Certain years in history — 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989 — conjure up images of street protests, mass demonstrations and revolutionary turmoil. When historians put 2019 in perspective, they may also declare it a vintage year for popular unrest.
In terms of sheer geographical spread, it is hard to think of a year to rival this one. Protests large enough to disrupt daily life and cause panic in government have broken out in Hong Kong, India, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Russia, Malta, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Sudan — and that list is not comprehensive.
Yet all this turbulence has so far defied efforts to come up with a convincing global explanation. One reason for the lack of analysis is that the 2019 rebellions have taken place in such disparate places — in wealthy global cities like Hong Kong and Barcelona, as well as poor and relatively isolated nations such as Sudan and Venezuela. That makes it harder to join the dots and easier to cast doubt on the idea that there is anything global happening. There has also been no single iconic moment — no fall of the Berlin Wall or storming of the Winter Palace to capture the drama.
But while the 2019 revolts have not yet toppled a major world leader or government, they have certainly claimed some scalps. Street protests and strikes saw Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, forced from office in November, after 13 years in power.
Other political leaders felled by mass demonstrations include Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan — both of whom fell in April after decades in power. (In the case of Mr al-Bashir, the military staged a coup, after months of protests.) The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, was forced from office at the end of October after two weeks of mass protests. The following month, Adel Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister of Iraq also resigned, after several months of turmoil. In both Iran and Iraq, mass demonstrations have been met with shocking levels of violence — with hundreds killed on the streets of both countries.
The fact that several countries in north Africa and the Middle East have been convulsed by demonstrations, often at the same time, shows that there are indeed connections between popular upheavals in different countries. In two regions — the Middle East and Latin America — the protests are sufficiently widespread to constitute a genuine regional upheaval, in which events in one country are clearly inspiring emulation in neighbours, in a manner reminiscent of the Arab Spring. The slogan made famous back then — “the people want the fall of the regime” — is once again being chanted. A common language in Latin America has also allowed news and images of unrest to spill easily across borders. In today’s connected world, ideas and slogans can even jump continents effortlessly — spread by smartphone. Some Catalan protesters have been seen carrying the flag of Hong Kong and have adopted similar tactics — such as occupying an airport.
The spark for mass demonstrations has varied from country to country. In some places, it was an economic trigger — such as a rise in metro fares in Chile or a proposed tax on WhatsApp in Lebanon. In other places, the motive has been more clearly political — such as the new laws on citizenship and refugees in India, or a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong.
There are also certain common themes and tactics that emerge in location after location: protests at the harshness of everyday life; disgust at corruption and oligarchy; accusations that the country’s political and economic elite are out-of-touch and unresponsive.
Social media is a powerful organising tool everywhere — allowing protesters to crowdsource grievances, slogans and tactics. In an effort to prevent protests going viral through social media, India has shut down mobile communications in some of the cities affected by mass unrest.
But while large demonstrations are clearly more easily conjured up by social media, this new brand of “leaderless” revolt may also suffer from its spontaneity. Hashtags and internet memes are good at getting people on to the streets quickly — but they can disguise a lack of organisation and strategy.
Perhaps as a result, relatively few of the demonstrations have so far succeeded in toppling leaders — some that did succeed, such as those in Algeria, have continued even after a nominal change in government.
But the mass protests of 2019 show few signs of dying out. Indeed, as the year comes to end, they may be gathering force — with huge demonstrations, challenging the Indian government. The Modi administration’s response has been clumsy and violent — with prominent intellectuals arrested in front of television cameras and the police using brutal tactics against students.
All of that could easily fuel a spiral in unrest in India in the new year. The Hong Kong protests also look set to rumble on, while confrontation in Spain and Chile could also intensify. Above all, as the last 12 months have demonstrated, social unrest is now repeatedly breaking out in unexpected places, for unanticipated reasons.
So while 2019 already qualifies for a place in the annals of street protest, it is possible that the really world-shaking year may turn out to be 2020.
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