LONDON IS a long way from the Middle East, and the riots that have racked British cities the past four nights have none of the positive qualities of the Arab Spring uprisings. The mostly peaceful crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the Syrian city of Hama have sought to overturn corrupt tyrants; the rampaging youths in London have aimed at stealing televisions and clothes and setting cars and buildings on fire. Arab protest leaders speak with Jeffersonian passion of building a new democratic order, while the British rioters’ ideology seemed to be summed up by two young women who told the BBC that they meant to show the police and “the rich” that “we can do whatever we want.”
Still, it’s possible to see a connection between the young people who first gathered in frustration outside a police station in north London last Saturday, infuriated by police officers’ killing of a 29-year-old black man, and those who began rioting in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid following the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit seller last December. The common factors include high unemployment, resentment toward a prosperous and seemingly impenetrable upper class, and hatred of the police. In Britain’s case, as in some Arab countries, the trouble is further fueled by racial and ethnic tensions.
In Britain, as in the Middle East, political leaders were taken by surprise by the explosiveness of the unrest. Britain’s spread from the Tottenham police station across London and then to Birmingham and other cities in the first three nights. But people who live in some of the affected neighborhoods or work with their youth said it had been brewing for a long time, even as the country’s political parties largely ignored the problems of a troubled underclass.
Unsurprisingly, the British response to the unrest has been entirely different from that of Arab regimes. Until Tuesday night, police had made hundreds of arrests but killed no one; only on day four did authorities begin to discuss the possibility of using water cannons or plastic bullets against rioters. Prime Minister David Cameron and London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, broke off vacations to return to the city, and Mr. Cameron summoned Parliament back into session. Official rhetoric mostly focused on what Home Secretary Theresa May called the “sheer criminality” of the rioters. But voices outside the government were already beginning to debate the deeper causes of the trouble, which the Guardian newspaper called “an outburst of resentment and a mark of manifold failure.”
This is becoming a year of rebellion by the dispossessed — first in the Arab Middle East, then in Israel and now in one of the world’s richest democracies. At a time of economic disruption, no country is immune from such upheaval. But Britain is showing that democracies can respond with responsible policing and robust political debate. It is because that they are incapable of such political flexibility or respect for human rights that the Arab autocrats are doomed.