2019: We seed, we know, we rised, we wake

27. April 2020

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In 2019, newspapers reported outbreaks of public anger and protests following controversial political moves across the globe. A patchwork image of rebellious societies flooded with resentment is left in their wake. Upon closer inspection, protest movements unfolding throughout the past year reveal a deep-rooted discomfort with longstanding causes, and several key commonalities. Governments now face the challenge and opportunity of institutionalizing reclaimed voices, transforming dissent into political engagement.


 

Taken in Martyr Square, Beirut, Lebanon. November 2019.

Many of the catalysts of the 2019 protests stemmed from smaller issues, ranging from an increase in fuel taxes in France and Iran, to WhatsApp fees in Lebanon,[1] to transportation fares in Chile,[2] and the cost of bread in Sudan.[3] They nevertheless sparked protests that escalated into revolts to overthrow governments, and gave voice to malaise over issues of economic stagnation and government corruption. Despite disparities in political, economic, and cultural contexts, as well as the unique circumstances of the different uprisings that might suggest little more than common tactics, there are shared grievances and common patterns throughout some of the 2019 protests[4].

All of the mobilizations emerged from distrust and rising discontent with ruling elites, and a clear stand against corruption, inequality, economic stagnation, and social systems which are increasingly described as unsustainable.[5] Movements around the world took the form of spontaneous grassroots demonstrations, with the lack of central leadership as a distinctive characteristic of their nature.[6] Although the widespread use of social media allowed the mobilizations to bypass traditional top-down leadership, many of the protests were moved by a deliberate sentiment of opposition to the concentration of power in the hands of a few and the determination to make the people’s demands heard through their own unmediated voices.[7] Other key similarities characterize the 2019 protests, such as geographical decentralization and wide diffusion (as in the cases of Lebanon,[8] Chile,[9] Colombia,[10] France,[11] Iraq,[12] and Iran[13]) and the implementation of non-violent tactics in order to achieve change (such as in Lebanon[14] and Sudan[15]) although some resorted to violence when facing disproportionate repression (as in the cases of Chile, Iran, and Iraq).[16] Light is also to be shed on minority groups, which played an active role by incorporating and making patterns of inclusion and intersectionality visible across the different mobilizations. Religious minority, feminist, LGBTIQ+, ecological, and egalitarian initiatives were all very present in the various movements worldwide, consciously and proactively, raising their voices in a reclaimed space to which they did not have access to before.[17]

 

I-II-III – Taken in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. November 2019.
IV – Taken in Paris, France. January 2020.

In terms of outcomes, the protests of 2019 have brought some material and tangible change in several circumstances, succeeding in reversing unpopular legislation, as in the cases of Chile, France and Iran, or forcing public officials to resign, as in the case of Lebanon and Sudan.[18] Some uprisings did not produce the same results but still threaten regimes to this day in Egypt, Georgia, Ecuador, Haiti, Poland, Russia, Peru and Zimbabwe.[19] Apart from this, most of the protest movements have accomplished key social gains. Such outcomes, less tangible and so far neglected by governments and pundits, should be regarded as the most relevant and revolutionary change brought by the wave of mobilizations. It managed to create a ‘conscious collective’ – as put forward by a Lebanese protester – out of previously disconnected citizens and societies: a political, social and self-mobilized consciousness reclaiming voice and agency as well as political and public space, through a civil society agenda of change.[20] If considered together, the 2019 protests appear to have planted the seeds of an emerging global political culture in an era where disengagement with politics has been dramatically high.[21] The emergence of widespread youth mobilizations and social movements reclaiming rights, exposing misgovernment and corruption, and dealing with issues encompassing political freedoms, inclusiveness, and socio-economic injustices show that this generation is becoming aware of its potential force for change. Many protests referred in their chants, slogans, and calls to an ‘awakening.’ This is extremely difficult for governments to react and respond to, as this entails waves of evolving demands that far exceed the triggers that fueled them.[22] Most grievances are deeply entrenched, and it will take time and structural efforts for them to be tackled. 

Governments have the duty and responsibility to engage with such grievances and their awakened citizens, alongside the valuable opportunity to redirect their mandate in response to popular uprising to address discontent and, in so doing, maintain power. A first step could be to agree to be held more directly accountable. Governments should institutionalize civil society mechanisms to follow up on the more structural changes needed in the aftermath of the protests. Civil society should be given the chance to scrutinize the work of governments and public expenditures, express formal demands, and supervise the necessary steps to re-orient governments’ choices towards more responsive policies. This need for more transparency could be met through the establishment of a ‘revolution’ commission, either in a post-revolution scenario as a condition for the new government to form, or from policy makers in power to maintain their mandate. This would create accountability for governments whose promises before and at the times of diffused uprisings were considered empty or not entirely responsive to the people and their demands.[23]. Governments need to take actions in this direction to avoid violent repression – which has already been witnessed in several circumstances – and subsequent retaliations of an awakened political consciousness which refuses to let go of its eagerness for change.[24]

The 2019 protest movements are unlikely to be ‘a flash in the pan,’ and should rather be read as symptoms of a new global call for policies that reclaim socio-economic space for a growing number of people who do not feel represented by their government. 

This article received the first prize of our writing competition “Protest Movements – A Vehicle for Change?

References

[1] Walid el Houri, “Lebanon: A Revolution Redefining A Country,” openDemocracy, November 8, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/lebanon-revolution-redefining-country/.

[2] Kirsten Sehnbruch and Sofia Donoso, “Social protests in Chile: inequalities and other inconvenient truths about Latin America’s poster child,” Global Labour Journal, 11, 2020, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/103238/.

[3] Zeinab Salih and Peter Beaumont, “‘Change In People’s Hearts’: Anti-Bashir Protests Put Sudan At A Crossroads,” The Guardian, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jan/17/change-in-peoples-hearts-sudan-crossroads-omar-al-bashir-protests.

[4] Robin Wright, “The Story Of 2019: Protests In Every Corner Of The Globe,” The New Yorker, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-story-of-2019-protests-in-every-corner-of-the-globe.

[5] Michael Massing, “Global Unrest Has One, Massive Root Cause: Inequality,” The Guardian, January 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/24/most-political-unrest-has-one-big-root-cause-soaring-inequality.

[6] Yasmeen Serhan, “The Common Element Uniting Worldwide Protests,” The Atlantic, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/11/leaderless-protests-around-world/602194/.

[7] Wright, “The Story Of 2019: Protests In Every Corner Of The Globe.”

[8] El Houri, “Lebanon: A Revolution Redefining A Country.”

[9] Sehnbruch and Donoso, “Social protests in Chile: inequalities and other inconvenient truths about Latin America’s poster child.”

[10] Steven Grattan, “Colombia Protests: What Prompted Them And Where Are They Headed?,” Al Jazeera, November 26, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/colombia-protests-prompted-headed-191126163204600.html.

[11] Emiliano Grossman, “France’s Yellow Vests–Symptom of a Chronic Disease,” Political Insight, 10 (2019), 30-34, https://doi.org/10.1177/2041905819838152.

[12] Louisa Loveluck “An Uprising In Iraq Is The Broadest In Decades. It’s Posing An Alarming Threat To Baghdad And Tehran,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/an-uprising-in-iraq-is-the-broadest-in-decades-its-posing-an-alarming-threat-to-baghdad-and-tehran/2019/11/06/82c695a8-ff38-11e9-8341-cc3dce52e7de_story.html.

[13] AUTHOR “With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed By Worst Unrest In 40 Years,” The New York Times, December 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/01/world/middleeast/iran-protests-deaths.html.

[14] El Houri, “Lebanon: A Revolution Redefining A Country.”

[15] Salih and Beaumont, “‘Change In People’s Hearts’: Anti-Bashir Protests Put Sudan At A Crossroads.”

[16] “Protests Around The World Explained. Why Is Everyone Protesting?,” Amnesty International, October 25,  2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/protests-around-the-world-explained/.

[17] Claire Wilson, Jumanah Zabaneh and Rachel Dore-Weeks, “Understanding the Role of Women and Feminist Actors in Lebanon’s 2019 Protests” United Nations Women, December 13, 2019, https://www.un.org.lb/library/assets/UN%20Women_Lebanon%27s%202019%20Protests-042358.pdf.

[18] Tamar Vidon, “A year of discontent: Protests of 2019 toppled world leaders from Bolivia to Sudan,” France24, December 27, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20191227-2019-protests-around-the-world-forced-out-leaders-and-put-others-on-the-defensive

[19] Wright, “The Story Of 2019: Protests In Every Corner Of The Globe.”

[20] Angela Broussel, “We Are A Conscious Collective” – Inside Beirut’s Revolutionary Movement,” New Statesman, 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2019/11/we-are-conscious-collective-inside-beirut-s-revolutionary-movement.

[21] Richard Wike and Alexadra Castillo, “Many Around the World Are Disengaged From Politics,” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes and Trends, October 17, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/10/17/international-political-engagement/.

[22] Wright, “The Story Of 2019: Protests In Every Corner Of The Globe.”

[23] Action plan based on requests and developments of the protest suggested by Dr. Mouchir Aoun, Department of Philosophy of the Lebanese University.

[24] James Traub, “Governments Can Kill Protesters—But Not Protest,” Foreign Policy, December 30, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/30/people-power-hasnt-won-yet/.

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Maria Chiara Zeri studied International Relations in the UK, and is graduating soon from the Master of Human rights and Humanitarian Action at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po. Particularly interested in international migration, she has recently completed an internship based in Beirut in the field of refugees’ protection and emergency response. Ricardo Henao Galvis is a current Master student of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po Paris, with experience in activism, defense of human rights, and protection of minorities such as indigenous populations, LGBTIQ+ people, and human rights defenders. He has worked in the field in Colombia, Guatemala, Egypt, and Lebanon.