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Catalonia independence protests
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Occupy this is not.
DREAM DEFERRED

Catalonia won’t be triumphant without a rebellion

By Matthew Bennett

This item has been corrected.

MURCIA, SPAIN—Catalan independence supporters dream of inhabiting a future sovereign nation in which they are no longer Spanish citizens living in one of 17 Spanish regions. But a vision is all it will ever be unless some sizable number of them are prepared to rebel for a sustained period of time in an attempt to cut ties with the Spanish state.

The world has watched Egyptians bring down Hosni Mubarak via the protests in Tahrir, and Ukrainians bring down Viktor Yanukovych after a long struggle in the Maidan. The lesson is surely that autocratic and dictatorial regimes can be brought down by people power if those people are willing to suffer, sacrifice and even die for their cause, and if they can keep going long enough for the regime to begin crumbling. This week the world watches once more as thousands spill onto the streets of Hong Kong in protest at the Chinese version of democracy.

Whilst the Spanish version of modern democracy is different in key aspects from the British or American models, based as it is on a more prescriptive Roman-law model and not the more historically adaptive English common-law setup, modern Spain is neither autocratic nor dictatorial. The situation in Catalonia is a very long way from the genuine suffering and oppression seen in Kyiv or Cairo, and prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid has barely responded, never mind begun to crumble.

And Catalonia is not Scotland, for many reasons, but mainly because Rajoy has not once since 2012 entertained the possibility of a vote, never mind an actual referendum campaign that comes close to voluntarily redrawing the map of Spain for the first time in 300 years. British prime minister David Cameron was widely derided in the Madrid press (link in Spanish) in September as the most reckless or foolish politician in Europe.

Rajoy’s steadfast position has been that a regional vote on secession from Spain would be straight out unconstitutional and illegal, and after two long years of swirling rhetoric and increasing tension, during which Catalan referendum supporters inched ever closer to turning their dream of a vote into reality, the moment finally arrived this week when words had to start becoming actions and reactions.

In Barcelona on Sept. 27, Catalonia’s president, Artur Mas, signed the referendum bill into law. In Madrid on Sept. 29, Spain’s constitutional court held an urgent extraordinary session to suspend both the law and Mas’s decree whilst it deliberated on the substance of the Spanish government’s appeal. As the court was in session, Mas presented a 1,300-page white paper on “national transition” toward an independent state.

Given the suspension order, it’s not secession which is illegal in Catalonia right now, nor a declaration of independence—although they both are according to Spain’s constitution and criminal code—or even the referendum vote itself; no, for the moment, even preparatory activities for the ballot are all banned until further notice.

The Spanish public prosecutor has warned criminal charges of contempt and sedition await those who might dare to disobey the writ of the constitutional court, and the crime of rebellion—specifically including any declarations of independence—is very clearly defined in the 1995 Spanish criminal code, which is why Catalonia just blinked.

The regional government announced yesterday it was “temporarily” suspending its referendum ad campaign, “in order to protect civil servants” from criminal prosecution should they continue to prepare for the Nov. 9 vote. On Oct. 1, it posted a note online saying “this [referendum] web is not being updated,” in an attempt to deal with the ban.

Two years of independence fervor and rhetoric, complete with highly publicized million-man marches, might have led us to believe there would be mass outrage at such a ban, imposed on Catalonia by the Spanish oppressor state, but no such popular anger has spilled onto the streets since Sept. 29.

Only a couple of thousand people filled Barcelona’s Sant Jaume square last night to protest, singing the Catalan hymn, “Els Segadors,” under their umbrellas in the rain for 45 minutes before beginning to disperse. Perhaps a few tens of thousands of people in total came out across Catalonia in other demonstrations.

After dark, a much smaller, slightly more radical group of about 100 protestors, led by a minority Catalan party, tried to start an Occupy-style protest in front of the central government building in Barcelona, setting up 20 tents in the street in front of the central government’s main building. It was Catalan, not Spanish, riot police, though—the Mossos—who waited less than an hour before charging in (link in Spanish) to break up the protest and remove all the tents.

A second evening of protest called by the same group on the night of Oct. 1 also fell flat. Only about 300 marchers turned up and a larger force of Mossos, Spanish National Police, and Civil Guards cordoned off the whole area, peacefully preventing the protest before it even began. The 300 did not receive the backing of the Catalan National Assembly or Catalan Republican Left, normally at the front of every independence march.

Tahrir or the Maidan this is not. There is no new Occupy movement in Catalonia this week, despite rhetorical allusions to civil disobedience by some independence leaders. The passage of time is now forcing the Catalan independence dream to confront reality and that conflict means supporters must go up against the full weight of Spanish law and the Spanish state’s agents of law and order. If the separatists are not willing to risk arrest and jail time for an online ad campaign or a slightly more aggressive tent protest, there is little hope of a vote taking place in November, and even less risk of Catalonia ever seceding.

Mr. Rajoy might think of uncorking some cava.

You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewbennett. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

Correction: An editing error resulted in the incorrect spelling of Catalonia’s president’s last name as Más instead of Mas.