The number of protests is increasing

A virus travels the world. It jumps from country to country, from continent to continent. It attacks autocratic regimes, failed states, democracies that have not rid themselves of past dictatorships and consolidated democracies. Rich and poor. To colonized and colonizers. To citizens tanned by violence and to those who have only known peace.

It is the virus of protest.

In the year 2019, and accelerated the last two months, we have witnessed an explosion of protests around the planet. Algeria, Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Georgia, Guinea, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, United Kingdom… The list goes on and on every week.

Experts only see a comparable precedent in the revolutionary 1848 or the tumultuous 1960s. But possibly never before in the world there were so many citizens in so many streets. Even if they shout slogans and pursue different objectives.

The revolutionary 1848 or the tumultuous 1960s are the only comparable precedent.

All the data show a dramatic increase in the number of protests in the last decade, notes Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, professor of social change and conflict at the Free University of Amsterdam. In the absence of a reliable global database, she points out that the level of protests in the OECD in 2008 reached the level of the 1960s, a record since 1900. All indications are that it has continued to rise. Only in Amsterdam – and it is not a hot zone – have demonstrations increased fourfold between 2014 and 2018.

Thus, this hectic end of 2019 is the culmination of a trend that political scientists have been trying to dissect for some time. There is, however, a substantial novelty: “This is the first time that protests have taken place in all regions and all kinds of political systems. Both in the richest and most democratic countries, like France, and even the most authoritarian like Venezuela, Iran or Iraq”, says Richard Youngs, researcher at the Carnegie Fund for International Peace, which has a project dedicated to analyzing the protest effervescence, its causes and impact.

Why does the world boil? A tax on Whatsapp boiled Lebanese, in Chile it was the rise of the metro ticket, in France and Iran of fuel, an extradition law in Hong Kong, in Algeria the pawn of a decrepit president for a fifth term, in Bolivia an electoral fraud, a judicial sentence in Catalonia …

The triggers, like the demands and the contexts, could not be more different. But is there a deep pattern?

“Something is happening in the relationship of the citizen with the State, with the public power. We observe a frustration with their governments, who are accused of not responding to their demands. And we see it both in democracies and in non-democratic regimes. That’s the link between the protests,” says Youngs.

The link between protests is frustration with political elites, both in democracies and autocracies.

The same analysis is made by Branko Milanovic, former chief economist at the World Bank. The only umbrella that encompasses them, he says, is the antipathy towards authority, the combination of growing cynicism towards politicians – especially among young people – and the feeling that rulers despise the citizen. “The legitimacy of power is being questioned, either because they have been in power for a long time, like Buteflika in Algeria, or because they are corrupt like Lebanon, or because they ignore poor people like Chile or Iran. As a regime, Iran doesn’t have much in common with Chile, although the trigger in both cases was very similar, just like in France,” he says.

Unlike the Arab spring of 2011 or the uprising in Eastern Europe 30 years ago against communism, “it’s impossible to find ideological unity or common causes in this wave of protests,” Milanovic adds. He is one of the world’s leading experts on inequality, but he does not believe that the growing gap between the richest and the poorest or the impoverishment of the middle classes is the engine, as some have theorized. “It is only in some cases. I don’t think inequality matters in Algeria or even Lebanon, although both are very unequal. What it’s all about is uneasiness with the corruption of the elites.

“It is the first revolution of the era of globalization. Not against but against globalisation”, says Branko Milanovic.

Some point to the demographic reason: the pressure of young people with no horizon. “I suspect that the real issue is the imbalance between the unparalleled overabundance of graduates and the demand for them,” noted conservative Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. Others point out, however, that in many countries those who are taking to the streets are already combing gray hair.

And then there is the role of technology. The Internet, but above all the global media coverage and the much greater access of the average citizen to information, allows demonstrators to be inspired by what happens at the other end of the world, says Jonathan Pinckney, researcher on nonviolent action at the United States Institute of Peace. “It happened as early as 1989, when the fall of communism inspired protests in Africa and Southeast Asia. But it was an exception, while what we see now is that global broadcasting is becoming the norm,” he says.

