Demonstrators were out on the streets when I returned to France last week, most of them peacefully protesting but enough burning cars and smashing windows in central Paris for the police to deploy water cannons and tear gas. The latest outbreak marked the first anniversary of a movement, les gilets jaunes or yellow vests, outraged by President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to increase the tax on diesel that fuels most vehicles in rural areas. Although Macron swiftly withdrew the tax, protests have continued in Paris and elsewhere every Saturday since. Participation dwindled, but the anniversary riot showed that the yellow vests are not going away. In this, they stand with the mainstream of protests all over the world.
A Growing Tally
The number of countries experiencing mass protest is growing, as government after government defends a status quo that many people, especially the young jobless, reject. It doesn’t always take much to start a riot. Indians came out over the price of onions. Indonesians marched through their capital to reject Islamist-inspired legislation to prohibit sex before marriage. In Haiti, a starving populace rioted against the rising cost of fuel. Bolivians are protesting a disputed election. A subway fare hike was all people in Chile needed to vent their anger and suffer at least 26 deaths at the hands of security services. Hong Kong’s residents rejected a proposed law to permit automatic extradition of suspects to mainland China and, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam belatedly backed down, expanded their demands to include elections by universal suffrage and amnesty for arrested demonstrators. In Spain, the government’s refusal to consider independence for Catalonia or to release nationalist leaders sparked demonstrations that paralyzed Barcelona. In Iraq, people were just fed up with years of corruption, neglect and Iranian domination. Iranians mobilized to resist increased gasoline prices in their oil-rich, but sanctions-hit country.
After a long struggle, Algerians succeeded in deposing their incapacitated president but are still demanding the replacement of the corrupt military system he represented. Sudan saw a greater victory for popular, nonviolent protest when the military rulers permitted the arrest of President Omar al Bashir and agreed to share power with civilian Cabinet members in a new government. Those achievements remain the exception, however much they give hope to dissidents elsewhere.
The authorities have sent police and, in some countries, the army to control the demonstrators. Security forces have killed protesters in Haiti, Hong Kong, Chile and Bolivia. In France and Spain, there were arrests and injuries but, so far, no deaths. Making concessions, as Macron did, failed to stop the demonstrators, whose demands went well beyond the diesel tax to a rejection of the neoliberal reforms the president promised to implement during his election campaign. Finding a common thread to tie popular outrage around the world together — as observers attempted when the Arab Spring in 2011 spread from Tunisia to other Arab states — may be as difficult as it is futile.
A Moment of Unity in Lebanon
In Lebanon, citizens from all classes and religious communities blocked roads and converged on parliament when the government tried to impose a $6 tax on using WhatsApp. The Lebanese were already burdened with nearly the highest cellphone carriage rates in the world. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who himself became a focus of popular rage for paying a South African model $16 million for undisclosed reasons, dropped the WhatsApp tax but finally resigned when protests grew. The people in the streets of every Lebanese city include Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze, all of whom feel betrayed by the postwar leadership that enriched itself while impoverishing the country and plunging it into unpayable debt. The demonstrations have been peaceful, many of them turning into picnics and music festivals. When people formed a human chain from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south, one Lebanese humorist, who calls himself Karl ReMarks, quipped, “This is historic because it’s the first time ever when Lebanese people have stood in line.”
The president of the normally cautious American University of Beirut, Dr. Fadlo Khuri, expressed support for his students and faculty taking part in the protests. Condemning “a dead-handed, morally bankrupt sectarian kleptocracy,” Khuri urged the protesters to “stay united to overcome the poisonous example set by Lebanon’s political leaders.”
Unity in Lebanon has always been an elusive goal. As recently as last year, Lebanese voters elected the leaders the protesters are now seeking to depose. Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze supported their traditional, sectarian leaders, largely out of fear that other sects would obtain dominance. The new spirit of anti-sectarian unity born of public gatherings may prevail, but that is by no means guaranteed. What Gore Vidal wrote in 1967 of the United States in his novel Washington, D.C., holds true for the Lebanese: “Americans had always believed that their representatives were corrupt since, given the same opportunity, they would be, too.” But corruption went too far in Lebanon, where nearly 30 years after the civil war ended there is no regular supply of electricity and a “generator mafia” of politicians exacts a high price to fill the gap; where tap water is undrinkable and unreliable; where rubbish is left to rot in public spaces; and where schools and hospitals are underfunded.
Elected demagogues, notably Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India, answered public criticism with distractions. Putin has his wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Erdogan launched a battle against the Kurds. Modi suppressed the formerly autonomous province of Kashmir, waged a propaganda war against Pakistan and scapegoated his country’s Muslim minority. The powers that be retain means of coercion to keep people down, but the examples of Sudan and Algeria show they don’t always prevail.
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Main image: Protestors Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile, 22 October 2019. Photograph by Carlos Figueroa.