Protests rage around the world – but what comes next?

64 2019-11-03

In Lebanon they are against a tax on WhatsApp and endemic corruption. In Chile, a hike in the metro fare and rampant inequality. In Hong Kong, an extradition bill and creeping authoritarianism. In Algeria, a fifth term for an ageing president and decades of military rule.

The protests raging today and in the past months on the streets of cities around the world have varying triggers. But the fuel is familiar: stagnating middle classes, stifled democracy and the bone-deep conviction that things can be different – even if the alternative is not always clear.

Few corners of the world have been spared significant protests in 2019. Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and Albania have all seen major demonstrations. So have the UK, against Brexit, France, with its yellow vest movement, and Spain, in the restive region of Catalonia. The Middle East has convulsed with so much dissent that some are calling it a second wave of the Arab spring. In South America, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela have experienced popular unrest. The list goes on.

“The data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 60s, and has been since about 2009,” says Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, a professor who studies social change and conflict at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

Not all the protests are driven by economic complaints, but widening gulfs between the haves and have-nots are radicalising many young people in particular. Oxfam said in January that the world’s 26 richest individuals owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. Billionaires grew their combined fortunes by $2.5bn a day in 2018, while the relative wealth of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people declined by $500m a day.

Thousands of people have joined rolling Extinction Rebellion protests at the lack of action on the climate crisis by leaders content to leave the problem to the next generation.

The internet is not a determining factor – there was no social media in the 1960s – but is clearly important. Social media and the explosion of access to information is reordering hierarchies of knowledge and communication. Authorities can fight back with extensive surveillance regimes or with digital blackouts of the kind India recently imposed in disputed Kashmir, but 20th-century power structures are under enormous pressure, analysts say.

“The traditional system of enforcing power from top to bottom is increasingly being challenged,” says Thierry de Montbrial, of the French Institute of International Relations. “There is a social revolution with a growing demand for participatory democracy.”

It is also easier, in a digital, globalised world, to know how the other half (or the 1%) live. “There are not just new streams of information, but streams of people,” says van Stekelenburg. “Those youngsters in the Arab spring in all likelihood knew at least one person living overseas, and it creates a kind of relative deprivation – ‘I want to have that too’.”

The proliferation of protests is no guarantee that things will change. “Staging [demonstrations] is no longer the difficult part,” says Youssef Cherif, a political analyst and one of the authors of new Carnegie Endowment research on the success of protest movements. “The problem is what to do after the protests, how to make your point and achieve the goals you’re protesting for. That proves to be the most difficult part.”

Protests and revolutions are defined by idealised slogans, he says, but systematic change is harder work. “You can break off part of a system, but it’s very hard to break the whole structure, which is formed of institutions and networks that are difficult to break.”

The leaderless nature of many of the protests makes them harder for authoritarian governments to quash, but it may also make the movements more difficult to sustain, says Sanjoy Chakravorty, a professor of global studies at Temple University. “The movements that actually led to change or that were more sustained, they had a basis, a leadership structure, people articulating, organisation, going door-to-door to get people to show up to a rally,” he says. “The leadership question is central and that is the thing we haven’t figured out yet: how do we actually find leadership in these inchoate displays of anger?”

Hong Kong

Who is protesting?

The core of the protesters are young people, many of them university or secondary school students. But people from across society, from various sectors and age groups, have also joined the rallies and marches.

What are they protesting about?

Originally, a proposed change to an extradition law that would allow suspects to be transferred to mainland China and tried in courts controlled by the Communist party. That bill has been withdrawn and now protesters are demonstrating against alleged police brutality and against the government for its handling of the crisis. More broadly, they also oppose growing Chinese influence over the city.

How are authorities reacting?

More than 2,000 people have been arrested, and police are deploying harsher measures to put down demonstrations, including teargas, water cannons that drench people in blue dye laced with pepper solution, and in some cases live rounds. Applications from civil society groups to hold rallies are increasingly being rejected. Colonial-era emergency regulations to ban people from wearing face masks at protests have been invoked.

What next?

Five months in, the number of people taking part in the protests has waned. Still, the unrest shows few signs of ending soon as hardcore demonstrators vow to keep going until all their demands are met.

Lebanon

Who is protesting?

A cross-section of society appears to be represented, spanning the religious and political divides that sparked 15 years of civil war in Lebanon starting in 1975. Around 1.3 million people, or 20% of the population, are thought to have attended the largest demonstrations so far, last Sunday.

What are they protesting about?

The government, an unsteady coalition, is divided and dysfunctional, unwilling or unable to invest in the country’s crumbling roads, upgrade its electricity grid (power cuts are still a daily problem), overhaul the waste collection system or address bulging youth unemployment, among a litany of other issues.

One of the triggers for the latest protests was a 20-cent tax on WhatsApp calls that the government announced as part of a suite of austerity policies to bring the country’s extremely high public debt burden under control.

How are authorities reacting?

Because the ruling cabinet is drawn from a finely balanced collection of sectarian political parties, it is impossible for the government to speak with one voice about the protests. Generally speaking, political leaders across the spectrum have tried to sympathise with the protesters but defended the system and called for the restoration of order. Last week the cabinet agreed to a package of reforms including halving lawmakers’ salaries.

There have reportedly been some attempts by gunmen to intimidate protesters, and the army has used teargas against demonstrators, but the non-violent movement has generally been allowed to flourish, even as it has blocked roads and turned parts of cities into open-air dance parties.