Social networks facilitate protest: they create a space for sharing grievances; they allow access to more people, in less time and at less cost; and they speed up the organization of demonstrations and other actions, says Van Stekelenburg. He warns, however, that his role should not be magnified: “In the 1960s people took to the streets en masse and there was no internet. In Tahrir Square, most of the demonstrators had not come on Facebook but because of the influence of friends and family,” he reflects.

There is a contagious factor: movements, like Hong Kong and Catalonia, look at each other and learn from each other.

Milanovic believes that what we are seeing is “the first revolution of the era of globalization. Not against globalization but globalization. “These rebellions, although individual and very heterogeneous, imitate each other,” argues the economist, who resides temporarily in Barcelona. He sees in the links between the demonstrators in Catalonia and Hong Kong – the occupation of the airport, the stellations waved in the former British colony – the clearest example of movements looking at each other and learning from each other.

Youngs points to a paradox: protests are spreading throughout the world but their triggers are increasingly local and specific, unlike anti-globalisation mobilisations or debt relief at the beginning of the millennium. “Today there are climate marches, but there are no longer so many epic campaigns at the global level,” he says.

Today’s protests tend to start with very modest demands, related to a specific policy, but they grow rapidly to end up focusing on more systemic issues, such as corruption, inequality or democracy. “In fact, there are people demonstrating for different things at the same time. That, which used to be a rarity, is now the norm,” the expert adds.

Youngs believes it is a strong point – allowing them to mobilise so many people, to be so cross-cutting – but in the long run it can be a disadvantage, once the demonstrators return home and touch to articulate a political strategy. Just like not having leaders. “That gives a lot of agility to the protests, it allows them to design very innovative tactics, but it can be a problem when it comes to making decisions. It happened in Egypt: the revolt succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak but in the long run it failed because they were not prepared for what was to come. As a case of success, Youngs puts the indignant Spaniards with the articulation of parties like Podemos or the common ones.

Transversality, strategic capacity and non-violence are the keys to success.

Pinckney also sees in the current mobilizations an inherent weakness that raises doubts about their chances of achieving long-term change. “In the past, protest movements focused on concrete leaders. But now they not only want to get rid of one person, but there is deep indignation with the whole political class. This is the case in Algeria, where one begins by protesting against an old dictator like Buteflika but when he falls people say: ‘we are not finished, we want to put an end to the entire military elite’. Or in Lebanon, people don’t go home when the prime minister resigns, he says ‘let them all go’. The difficulty with that approach is, when do you know you’ve won?” reflects Pinckney.

The ability to mobilize cross-sectional segments of society is a key success factor, he adds. “If not, there is a risk that the protest will turn from one class to another, from one social sector to another. It’s the danger in Hong Kong: the protest movement has been left in the hands of very young people, mostly university students, born in the post-colonial era, and the older generation, who originally came out to demonstrate against the extradition law, is ceasing to support the protests,” he says. Pinckney admires the mobilization in Iraq, which has transcended ethnic-religious divisions that seemed insurmountable in a country just after the war.

Another secret of success is to have a sense of strategy, to move from small objectives to larger ones. Sudan has done it,” says Pinckney. There was an initial mobilization to oust the president, but then they knew how to use momentum and keep the people mobilized to prevent the army from monopolizing the democratic transition.

Finally, Pinckney recommends not to fall into violent temptation. “There is an effect of polarization, some stop sympathizing with the demonstrators and begin to see them as a danger,” he says. The emergence of violence also makes it easier for states to justify repression. Violence against violence, the state always has a better chance of winning,” he says. Except for very weak states or states that have lost all legitimacy among the population, any state will be much more capable of using violence than any protest movement will ever be capable of.
*** Translated with (free version) ***