Jordan: If you listen to international news, and I mean international news, not the latest reporting on presidential tweets, it might seem like the same thing is happening everywhere.
News Clip: Violence flared in anti government protest in Hong Kong. Again, this weekend, Chili is extending the state of emergency to cities and the North and South. Protestors clashing with police in many areas of the capital. Santiago delivered with strength on the streets of Barcelona. Today, protest leaders in Iraq have announced a pause in organized demonstrations to give the government more time.
Jordan: There is no one cause or one demand. Behind these protests. For the most part, they have nothing to do with one another, but of course they do in the larger sense because it says something about the world we live in when so many people in so many countries are in the streets at the same time. What does it say? How new is this? Are the protests spreading around the globe right now connected by any larger themes? And are there really more of them than say, 25 years ago? Or do we just have more access to them? And perhaps most importantly, what determines which of them will succeed and which of them will fail and why? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings this is the big story. Michael Saffi is an international correspondent with the guardian and with the observer. He joins us on the phone from Beirut, Lebanon, and Michael, if it’s possible. Um, and you can do it quickly, cause I, I, I gather from your reporting that it might not be. Give me a sense of all the protests happening around the globe right now.
Michael: Certainly. Well, I’m in the city that I’m actually in right now.
Beirut Lebanon, this same, the most large scale protests since 2005, and Naga is actually Indian. Yesterday. Well. Okay at times hundreds of families and young people waving Lebanon flag. I’m calling for a complete change in the political system that we see elsewhere in the region in Iraq there were reports today that the governments that the protestors were making their way towards the prime ministers.
After yesterday, trying to get into the Iranian embassy there in Baghdad. And we’re also seeing, um, it has the same recently protests in the region of Catalonians in Spain, uh, we’ve seen approach it in Egypt. So of course, um, in Chile, uh, and just to see a South Americans been particularly effective.
There’s also been some unrested coated in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, as if the list really goes on.
Jordan: Do you have a sense of how big this is in terms of the context of recent history? Like when there have last been, uh, quite this level of unrest going on in countries around the world.
Michael: Because I spoke to a professor, and she studied protests and social change and at some of readings university in accident, and she said that she’s actually accessed that often looking at protests since the 1900s and have found that there was a peak in protests recorded in the 1960s and other warring 60 with that, we signed up to that.
Um, and then it began to kind of die off. And then it’s searched again around the year 2009. Um, and so that coincided very neatly with world financial crisis. And since then she says, it hasn’t really let up there. We seeing um significant numbers of protests. There was the Arab spring thing, the occupy wall street protests, and she told me that her daughter shows the amount of protest increasing and as high today as it wasn’t a sixties and it’s been that way for about 10 years.
Jordan: Do we have any idea why?
Michael: Well, we have theories. I don’t think anyone can definitively say that there’s a particular reason for it. Um, pick up point to things such as, for example, with the financial crisis, you know, the sun, I mean, this absolutely catastrophe in economies around the world. One, uh, that’s, we’re still to some extent living in the shadow of, I mean, events like nine 11, for example.
It’s much easier time to understand this best changed the world. Massive waves, but it’s less clear when it comes to things like the financial crisis. But we are, according to many polls, very much leaving in the world. But the crisis still to this young generation and people are the post crisis generation.
So not only did they have the example. Of being poorer than their parents. They also are empowered by technology that didn’t exist in the 1960s and then they’ve not until the mid two thousands primarily that’s social media. And so I was pointed to the fact that young people have access to these extraordinary networks.
That enabled them to organize and edible to spread information, um, that that might actually also be a factor in why we’re seeing so much unrest. It’s simply it much, much easier to organize that it has been in the past.
Jordan: I know that a lot of the protests are about different issues specifically, but you managed to sort of draw some larger parallels as to some of the, some of the things that they have in common.
