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Unlikely activists fight Iceland woes

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Reykjavik

Icelanders don't do demos… or at least, they didn't until recently. But the country's economic crisis has brought a new breed of unlikely protesters to the fore.

Asta Rut Jonasdottir
Asta Rut Jonasdottir says she wants the government to listen to her

They were gathered in force on a cold Monday night at the Reykjavik University cinema. Its sweeping auditorium was packed with very angry people of all ages.

On the stage at the front, stony-faced political leaders faced a hail of invective, as the audience poured forth their stories of losing their savings or defaulting on their mortgages.

It was like a 21st Century version of the stocks, but also a form of group therapy, a form of catharsis. The crowd cheered when one speaker said he had refused to repay his loans.

Then Asta Rut Jonasdottir took the rostrum and won more cheers by telling the crowd she was thinking of emigrating.

"I'm a project manager with a pharmaceuticals company, but I spoke here tonight as just a housewife," she said, apparently a bit overwhelmed by the reception she received.

"I'm thinking of leaving the country because the government isn't doing anything. But it's difficult: I have a nine-year-old son. Maybe at the end of the school year I'll make my decision."

There's a lot of anger and stuff, but the politicians need to listen to the people
Gunnar Sigurdsson

Asta is one of Iceland's many unlikely protesters: people who were never politically active but who now find themselves moved to act in the wake of this country's worst economic crisis in generations.

"I hope what we did tonight, and what the Icelandic people have been doing over the last few weeks, will make the government listen to the people," she said.

'Needed answers'

Others are less diplomatic. Many people are just calling for the government to resign.

"There's a lot of anger and stuff, but the politicians need to listen to the people," said Gunnar Sigurdsson, the organiser of these events, which are now weekly.

Gunnar Sigurdsson
Gunnar Sigurdsson challenged politicians to attend public debates

Mr Sigurdsson, the director of a small Reykjavik theatre, has been propelled from relative obscurity to political stardom in a matter of weeks.

"I started this with my daughters. I paid for the hall and everything. I saw the politicians on TV and I thought: I need to hear some answers. So I e-mailed all the members of parliament. Thirteen of them came to the first meeting."

As the meetings gathered momentum, the media showed interest and Mr Sigurdsson took advantage, making a live on-air challenge to the government to appear at the next meeting.

"I said I'd put their names next to the chairs, so everyone would see who didn't come. We had eight out of 12 cabinet ministers." Even Prime Minister Geir Haarde turned up.

Another of Iceland's unlikely protesters is Einar Mar Gudmundsson. One of the country's most famous authors, he has spoken at street demonstrations and written countless pieces in the newspapers.

"The politicians of Iceland were fast asleep, shrugged their shoulders and clinked glasses with the financial grandees," he wrote in one recent article.

"They even felt insulted if they were not invited to the feast, which was enveloped in Hollywood glamour and razzmatazz."

Losing steam

Ms Jonasdottir, Mr Sigurdsson and Mr Gudmundsson are all trying in different ways to generate debate in Iceland - a highly cultured society which regularly tops international leagues for literacy and education levels.

But there have also been more direct confrontations. This week, protesters occupied the cabinet office and the headquarters of Landsbanki, Iceland's second largest bank, now under state control.

The protests followed a nervous sit-in, opposite police in riot gear, inside the central bank headquarters a couple of weeks ago and an occupation of the parliament building last week.

These are highly unusual events in Iceland, normally a very reserved society.

But not everyone is convinced the protests are going anywhere.

Anger at Iceland's economic woes

Sturla Jonsson became the ad hoc spokesperson for a group of truck drivers who led protests against petrol prices back in April.

Since then, his own building and trucking business has gone bankrupt and he faces losing his home.

He has watched as the protests have grown in size, only for numbers to tail off as Christmas draws near. He thinks they are running out of steam.

"I don't know what it is with Icelandic people: why they don't stand up and protest like they do in Britain and France," he says, adding with a smile: "I think we really have to have a revolution here!"

That is clearly not on the cards. But nor, despite the best efforts of the protesters, are there any signs of any leading politician resigning.



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