What next?

There is excitement at the prospect of a new, united Lebanese identity being forged in the streets, but also concern that the country’s deep political and religious divisions (and the system built on those divisions) could be reasserted, possibly through some act of sectarian violence. The protest movement is leaderless and has no clear agenda, so even if it were able to dismiss the government, it is unclear what would emerge in its place.

Chile

Who is protesting?

The protests began in Santiago as a youth-led mutiny, and students remain at the movement’s heart. But as the rebellion has swelled to towns and cities outside the capital, citizens of all ages and social classes have joined in. Many protests have been peaceful but there have been outbreaks of looting and arson attacks on supermarkets, underground stations, government buildings and the headquarters of one conservative newspaper.

What are they protesting about?

The demonstrations were initially a response to a rise in metro ticket prices. In mid-October, high school students poured on to Santiago’s metro system as part of a fare-dodging campaign designed to force the government to scrap the increase. The protests have since mutated into a far broader battle against inequality, deficient public services, poor wages and pensions and government repression.

How are authorities reacting?

The reaction of the centre-right president, Sebastián Piñera, was at first uncompromising. On Friday last week he declared a state of emergency and ordered thousands of troops on to the streets of Santiago. On Sunday Piñera declared Chile was “at war” with gangs of “evil” delinquents bent on causing destruction. More than 2,600 arrests have been made and at least 15 people have died, four reportedly at the hands of security forces.

Critics say the hardline stance has only inflamed the situation. On Tuesday, apparently grasping that, Piñera adopted a softer tone, meeting opposition leaders and making a televised address in which he unveiled a series of new social policies including a slight raise in the minimum wage. He apologised for the “shortsightedness” of Chile’s political leaders.

What next?

It is unclear whether Piñera’s attempt to de-escalate the situation will work, although with Chile set to host world leaders including Donald Trump and Xi Jinping next month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, he will be hoping it does. One of the main rallying cries of the movement is that the protests are only just beginning. “Chile despertó,” demonstrators have chanted this week. Chile has awoken.

Catalonia

Who is protesting?

Most of the protesters who have gathered on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan towns and cities are young, mainly in their teens and 20s. However, other demonstrations – including the peaceful protest in which an estimated 525,000 people gathered in Barcelona on Friday 18 October – have drawn people of all ages, from children to pensioners.

What are they protesting about?

Tensions in the region soared after Spain’s supreme court this month found nine Catalan separatists leaders guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds over their roles in a failed push for independence two years ago. They were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison.

Although the Catalan independence movement has always prided itself on peaceful protests, there have been numerous violent clashes, with police officers attacked with stones, bottles, molotov cocktails and slingshots, and protesters beaten and shot with rubber and foam bullets.

How are authorities reacting?

Around 600 people have received medical treatment and two of them – a police officer and a demonstrator – remain in a critical condition. More than 200 people have been arrested.

The government in Madrid has said its priority is maintaining public order, and it has described its response so far as proportional. It has said cooperation between officers from the national police force and their Catalan counterparts has been very effective and it has rejected calls from rightwing parties to assume direct control of the Catalan police or use the constitution to implement direct rule. The police response has been fiercely criticised by some for allegedly indiscriminately targeting innocent bystanders and members of the media.

Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Quim Torra, has also been criticised for taking too long to condemn the violence, and for calling for civil disobedience and then sending in the regional police to deal with it.

What next?

Things have calmed down significantly since the height of the protests at the end of last week. Torra has called for talks with the Spanish government but has also threatened to protest against the supreme court verdict by staging another unilateral referendum on Catalan independence. The Spanish government, led by acting the acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has dismissed the calls, accusing Torra’s administration of failing to do enough to guarantee public order and of ignoring the will of the majority of Catalans who oppose independence. Even if the protests fade, the Catalan question will remain a key issue in Spain’s general election next month.

Iraq

Who is protesting?

This month’s protests in Iraq were leaderless but mostly driven by young and unemploymed people in a country with a stubbornly high jobless rate and where nearly a quarter of the population live in poverty.

What are they protesting about?

After decades of sanctions, a US-led invasion and years of civil war, including against Islamic State, Iraq’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, its public services are inadequate and it is struggling to rebuild its economy. Corruption is endemic, a problem that the country’s sectarian political parties have little appetite to try to change. Iraq’s protests are a howl of anger against the system.

One immediate trigger is also thought to be the demotion of Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, an army officer who became prominent during the fight against Isis and was regarded as a rare hero across sectarian lines. The reason he lost his position has not been publicly explained, but many Iraqis suspect it is because he tried to fight corruption in the country’s counter-terrorism service.

How are authorities reacting?

Almost 150 people were killed over the five most intense days of the protests this month, which the UN described as “senseless loss of life”. About 70% died from bullet wounds to the head or chest, according to the findings of a government inquiry this week. The committee concluded that officers and commanders “lost control over their forces during the protests” and that this “caused chaos”. It found evidence that some protesters were killed by a sniper operating from an abandoned building in Baghdad. The report called for dozens of senior security officials to be dismissed and referred to prosecutors for possible trial.

What next?

There were calls for fresh demonstrations starting on Friday, the one-year anniversary of Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, taking office. Abdul-Mahdi has promised reforms and to reshuffle his cabinet to try to satisfy protesters.

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