Michael: Yes, and that was, I have to say, a full exercise because, um, you know, the way you talk to people who are involved in this activism, I really emphasize that they have their own particular characteristics. They don’t like being compared, but nonetheless, you know, we do see some, some common grievances.
One of them clearly in many cases, is that it’s just how have rage at the inequality. That people feel like has been based into the Western societies for things like wages have stagnated over past decades, middle classes are not growing as they were while at the same time, we’d say a very kind about the echelon.
To sustainable 1% however you want to define it, that is doing exceptionally well at the system. And so that’s one common thing that we see across many of these protests. So not all of them, because then you have examples like, um, the, the Hong Kong Kong protests, I mean, Hong Kong is a very prosperous city.
Many of the people protesting their students, they have corporate jobs. You know, they worked at Capitol Pacific for for banks. Based in Hong Kong, but for them, it’s about, it’s about freedom. It’s about this, you need to be able to govern themselves, be able to throw off what they perceived as the, are the bearing yoke, um, of Chinese governments, of mainland Chinese governments.
So, you know, there are kind of disparate reasons, but if you had to boil it down to one or two themes, it’s about democracy. It’s that, um, economic democracy, um, and about political democracy.
Jordan: When you talk to people who studied these things historically. Do they think that they tend to catch on as in sort of one inspires, another inspires another. And that’s what we’re seeing here.
Michael: Well, this is one of the factors where, um, social media plays a role leads that, you know, the fact that it’s nation now spread so quickly produces a kind of contagion effects. So now. Um, you can see really quickly the messages that are being passed around.
There are no longer the gatekeepers. I mean, it used to be, but if you live in an authoritarian country, you probably wouldn’t even know that there was a protest movement happening in Lebanon or in Chile. Whereas now, even if folks live in pretty restrictive environments has the capacity through social media to actually figure out them, you know, what’s going on, to be able to disseminate messages.
But here is also make the point you made it isn’t just, a weld of globalized information that we’re living and it’s also a world of globalized people. And so far more than in the past. If you are, if you’re a young person with an agent who is at a certain class, I mean, you may have been overseas yourself.
It’s very likely you actually know people who have lived overseas. And so you, you have access not only to information about what’s going on there, but you also know how people are living. I mean, it’s now clear jump on Instagram and have a sense of how people are living in almost every country in the world.
It might not be accurate. But it does create the sense of aspiration and the sense of, um, relative deprivation and and think so. The same way that cuts your eyes, turn Instagram and look at other people’s lives and say, wow, everyone’s having such a wonderful time. People theorize that that protesters, those who are inclined to protest, do the same thing.
I’ll sit there and I’ll look at how people are living in western Europe in parts of Asia and say, well, why can’t we have, you know, why are we different? Why can’t we be completely free? You will be prosperous. And so that might also be a fuel to the anger that might be expressed on the streets.
Jordan: Well what does make a successful protest compared to one that that Peters out? Do we have any factors that tend to play into the, the ones that do win.
Michael: Yes, there are. Um, there’s famously a rule that’s called the 3.5% rule, that if you can marshall that percentage of your population right, 25% of your population in a sustained nonviolent movement, then the statistics suggest that you will achieve your goal.
Um, and so, um, at the my bicycle level, the success of a protest by numbers, you need to demonstrate. But you have a sufficiently large percentage of population who agreed to June is committed enough to actually go out onto the street to take all the risk that entails. So that’s definitely one factor.
Another point made to me that relates to social media. There were a couple of analysts I spoke to who said that while social media allows people to organize a protest quickly. What Compton is, replace the factors that have traditionally been associated with successful social movements. Um, that seems like a leadership structure life, a kind of manifesto, a sense cut this, everyone’s sliding for an organization.
All of these things that have always made social movement successful. Yeah. They haven’t changed. They remain really important factors and things that social media itself congresses. And so the points that people in study this make to me is that the challenge confronting any protests in Iraq and Lebanon in chili and elsewhere, they’ll need to follow up the action that they’ve managed to create on the streets with some form of organization.
