Revolutions, but not as we know them

A new report traces how protest movements around the world come about.

Protests in Brazil in 2013 were sparked by a spike in public transportation fares [AFP/Getty Images]

In the 25 years since the Tiananmen Square protests in China, we have seen a remarkable number of popular uprisings around the world. This so-called “revolutionary wave” – spanning from the “colour revolutions” at the end of the Cold War to the Arab Spring in 2011 – has ushered in a new period of democratisation. But the latest rounds of protests, best exemplified by the rallies and strikes in Brazil ahead of the football World Cup, represent a new wave of mobilisation that is more complicated and troubling in many ways. 

This is not to say that we have seen the end of revolutionary movements. Indeed, even where protests have taken place in the last five years – Myanmar, Iran, Egypt and indeed China – democratisation is not complete. And, of course, there are the protests that have taken place in established western democracies such as the Spain’s “indignados” or outraged demonstrations and the Occupy movement – against the capture of democracy itself by vested elite interests.

What is new is that recent uprisings have taken place not in autocracies but in countries that have reasonably healthy electoral democracies, that have experienced fairly steady economic growth, and that are often held up as “emerging” market success stories. New social movements are coalescing not around regime change but around anger with political institutions and elites that have failed to deliver the prosperity or equality they have promised.

In Brazil, what started as a few students protesting bus fare rises quickly snowballed into a large-scale movement around poor governance and inequality that included middle class professionals and “favela” or slum residents. In Turkey, what started as a handful of people trying to prevent the bulldozing of a central Istanbul park to build a shopping mall in May 2013 turned into a mass-scale movement that has mobilised regularly on issues ranging from internet freedom to anger over the recent Soma mine tragedy.

Inside Story Americas – Brazil: Protests of discontent

In Venezuela, students have occupied public squares in several cities, and marches against food shortages, economic instability and crime are regularly held. India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen mass mobilisation against corruption and gender violence. 

Several factors, detailed in a new report by CIVICUS, have come together to trigger this new wave of people power. 

In general, these mobilisations are not centrally organised or led by anyone or any organisation, let alone a political party. Instead, they are amorphous, something that makes them attractive to many who take part. These are people who are fed up with political institutions that they see as being controlled by self-serving elites and political parties that have lost touch with reality. These are the people who are unlikely to vote or join a political party, but who will take to the streets to demand political change.

A key factor in the new wave is the role of mobile phones and social media, which makes it easier to organise and mobilise than ever before. National surveys in Brazil and Turkey show that the majority of protesters were informed about protests and motivated to participate in events by social media. There is also research that suggests that young people’s experience of the ease of participation and having their voices heard in social media is flowing out into the offline world; expectations of being listened to have been raised, and when these expectations are thwarted, dissent results.

Another interesting development, perhaps made possible by the information age we live in, is that connection between local triggers and wider national or even international issues is readily made. Bus fare rises are linked to exorbitant public spending on stadia and tourist infrastructure that will in turn disproportionately benefit economic elites. The loss of green space is linked to corporate greed and safety in mines can be shown to arise out of privatisation and the collusion between business and political leaders.

Finally, the intensity of mobilisation has often grown dramatically as a result of the way the state responds to the initial protests. Dismissing the legitimate grievances of citizens as the result of foreign influences or labelling protestors as terrorists hardly wins hearts and minds. And the heavy-handed use of police or military force to quash gatherings has led to more anger.

This goes to the heart of the challenge posed by the latest wave of protests. While many of the countries discussed here have enshrined civic freedoms and created the space for political dissent, the mechanisms for dealing with growing discontent are not necessarily there; especially where the demand is for radical reform of broken political institutions and unjust economic systems.

Countries such as Brazil and Turkey therefore face a fork in the road – between deepening their democracies to engage with citizen voices or regressing into autocratic responses such as clamping down on protests, restricting internet access and shutting down civil society organisations. The Turkish government seems to have chosen the latter route in recent months and, while the Brazilian government has made concessions in response to previous protests, its commitment to civic freedoms will be tested further in the coming weeks.

Political scientists have long-debated whether revolutions happen at the best of times or the worst of times. Today, it seems that some of the most dramatic mobilisations are happening somewhere in between, in countries which show great prospects for democratic and equitable development but are failing to deliver on their potential. As always, citizens and civil society will need to remain vigilant and hold those in power to account. 

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance.