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Hong Kong to Haiti, Chile to Lebanon — what is common as world is up in arms against govts

A brief look at the mass protests in several countries over the last few months, the common thread and the transnational trends at play.

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New Delhi: From Chile to Lebanon and Hong Kong to Haiti, the world has seen raging mass protests over the past few months.

On the surface, most of these protests hinge on one of these two grievances: rising prices of utilities and ineffective governance. Other common features include lack of leaders and use of social media for mobilisation. Some of these protests even died premature deaths.  

Orion Lewis, a political science professor from Middlebury College in the US, argues that there is another reason for this spurt in agitations.

According to him, over the past three decades, the world has witnessed a contagion effect when it comes to protests. This was evident in the fall of the Soviet-allied countries in Eastern Europe in late-1980s, the color revolutions of early-2000s, and most recently, the “movement of the squares” in the early-2010s.

But beyond the contagion effect, there seem to be some transnational trends at play, including three prominent ones.

First, as a study by political scientists Anna Lürhmann and Staffan Lindberg says, it’s for the first time since 1945 that the number of countries turning towards authoritarianism exceeds the number turning towards democracy. Moreover, most regimes hold elections but are unresponsive governments. A direct effect is the closure of democratic mechanisms for airing public grievances — leading to people taking to the streets.

Second, mass protests are more likely to fail now than they did 20 years ago. Two decades ago, a study by a political scientist from Harvard University, Erica Chenoweth, shows, 70 per cent of the protests demanding major political change ended in success. Now that number has dipped to 30 per cent. This shift is evident in the current wave of mass protests — in Egypt, for instance.

Scholar Zeynep Tufekcia argues that given how it has become easier to mobilise using social media, this generation of protesters shows far lesser commitment to the cause than in the past.

Third, as argued by London-based journalist Jack Shenker, the current wave of protests is being led by the “children of the 2008 financial crash”. This generation has grown amid rising inequality, sub-par economic growth, shrinking opportunities, and increasing delegitimisation of the ruling elite.

“Afflicted by what the anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘despair fatigue’, protesters are putting their bodies on the line because it feels as if they have no other choice — and because those who rule over them have rarely seemed more vulnerable,” writes Shenker.

Also read: Why Chile is on the boil and had to call off global trade and climate summits


Countries hit by protests

In the light of the transnational themes mentioned above, here is a brief list of the several countries that have been hit by mass protests recently.

Algeria: The country was struck by protests in February, when long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika decided to have another (fifth) term. Though Bouteflika stepped down in April, young Algerians have gathered to protest for 37 consecutive Fridays since then. In what has come to be known as the “Revolution of Smiles”, protesters demand sweeping political reforms and democratisation.

Bolivia: Protests in Bolivia were sparked by last month’s contentious election victory of President Evo Morales, who is accused of skirting term limits and tampering election results. Protestors are seeking the ouster of Morales. As an election audit is underway, the protestors have clashed with the police and launched strikes and road-blockades.

Spain: Pro-independence protests in Spain’s semi-autonomous region Catalonia have turned violent over the last few weeks. The current crisis can be dated back to 2017, when the region held a banned independence referendum and led to a police crackdown. The Spanish Supreme Court’s October decision to sentence 9 separatist Catalan leaders reignited the protests. The Catalans are adopting tactics used by protestors in Hong Kong.

Chile: As one of Latin America’s most prosperous and peaceful countries, protests in Chile last month were the most surprising. (By certain measures it is also one of the most unequal countries.) Sparked by a 3 per cent increase in metro fares in capital Santiago, the demonstrations have led to a major civic breakdown in the capital and beyond. President Sebastian Pinera deployed troops and declared a national emergency, fighting for his political survival.

Ecuador: The government’s decision to cut fuel subsidy in order to balance the budget sparked protests in Ecuador last month. Hundreds of thousands marched down the streets and eventually forced the government to restore the subsidies. Though this has left the government in a fix: how to balance the books and retain subsidies necessary for maintaining social order?

Egypt: Nearly eight years after the Tahrir Square movement, Egypt saw another wave of urban protests in the third week of September. Motivated by an exiled Egyptian contractor, Mohamed Ali’s anti-regime videos, the protestors demanded the removal of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and end of corruption. Among the recent wave of global protests, the one in Egypt was met by the strongest state response, resulting in the arrests of 2,300 people.

Haiti: Violent protests asking for President Jovenel Moise to step down have led Haiti to descend into deep chaos. In the poorest country of the Americas, people are protesting against food and fuel shortages, huge currency devaluation, and the president’s alleged corrupt practices. Almost daily protests since last year have made an already dysfunctional political system more dysfunctional.

Hong Kong: Among the recent wave of global protests, the one in Hong Kong has got the most attention. Following a bill that would allow extradition fugitives to mainland China, people have held mass protests since June. The extradition bill was eventually scrapped, but the protests have continued and now demand greater political freedoms for Hong Kong. Though the momentum has fizzled in the last few weeks, at its peak, through the months of August and September, more than a fourth of Hong Kong’s population had joined the protests. The tactics used by Hong Kong’s protestors are being used by people across the globe.

Iraq: A decade and a half after the 2003 US invasion, Iraq has struggled to come up with a functional and responsive government. With the wave of deadly anti-corruption protests over the last few weeks, even the slightest semblance of normalcy has been destroyed. The protests have been met with an iron fist and over 260 protestors have been killed since early October. People are protesting high unemployment, poor public services, and rampant corruption. In view of the protests, however, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has agreed to resign.

Lebanon: The Lebanese government’s decision to impose a tax on calls over messaging service WhatsApp unleashed massive protests in the capital Beirut. The WhatsApp tax was just the trigger — behind these protest lie decades of “discontent over inequality, stagnation and corruption”. Remarkably high debt and low employment has made it nearly impossible for the government to provide basic public services. After forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down, the protestors are now demanding a complete overhaul of the “corrupt” political system.

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