There was an analyst I was speaking to the specialize in North Africa, and he made the point that in, in those societies, perhaps everywhere, the elites are pretty well entrenched. And so you see a country like Egypt with liberal protests. In 2011 they managed to unseat the government. However, the kind of basic a core elite in the army and the judiciary in the security services was unchanged.
And the political movements that emerged from the protest. If you look them brotherhood, all your more kind of younger secular accidents. Were hopelessly outmatched by this quote unquote deep state that they were confronted with. And so for protest movement to actually succeed, the sort of the common governing Navient, um, it requires, uh.
you know organization support. Then some pretty skillful leaders. I mean, people who we look back on as kind of heroes of history, people like Joel hollow memory, the first prime minister of India. What these people had was the kind of an X factor, and I believe looking to inspire as organizing to actually govern after they achieve the protests goals.
Jordan: As I think about the protests around the world right now, I don’t. I can’t think of one that has that kind of leader. I mean you can you?
Michael: I mean in a sense of letting non, for example, across social media at the moment, the same different manifests are getting around. People are now at pains to say that the protest movement does have goals, but you have to say that whether as a result of social media with some other factor.
Very few or none of these movements have a really prominent leader. Someone who, um, you know, could, you could sort of take the mantle of leadership, um, if any of the movements wouldn’t succeed. And you know, that history tells us that two day weakness without a strong ego or without a strong group of a prominent set of goals that people to rally around.
It becomes a lot harder for these movements to have longer term successes. Having said that, we’re in a new world here. You know, w when looking back at theories and trying to interpret what we’re saying today through the lessons of the past, so much in the world has changed in any, I mean, there could be youthfulness of leadership that emerge from this technological environment that we now live in.
We did see, um. You have to have not been seen before. In retrospect, we’ll be, we’ll say what we’re seeing now is the kind of birthing pains of the new forms of leadership.
Jordan: What’s it like for yourself to cover these protests day to day? I imagine there must be a kind of ebb and flow and a rhythm to them that some days are more chaotic than others. What’s it like to just sort of be in there the entire time?
Michael: I would say that in the case of Lebanon, the move, the movement fields. Uh, very exciting and very vulnerable at the same time. Sometimes you will go out for the kind of squares where people are gathering and there’ll be hundreds of thousands, you know, seemingly kind of shouting to people and your thing will, we’ll be strong and feeling like um it can’t, possibly be ignored.
Then occasionally you’ll wonder through the squares quieter periods, and you’ll see, you know, a bunch of tents set up and people play music and only a few stragglers hanging around, and then you kind of think that, that these days it’s a flash in the pan and surely now they’ve, um, you know, they’ve done their dash and they can’t possibly succeed.
Then there’s also the sense that, you know, there’s that famous Nelson Mandela quote, it always seems impossible until it’s done. In a place like Lebanon, it feels impossible because the forces arrayed against these young people are, are enormous. I mean, this whole thing about international governments are talking about militia, to talking about presidents and prime ministers.
Ultimately it’s talking about people that have a monopoly on the use of force, right? The people with guns, and they all have so much invested in the system. And against them are a bunch of, you know, just ordinary people, people who are unarmed, uh, people who have, who have, uh, a lot to lose and very, little leverage other than themselves, other than the sense of solidarity and collective purpose.
And, sorry, I have to say standing. I mean, being here now, it does feel a little bit like, um, it seems very slightly, but then I, I sometimes think that. Had I been around fathered successful protests and movements. Maybe they also felt that way until suddenly, you know, they had one. And, and in retrospect, I appear really strong.
So it’s hard to talk, to kind of interpret sometimes.
Jordan: One other question that I had just because I’m fascinated with it, is, are you surprised that we haven’t seen any of these kinds of protests in the United States given everything that country is dealing with?
It seems like it would be right for one.
