Spain protests - AFP
Protesters in Puerta del Sol Square. Photo by AFP
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MADRID - One could be forgiven for being a little confused about what exactly is going on. Colorful hand-painted signs - thousands upon thousands of them - are strung up from every tree, and pasted on every surface in and around the central square. "End the corruption!" they scream. "We want jobs!" "Democracy is our fight!" "Down with the bankers!" "Down with big media!" "World revolution," they cry.

"Go Vegan!" they yell. Wait, "Go Vegan?" What? But there is more: "Homosexuals against the Heterosexual hegemony!" "Equality for women!" "Save Western Sahara!" And, of course, the perennial favorite, "Free Palestine!"

It's such an exhausting mishmash of agenda items and demands that one has to retreat to the roped-off makeshift lending library to relax. Here, donated books - on everything from the ills of patriarchy to the ills of consumerism - are being sorted by friendly volunteers as protesters lounge around on tatty cushions, reading, playing chess, chatting and making out.

A chemical engineer wearing a T-shirt announcing "Spanish Revolution" is writing up his ideas about alternatives to the country's social welfare cuts and harsh austerity measures, to put in one of the suggestion boxes scattered on the rickety tables. A political science student is deep in debate with an illegal Cuban immigrant about the country's staggering unemployment rates - 45 percent among those under 25; 21 percent overall, the highest rate in Europe. A young couple reads Franz Kafka's "The Trial" out loud to one another, playing footsie on the couch.

Welcome to Madrid's historic Puerta del Sol Square, where tens of thousands of young protesters are camping out to clamor for political, economic and social reform. Some want an overhaul of the electoral system; others demand all-out revolution; some need a reform of the financial system; and others just want to be part of the scene. Together, they have created a mini-tent city over the past two weeks, complete with children's nursery, sanitation team to sweep the grounds, and a press center filled with volunteers, crouched over laptops and spinning out information with an organizational relish that would rival any military field operation.

There is a central stage where musicians perform, and where firebrands come to rev up the crowds during "general assembly" meetings. There is an arts center where posters are made, two first aid stations, a small organic garden, and dozens of water kiosks and meal counters, where volunteers hand out free ham and cheese sandwiches and beans.

As the days have gone by and the tent city has continued to grow, it has spilled out onto the surrounding streets and squares, with breakaway committee groups sitting around on the pavement, holding meetings and voting on everything from environmental degradation to the role of immigrants in society. There are people playing tambourines, jugglers, a workshop on bicycle repair and, in between it all, ferocious political debate.

Gathering momentum

The 15M Movement - named after the starting date of the protests on May 15 - is gathering momentum outside Madrid as well, with protests (albeit on a smaller scale ) being replicated in squares around the country. It's even reached foreign shores, with Spaniards setting up mini-camps outside the country's embassies in Berlin, Paris, London, Amsterdam and New York.

"This is about protest," says a 28-year-old industrial engineering student and volunteer press spokesman named Miguel Morales Padro, who briefs reporters in between sending out hourly tweets about developments, updating the movement's Facebook fan group page and uploading videos to YouTube. It is his exam week, he says, but this is more important. And, he shrugs, more fun.

"We are all from different backgrounds, and with different agendas, to some extent," Miguel explains. "And this is about joining together and raising a collective voice. It is about getting our society to reflect on the need for change. And I believe we will be heard, which is why I am here."

No one is in charge here and everyone is welcome. Volunteers walk around with their names on badges pinned to T-shirts and the name of the "action team" they belong to written on bands wrapped around their arms: Xiomara is on the "legal team," busy going through the suggestion boxes and writing up proposals for the committees to address. Carolina is on the "respect team," breaking up any fights at the camp and keeping the peace. And Nafi, a Moroccan immigrant, is on the "donations team," making and posting lists of materials needed. Who can contribute flashlights? Megaphones? More generators? What about tampons? Shampoo? Toilet paper? Pizzas?

How long will this go on for? "Until 'they' listen to us," is everyone's stock answer.

When it all started, a week before last Sunday's local elections, it consisted of a few dozen disgruntled protesters in sleeping bags, who were soon removed by the police. It caught on though and expanded, with up to 30,000 young people heading to the square and many refusing to leave, even after voting day passed. The event has grabbed world headlines and triggered comparisons with the Arab Spring protests that have already brought down governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The comparison is a stretch.

"They did not bring down the government in Cairo's Tahrir [Square] by doing meditation sessions and offering free popcorn," remarks a young policeman named Raul, leaning on the door of a nearby bank, its facade now plastered with protest graffiti and posters, and watching the scene calmly. "There, they were out risking their lives and standing up to the tanks. Part of their problem here," he continues, noting the obvious, "is that they don't have tanks to confront."

The protesters don't have permission to be in the square and have defied the ban on protests, set last Friday by the country's Central Electoral Board, which was worried it would disrupt the elections. But there has been no real attempt to remove the youngsters, despite the heavy presence of policemen and a few barricades set up on adjoining streets. And despite the posters reading "freedom" and "revolution" in Arabic, the kaffiyehs adorning several non-Arab heads, and the frequent mentions by spokespeople of the mutual use of social media to get the masses out, most of the protesters will themselves admit that their efforts are not really like the Middle East revolutions, or, indeed, even modeled on them.

"We want to tweak the system, not destroy it," explains Beatrice Perez Alonso, an architect who can't find a job in her profession and so works, unhappily, for a cell-phone company. There is no dictatorship to topple in Spain - a reality that can, in a way, make for a more complicated task. The lack of a clear "enemy" makes for a lack of focus, Beatrice admits, as she hands out plastic cups to anyone who is thirsty.

As she gently reminds fellow protesters to recycle, Beatrice stresses that, despite the lack of a clear ultimate goal and the lack of leadership, she sincerely believes something monumental - albeit inexplicable - is taking place here.

"This is probably the most worthwhile thing I have ever done," she says, without any sense of melodrama. By her own admission, the 35-year-old had never been particularly interested in politics before now. "But I saw on TV that there were protests and I came over to check it out, and ended up staying the night. I don't even know why I did. I felt I was with like-minded people, upset about our country and trying to articulate that. I feel I was finally part of a bigger movement that was going to do something."

On Sunday, the protesters had their first real opportunity to do "something," when Spaniards went to cast their votes in the local elections. And the results were shocking: The ruling Socialists, led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, suffered a crushing defeat by the center-right opposition People's Party in most of the 8,000 municipal and 13 regional elections, even in traditional Socialist strongholds like Barcelona and Seville. It was the party's worst local returns in the history of Spanish democracy.

But the verdict is still out as to whether the protesters had any responsibility for this outcome and, more to the point, what the drubbing of the Socialists really means for the future.

For what the demonstrators appear to share is an emotional loathing of the powers that be - from all sides of the political spectrum - and a visceral alienation from the old politics. As yet, though, there are no concrete suggestions of what would work better. If the Madrid protests offered any clear view on the elections, it was that people should not vote at all.

And while Zapatero admitted the results were the penalty for Spain's dismal economy and high unemployment, the elections actually confirmed that there is no radical political alternative in Spain today, as the victorious conservative People's Party offers the same plans for austerity as the left, albeit in other guises.

"At the end of the day this is about insisting that those in power, whoever they are, start listening," concludes Beatrice. "Our leaders, from whichever party, need to know there is a problem. And, with thousands and thousands of us out here, we think they will get the message." She stops to formulate what she is trying to say. "The music of our democracy is not in tune," she says. "We have a system. We just need to change it... That is what we are here to say."