In Iraq, Lebanon and Chile, Locally Driven Protests Can Have a Global Impact

World Politics Review, 30.10.2019
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

An anti-government protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 20, 2019 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

From Lebanon and Iraq to Ecuador and Chile, popular protests have shaken governments and captured the imagination of pundits worldwide in the past few weeks. Combined with the mass demonstrations that forced regimes in Algeria and Sudan to cast aside longtime leaders earlier this year, as well as the Yellow Vest movement that stunned France from December 2018 through the late spring, some observers are wondering whether we are witnessing a revolutionary moment of global proportions. Has popular dissatisfaction with the unfair distribution of globalization’s spoils reached a tipping point? Or are these protests locally driven, offering little or no insights into broader trends?

At first glance, any attempt to draw broad conclusions from the disparate protest movements runs into formidable obstacles. The differences between the countries where they erupted seem to outweigh by far whatever common characteristics they share.

Algeria and Sudan, for instance, were deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, while Ecuador and Chile are democratically elected and accountable governments. Algeria and Ecuador had recently instituted austerity programs rolling back government subsidies that had become core components of the social contract. By contrast, Chile’s economic model has historically lacked a social safety net, making life precarious for even middle-class earners, and Iraq is a dysfunctional state that has never fulfilled its end of any meaningful social contract at all. France and Algeria are strong and centralized governments, whereas Lebanon and Iraq are weak and fractured states.

At the same time, even if the social, political and economic context of each country is distinct, there are certain features that are common to most, if not all of them. These include high levels of income and wealth inequality, as well as corruption. In most, also, elites have captured the state and economy, creating glass ceilings for the aspiring middle class and marginalizing the masses.

But perhaps the most striking similarity is not between the countries, but between the various protests themselves: With the exception of Sudan and Ecuador, where they were led or coopted by established organized political or economic actors, all of the movements have been largely leaderless.

That has proved to be a tactical strength, but a strategic weakness. A tactical strength, because the absence of familiar intermediaries, like labor unions or student movements, has thrown government authorities off balance, giving the protesters an advantage in terms of initiative and freedom of action. A strategic weakness, because the absence of any hierarchical leadership has made it difficult for the movements to articulate and pursue formal demands.

As a result, even after governments rescinded the specific measures that had anecdotally sparked the initial protests—in France, Algeria, Chile and Lebanon, for instance—demonstrations have continued, with a wider spectrum of grievances spontaneously rising to the surface. In these countries, as well as in Sudan and Iraq, protesters’ demands quickly snowballed to become a total rejection of the political status quo and a maximalist call for replacing the political system. By contrast, in Ecuador, where the protests were soon subsumed by an established indigenous political movement, the fuel hike that catalyzed the demonstrations was quickly rescinded and a political dialogue was established.

It is too early to tell how events in Lebanon, Iraq and Chile will play out. But if Algeria and Sudan are any indication, the formula of a popular protest movement making maximalist demands of an entrenched political and economic regime can lead to one of two outcomes: violent repression or an impasse that essentially leaves the status quo in place. The Sudanese regime tried the former before opting for a transitional power-sharing arrangement that smacks of an effort to buy time for the latter. Algeria’s so-called pouvoir—or “the power,” as the deep state there is known—has so far accepted a standoff with protesters, refraining from crushing the movement with violence but also refusing to yield power in any meaningful sense.

The challenge for observers trying to make sense of leaderless protest movements expressing a generalized dissatisfaction with the status quo is that it is extremely difficult to interpret what is really driving them. The result is therefore often a pundits’ list of the usual suspects—potential factors that are not so much inaccurate as they are speculative. In the case of the recent protests, these have focused on what the countries have in common, namely economic and social inequality, political exclusion, and widespread corruption among the political and economic elites. All seem plausible, even probable, but determining the degree to which they played a role is more art than science.

What is clear is that even if protests are driven by local grievances, they can have global impact. We appear to have entered another period of political volatility, similar to 2011 with the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement in the U.S. and the anti-austerity Indignados, or Indignant, movement in Spain, when protests can become contagious even if it is hard to pinpoint their vectors of transmission. There are a number of reasons why that could become a challenge for governments, particularly in emerging economies.

To begin with, it’s hard to imagine the factors that might rekindle the kind of rapid economic growth seen in the decade from the early 2000s to the early 2010s, when even after the global financial crisis, emerging economies reaped enormous windfalls by either satisfying China’s voracious demand for commodities, or feeding supply lines for “Made in China, Inc.” Now China’s growth is slowing, perhaps definitively, and developed economies seem locked into a sustained period of low growth, leaving a demand vacuum that will continue to weigh down emerging economies. Meanwhile, the destabilizing impact of President Donald Trump’s trade protectionism has introduced a wild card into the global trade regime previously championed by the United States, with potentially volatile consequences.

For countries in Latin America, this has already meant tightened budgets and lower social spending, with the social repercussions on display in Ecuador and Chile, but also in Argentina. That is only likely to get worse as cash-strapped governments find themselves torn between fiscal responsibility and popular demands for social and economic justice.

It’s hard not to blame the entire situation on the shortsighted failure by both developed and developing countries alike to sustainably address income and wealth inequality, and the resulting challenges of social and political marginalization, when coffers were full at the height of the global economic boom of the late 2000s. Now that cash flows have begun to dry up, governments will be harder pressed to do so, even as popular demands for action grow louder.

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