During the past several years, large-scale protests by citizens against their governments have erupted all over the world. While some cases have not been very surprising—like the latest outbreak of massive demonstrations in France against proposed pension reforms—many others caught the world off guard, like those in Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan last year and more recent protests in Chile and the Czech Republic.
The spate of protests has garnered significant attention from journalists and other political observers, as well as a flood of articles examining the trend and hypothesizing explanations. Although these accounts have contributed much useful analysis, they often fall into an analytic trap: the pursuit of a single, overarching explanation. With a diverse range of protests to choose from, observers determined to explain protests through one specific lens can find evidence to substantiate their point of view. Yet, although such explanations are attractive in their sweep and simplicity, they ultimately obscure more than they clarify.
To help illuminate the protest trend in a new, more comprehensive way, Carnegie has created the Global Protest Tracker. The tracker gathers and presents information about significant protests that have occurred worldwide since 2017, including triggers, underlying drivers, duration, size, and outcomes.
The information presented in the tracker highlights the shortcomings of at least five common reductive takes on the global protest wave.
1. The coronavirus crisis sounds the death knell of the global protest wave.
Since the rapid outbreak of the new coronavirus, dozens of governments have responded with emergency actions, many of which directly affect civic freedoms and human rights. In particular, many governments have limited public gatherings of any substantial size, which has the immediate effect of dramatically curtailing protest activity globally.
Although these measures have a clear public health rationale, some are part of broader efforts by authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning governments to use the pandemic as an excuse to engage in wider crackdowns on opposition, independent civic activity, and dissent. In Hungary, a recently passed law extends the current state of emergency indefinitely and permits the imprisonment of individuals who spread information interpreted as impeding the government’s response to the coronavirus. With protests in Chile and Hong Kong moving off the streets due to concerns over the coronavirus, the prospects for the global protest wave might seem more unfavorable than ever.
Although the coronavirus and the ensuing restrictions on public assembly will challenge protest movements, the global protest wave is by no means moribund. Government responses to the virus have already sparked a spate of new protests. Prisoners in Lebanon and Italy have rioted over unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, Brazilian and Colombian citizens have banged pots and pans from their windows to protest their leaders’ public health response, and over half a million Israelis joined a Facebook Live protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adjournment of the Knesset.
The current pause in protests might actually bolster the long-term sustainability of existing protests by providing fatigued demonstrators in areas such as Hong Kong and Chile with time to recuperate and strategize. The unfolding economic devastation resulting from the virus and the governance crises it has triggered may also sow the seeds for future protests. By exposing governments’ incompetence in key areas such as public health and socioeconomic justice, the global pandemic could reinvigorate existing protests or even ignite demonstrations in new contexts.
2. The protest wave signals a global crisis of democracy.
In this view, the dominant leitmotif of protests is citizen anger over the failure of democracies to represent their interests effectively, a failure that feeds broader frustration toward political parties and politicians. This creates conditions ripe for democratic decline, as seen in recent years with the emergence of illiberal populists who make extravagant promises of radical change but threaten to erode crucial democratic institutions and norms.
Certainly, some of the protests reflect significant discontent toward democratic governments. In Chile, a focus of popular outrage has been the Augusto Pinochet–era constitution that limits the reach of Chile’s welfare state and centralizes most political power in the executive. The protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his various reforms to France’s welfare state have portrayed him as out of touch with everyday citizens.
Yet the broader picture is more complex. Of the approximately one hundred protests included in the tracker, fifty-eight have taken place in countries rated as “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House. Popular fatigue and anger toward authoritarian leaders remain a reality that can manifest in public demonstrations of significant size, despite the difficulties of mounting a protest in dictatorships, where freedom of expression and assembly tend to be curtailed.
Moreover, in most democracies where large-scale protests have been taking place, the protests do not fundamentally reject democracy as an ideal but instead object to its current manifestation in a specific context. In India, protesters have denounced the ruling party’s pursuit of an exclusionary Hindu nationalism that clashes with the secular principles central to India’s constitution.
