03 January 2020

2019 hindsight – the year of protests!

Claudiu Nebunu

2019 will, most likely, be remembered as the year of demonstrations. From Hong Kong to Middle East and North Africa, from Europe to Latin America, the street was the place citizens took a stance. In some of the places, like Hong Kong, the demonstrations are in full swing, however with no clear purpose; in other places, protestors’ demands seem to get accomplished, like Chile’s case, where they may actually sign a new more progressionist constitution. In other places, like Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, demonstrations took the unpopular leaders down, but it could not change the regime radically. Undoubtedly, the cases were different… but how could one see this availability to go out in the streets? Have complaints reach a critical mobilization quantity for an actual change? What’s different and what’s similar to last year’s demonstrations?

Image source: Mediafax

People stand against the current order…

A great number of manifestations started in the entire world, due to people’s anger against some apparently not so important issues: oil’s price increase in some places, from Iran to Ecuador, or taxes increase in Chile and a WhatsApp tax in Lebanon. For other cases, like Hong Kong and Indonesia, the protestors went out in the street after the governments announced new law threatening the civil rights. However, in all cases, people’s complaint targeted more important things: corruption, political shortcomings and a general complaint on the economic administration which seem to promise many things and accomplish a few only for a generation with bigger expectations.

Hong Kong protests got world’s attention, particularly due to almost all parts of society’s participation, the brutal intervention of police forces and the shadow of Tiananmen market on the background. Indonesia protests, from September and October, against new unpopular law have underlined how weak can the Indonesian democracy be, 20 years since the fall of Suharto regime. In Middle East, demonstrations from Iraq to Lebanon have underlined people’s complaint on ruling governments’ performances, from corruption, unemployment and the inability to provide basic services… and, not least, Iran’s increased interference in region’s states businesses.

In Latin America, there were many agitation triggers, whether they were related to the old political class in Bolivia, the big corruption in Ecuador or the disillusion on the economic development model from Chile.

Europe also witnessed the earthquake- from “yellow vests” protestors, opposing the tax increase in France, to Balkans’ anticorruption demonstrations, Cataluña’s separatist complaint and the massive demonstrations from London against Great Britain’s withdrawal from EU. But what do all these popular demonstrations have in common?

Manifestations lacking of leaders… a joy or a concern?

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists”- some say the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism said. “When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves!”. But what if there is no leader at all? There were many manifestations all over the world which were lacking of leaders, however getting thousands of people out in the streets (in some case, even hundreds or millions of people). Although instigators are different, demonstrations have been the same: from Hong Kong and Chile to Iraq and Lebanon, people used social media to organize spontaneous demonstrations, mostly non-violent, against their government- and they promised to continue until their demands will be reached.

Movements have sometimes succeeded - the unpopular legislation has been reversed in some places, and regime's representatives have been forced to resign in other places -, but for some cases, they encouraged protesters to come up with additional demands. As government’s response measures are increasing, there is this question: how much will these moves last? Without a clear organizer, these protests may turn into something the participants will no longer be able to transform… Lacking a leader, a leadership is a source of weakness or force?

In Chile, protests have focused on inequality and corruption. In Lebanon and Iraq, protests against these countries political system have crossed the lines. Meanwhile a few demonstrations broke out due to specific dissatisfaction, such as the proposed legislation in Indonesia to weaken country's Anti-Corruption Agency and reduce people individual liberty, protests in Haiti, Egypt and Bolivia have expanded beyond initial objectives to their government resignation.

Even when authorities have accepted protesters’ demands, demonstrations are still strong. In Hong Kong, the pro-democracy movement hit its seventh month, caused by concerns about city's semi-autonomous status and its duration. Despite government's withdrawal of the unpopular extradition project, which sparked the protest initially, protestors’ demands have increased - and so has the violence.

In France, "yellow vests" similar movement has proven its strength to resist. National protests, which started from discontent with increased fuel prices, in a broader anti-government demonstration, have led to dissatisfaction on pension reform. However, some things have changed. Although the uprising is still strong, participation has declined. And while most of protests were initially peaceful, more violent elements emerged.  

These protests’ nature, with no clear leadership, is neither accidental nor unprecedented. Social movements became populist before politics became populist. These movements do not call on certain categories, but on all citizens ... who feel deceived by the political class!.

Social-media’s role… a blessing or a curse?

These protests success can be largely attributed to social media, which allowed participants communicate and organize themselves autonomously. While some have relied on encrypted messaging services like Telegram, others are using AirDrop, Apple's feature that allows users to easily share content between devices. The current technology allows "leadership" dissemination with no need for a leader to disseminate the strategy. The strategy is spread horizontally...

Not only has social media allowed these movements to bypass traditional leadership from top to bottom. But for many, the absence of a protest leader is the thing that attracts them. After all, appointing leaders makes it easier for governments to focus on them, identify them, arrest them, kill them and denigrate them. However, protests without leaders are more difficult to suppress. Moreover, many of these protests are explicitly positioned against placing power in a few hands. So, by definition, these movements will be devoid of sympathy for any power concentration in their own ranks.

In Hong Kong, protesters adopted the famous quotation from martial arts master Bruce Lee: "Be formless, shapeless, like water" - that is impossible to suppress. In practice, it was manifested through a leaderless movement known for spontaneous demonstration. In Catalonia, where thousands of people rallied against Spain's Supreme Court decision to shut down nine Catalan separatist leaders, protesters paid tribute to Hong Kong by adopting some of their tactics, including staging a blockade of Barcelona airport.

But the lack of a leader has its disadvantages.... The "yellow news" protests in France went through a division earlier this year between those who preferred to continue the demonstrations and those who sought to formalize candidates in the European elections (the effort in trace failed!). More recently, another schism has emerged between peaceful protesters and "black bloc" activists, who have implemented more violent methods, including vandalism and arson. Although the two groups are not officially linked, their demonstrations overlapped.

Regardless of having leaders or not, authorities are often prevented from demonstrations. But the lack of leaders can exacerbate tensions and violence when protesters have no one to teach them how to confront the authorities. Many of these confrontations resulted in casualties. All over the world, recent demonstrations have been considerably more deadly.

Violence … or non-violence?

The fact that many of these protests started as non-violent demonstrations may have played an essential role for their longevity. But as these protests dynamics changed, many evolving into more violence, is there a risk for a cool down? Protest movements are not, by their very nature, sustainable in the long run, largely because of the energy and commitment required to maintain them. Unlike official parties and organizations, spontaneous protests do not have bureaucratic structures to continue them.

However, for many protesters, the idea is simple: do not stop until all the requirements are met. For those in Hong Kong, this is expressed by the popular song "Five demands, no less." In Lebanon, the protesters adopted the slogan "All means all", referring to the rejection of the entire political class. But can social movements solve all these demands? What happens when questions that were not previously on the agenda appear and a large part of the population does not feel represented?

Back to 2019…

... almost every day seemed to bring images of a new protest on multi-media devices screens. And maybe not all were captured by these devices ... Certainly they were many ... maybe one of the reasons was that people started to become more and more aware of what a protest movement is, what it is used for and how it can be carried out. But, most certainly, social media has been the main engine in organizing street movements and sharing information on their progress.  

2019 was the year of protests ... Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, Holland, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria, Ecuador ... and probably other less famous  countries. Coincidence? Hard to believe...

Most of the causes come due to new generation’s discontent of what old governments can offer... Expectations have become higher in terms of aspirations, standard of living, dreams... and regimes are increasingly facing difficulties, not only in assuring these requirements, but even in maintaining population’s past expectations...

And, from an economic perspective, one of protests’ most common reasons, the trigger spark, was price’s increase for... something! In Ecuador, one of protests reasons was the demand to restore fuel subsidies. Subsidies for oil prices have also been important for Haiti protests. In Lebanon, citizens were upset by a new charge on using WhatsApp, a tax on social media being also a problem in Uganda. In Sudan, reductions in food and fuel subsidies have been a major complaint. In Chile, protests targeted at the subway fares increase. And the trend seems to signal that any prices increase will become less and less popular. One of "yellow news" protests initial requirements in France was the free parking at Disneyland Paris. It may seem a little out of place, but ... it was!  

Despite this attempt to group protests nature in prices’ increase, it seems that the social order which ruled until now reached its limits. With no intention to present a “Nostradamus-type” of theory or associated to conspiracies, 2020 will be the beginning of some changes…

From an astrological perspective, falls within the conditions…

Translated by Andreea Soare