The Globalization of Protest

by David Wilson,
ITL Staff Writer

The pace of change is picking up.

Recent events have cast a spotlight on Egypt, with ongoing rallies and demonstrations by both factions, anti- and pro-Morsi, since the deposition of the leader on July 3rd. But Egypt is not alone in experiencing civil unrest. Elsewhere around the world protests have continued in Brazil, Chile, Bulgaria, Turkey, and a host of other nations.

In all cases, different events and different grievances are leading to the protests. The Brazilian demonstrations began as a protest against increased bus fares, but have since morphed into protests against government corruption, overspending on the upcoming World Cup, and numerous other issues. Unlike in Egypt however, where President Morsi seemed unwilling to compromise with the protesters, the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has made multiple attempts to placate the masses. Only the efforts have been made in vain as each move either fails to address the issue, or causes another group to take umbrage at the changes.

In Chile, initial student-organized demonstrations calling for improved secondary education and government funded universities have morphed into street battles with police as the movement expands and is embraced by a larger portion of society. This simmering discontent though is at times difficult to place. Chile is experiencing an economic boom, can boast a growing middle class, and has nearly completely eliminated extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank standards. But growing discontent with perceived government ineptitude and corruption has marked all politicians as targets.

Much as the Occupy movement garnered attention here in the US with a rallying cry of the ’99 percent,’ Chilean and Brazilian protests began as focused movements with particular goals. But as they expand and demands become more generalized, the difficulty in meeting them increases drastically. Occupy Wall Street died with a whimper at some point in the last year because an undefined call for change was never followed up with an actual procedure for change. The results of the protests in Brazil and Chile though are as yet unknown. They will very likely have an effect on upcoming elections in Chile – Chileans go to the polls in November – but whether they will lead to actual change remains to be seen.

Worldwide Protests Increase

This voicing and manifestation of dissent, with as yet unrealized potential, stands in stark contrast to the current reality in Egypt, where protests by anti-Morsi demonstrators led to direct action from the country’s military. There’s a very different lesson to be extracted from this supposed efficacy of protest. In 2011, protestors in Egypt began the Arab Spring, calling for the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. Two years after that wish was fulfilled an eerie scene of déjà-vu is playing itself out on the streets of Cairo. Only this time a heavy contingent of the deposed president are making their presence felt with ongoing counter protests. It remains to be seen how the drama will play out. A similar split led to the Syrian civil war, which is seemingly no closer to a resolution after two years of conflict. But alternately, a second attempt at democracy could lead to a more stable, moderate government in Egypt.

Protests by their very nature are ever-changing, as multiple groups unite and split under different causes and banners. Everyone wants their voice to be heard, but competing views and desires can just as easily lead to conflict within a movement. Witness the current in-fighting amongst Syrian rebels. Sometimes a common enemy ceases to be enough.

However, despite disparate causes and varied results, all of these movements are inextricably linked. Social networks and mass media serve not only to coordinate those in a particular city or country, but also to empower and inspire across borders. The Arab Spring saw a domino effect as a wave of discontent swept through the region, each new protest feeding off the preceding ones. And today we are experiencing a similar phenomenon, only this time the effects are global.