In contrast, many protests in nondemocratic countries seek to undo the entire political system or shield basic democratic values from further abrasion. In Iran, protests over an increase in gas prices quickly morphed into demands for fundamental political change, while protests in Venezuela assembled a direct challenge to President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Citizens across Africa—from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to The Gambia, Guinea, and Togo—have mobilized against leaders who tried to subvert term limits. In Europe, threats to judicial independence in Hungary and Poland have driven mass protests. The courage of demonstrators across the globe, often risking their personal safety to call for more democracy, reflects the continued resilience of the democratic ideal rather than its eclipse.
3. The protest wave signals a global crisis of capitalism.
An equally broad-brush account of the global protest wave is that it represents a late-stage warning gong for capitalism, or more particularly what critics tag as neoliberalism. In this view, public anger over various chronic failings of market economics—including rising inequality, marginalization of underprivileged citizens, disintegrating public and welfare services, and dislocation and insecurity in the middle class—are driving the global protest wave.
Some of the protests, like those in Chile, Colombia, and France, stem directly from such issues. But in other cases, statist systems, not rigid market economics, are to blame. In Algeria, state domination of the oil-dependent economy and a failure to build a robust private sector have led to economic stagnation, leaving many among the country’s young and growing population unemployed. Sectarianism can also wreak economic havoc: in Lebanon and Iraq, sectarian political systems have fostered corruption and patronage networks that enrich a coterie of elites at the expense of everyday citizens. In many other cases—like the rebellion of Hong Kong citizens over China’s encroachment on the region’s autonomy, demonstrations in Slovakia over the murder of a prominent investigative journalist, and the outbreak of protests in Kazakhstan around the country’s presidential elections last year—protests have little to do with economic conditions.
4. Most of the recent protests have not accomplished much.
With protests flaring up only to fizzle out across such a wide variety of places, some interpret the protest wave as mostly smoke and little real fire. France has broken out in massive protests yet again, but to what end? While various Arab countries are on the boil again, didn’t we see this movie ten years ago, and where did that lead?
Indeed, some of the protests have failed to deliver significant near-term results. In Russia, despite protesters’ efforts, opposition leaders remained banned from running in local elections. In Iran, government forces repressed protests over a fuel price increase with swift and shocking brutality.
But in other places, enduring protests have yielded promising opportunities for meaningful and transformative political change. In Hong Kong, the central government rescinded the controversial extradition bill, and prodemocracy candidates won a sweeping victory in November’s local council elections. Protesters in Sudan forced the ouster of long-time strongman Omar al-Bashir and reached a power-sharing agreement with the military ahead of democratic elections in 2021. Meanwhile, following large-scale demonstrations, Bolivian president Evo Morales stepped down after almost fourteen years in power and new presidential elections were scheduled for May 2020, although they have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Significant constitutional change finally appears possible in Chile now that the government has agreed to a constitutional referendum in October 2020.
5. The protest wave is all about restless, alienated youth.
Young people have served as the face of many protests in recent years. In Algeria, for example, university students have played an integral role in initiating and sustaining the antigovernment demonstrations. The Hong Kong protesters are predominantly young, with a significant number of teenagers and students participating.
As has been the case in protests around the world for many decades, young people are often the first to go out on the streets. Today, almost 41 percent of the world’s population is under the age of twenty-four. Many of them have come of age in a time of diminishing economic opportunity, rising inequality, and growing authoritarianism, and are more adept than their elders at utilizing new communications technologies to deftly mobilize and organize protest events.
Yet interpreting most protest events as primarily the work of young people masks other important actors. In Ecuador, Hungary, and Jordan, labor unions have been key leaders of protests, while working-class citizens of different ages have provided wells of support in Iran and Venezuela. Women of varied ages have played a critical role in protests in India, Lebanon, and Sudan. Overlooking the impressive heterogeneity of today’s protests can cause observers to underestimate the significance of the protest events and overestimate how easy it will be for governments to shut them down.
A Diverse, Roiling Tide
The global protest wave is a roiling tide of political, economic, and social events driven by a dauntingly diverse array of factors, including the travails of democracy and autocracy alike, the shortcomings of both market and statist economies, public rancor about corruption, demographic bulges, rising sociocultural divides, and much else. Given this complexity, it is imperative to avoid reductive explanations and take note of the very different forces may be at work in multiple places simultaneously. Carnegie’s Global Protest Tracker seeks to aid observers, analysts, policymakers, and activists themselves in comprehending the recent past, present, and unfolding future of the global protest wave.