the first post of this series I defined freedom technologists as citizens who like to mix their techs with their politics, often as part of a popular protest or uprising. Some freedom technologists are techies, others are not, yet they all share a strong interest in the potential uses of new digital technologies for political change and social emancipation.

But what do freedom technologists actually do?

The Toronto-based scholar Megan Boler and colleagues offer us some tantalising clues in a recent article. Drawing from interviews with women participants of the Occupy movement in the US, these researchers single out three main digital media practices among Occupiers: adminning, documenting and connecting.

To pay my own way into this discussion I would like to add a fourth techno-political practice – mapping – and extend the geographical reach of this working model to Spain’s indignados (15M) movement.

Read more…

The year of the freedom technologist

July 10, 2014

By John Postill. Republished from Savage Minds

This is the first in a series of 42 blog posts devoted to exploring the connection between freedom technologists and the new protest movements. See the next post here, the whole series as a document or as blog posts.

Two and a half years ago, TIME magazine declared 2011 to be The Year of the Protester. From the Arab Spring or Spain’s indignados to the Occupy movement, this was undoubtedly a year of political upheaval around the world.

But 2011 was also an important year for a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection with national crises. Let us call these citizens, at least for the time being, freedom technologists.

Consider, for instance, the loose network of freedom technologists who spearheaded the Tunisian uprising. On 28 November 2010, after long years of struggle under one of the world’s harshest regimes, the lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali created the site TuniLeaks. A WikiLeaks spin-off, this site released US diplomatic cables that were highly embarrassing to Ben Ali’s autocratic regime. These leaks helped to prepare the protest ground. The trigger came through the actions of another freedom technologist, veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, who recorded on his smartphone the self-immolation of his cousin Mohamed, a street vendor. He then shared the video via Facebook, where it was picked up by journalists from Al Jazeera – barred from entering Tunisia – and broadcast to the whole nation (and the rest of the Arab world). Al Jazeera’s freedom technologists relied on blogs and social media to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground. When the government censored Facebook, the transnational online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens.

In nearby Spain, where I was doing anthropological fieldwork with internet activists when it all kicked off in May 2011, the imprint of freedom technologists on the nascent protests was also strongly in evidence. After Spain’s political class passed an unpopular digital copyright bill under US pressure in early 2011, the digital rights lawyer Carlos Sanchez Almeida and other net freedom fighters responded by creating #NoLesVotes, a new platform that urged Spanish citizens not to vote for any of the major parties. Shortly afterwards, tech-minded activists such as Gala Pin, Simona Levi, Javier Toret and others formed Democracia Real Ya, an umbrella group calling for peaceful marches across Spain on 15 May 2011 to demand ‘real democracy now’. Inspired by the occupation of Tahrir square, a small number of protesters, including the hacker collective Isaac Hacksimov, decided to set up camp at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol. This action was soon replicated across Spain. As in Tunisia, tech-savvy journalists played their part in the fledgling movement. Joseba Elola, a reporter with the centre-left daily El Pais and WikiLeaks admirer, described ‘young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change’. A few months earlier, Elola had secured a place for El Pais in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables following a secret meeting with Julian Assange in London [1]. Read more…


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