Michael: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. Especially because, um. It has such a huge, like left-wing movement. There’s obviously in the president, Donald Trump, someone who you can say it as a real radicalizing influence on one side of the other. You know, I was wondering that question myself as we were kind of surveying the world and trying to understand and trying to kind of.
See if we could knit together this narrative that there is a global protest kind of contagion spreading around the world right now. You know, as we were kind of stumped by the fact that the U S the outlier that don’t appear to be more protests than usual. Although people will say that the Trump era has coincided with the more protests and then you saw them.
march in Washington. Um, the biggest protest in U S history, but we’re not saying this kind of unrest of the kind that some, uh, we saw in, um, uh, like Lebanon. And, you know, I wonder if a couple of theories I can throw out. And one instance. The us is economically doing, not too badly. I mean, if you look at the scale of the last 10 years, it’s certainly on an upswing.
People might not be happy, but they’re not sort of unemployment as low. You know, wages are kind of, it’s steadily growing or, but not, you know, among you, but not fast enough for many people. And that if you look at the election results and the 2016 presidential election. Yeah. It was a pretty evenly divided country, like it wasn’t, it wasn’t something right.
Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a tough country to get a consensus of 60% on anything. And so maybe a lot of the unhappiness that we see expressed in the U S either resulted the bubbles that we live in, and if you went to some communities of that country. I think we feel very Placid, everyone would, more or less agree that y’all, you know, Trump’s kind of a bit of a blowhard, but you he’s our blowhard, he’s doing a good job.
You know, that may be, um, the issue gets one more of the kind of bubbles we live in and then anything else. But yes, I do agree that it’s somewhat concerning that the U S hasn’t seen this kind of, some widespread movements, or to be honest, if you compare. You know, us developing this sticky country to other similar countries.
They’re not saying unrest there either. I mean, there’s nothing of the scale in Canada, nothing in Australia, even UK, and same Brexit protests, but they’ve been more or less pretty civil. It really took the financial crisis with movements like occupy I mean, that was the last time we really saw these kinds of radical movements on the streets and, um, and, and sort of causing a real ruckus. And that was on the way through the financial crisis. So, you know, maybe the driving factor here, if people actually suffer people’s hip pocket, and they get hit hard and we don’t necessarily see that on a massive scale in countries, like the U S or UK.
Jordan: In Lebanon specifically where where you are, what happens if nothing happens, if that makes sense. If people just kind of keep showing up and there’s no official demands and nothing is really given by the elites and like how, how long can that sustain itself? Do you know what I mean?
Michael: Well, this is a very live question because he demands that the protestors, in fact they want everyone gone.
I mean, this slogan is old for me over, I mean you is a divided country, thought the government is a kind of call the kind of fun, like a competition of different sects. So Sunni Muslims, Shia, Muslim, different factions of Christian political organizations and others. The protests were saying we didn’t want, we didn’t want to one section gone, we’ll be other factions on and want them all gone.
And that is something that is not likely to happen because in the end, they factions are the ones with the guns. I mean, this is a country that’s emerged from the civil war 30 years ago. It hasn’t ever really moved past that civil war. Like these militias and factions still exists. They still lie on white.
And the specter of war and chaos hangs over the country all the time. And that’s by design, I mean, that’s used by the political parties to make sure that even though this system is failing in many ways, um, people ultimately stick with it because they think the alternative is a lot worse. Um, so the question is, uh, if, if nothing happens, if nothing.
adequately satisfied the protest has happened will they just hang around. I’m thinking they tried to do this week. Um, you know, to like prevent the movement from stagnating. It’s just today they’ve tried to raise the bar a bit, so they blocked off major roads. Again, they’re calling for more strikes tomorrow.
It’s time to kind of. The pressure as much as they can to make sure that the system doesn’t kind of adjust around them and no matter what, normality doesn’t completely return and they don’t lose momentum and just, it can just be sort of ignored, but they know that they run the risk where if they are pressuring the system too much, we feigned that.
Uh, the parties, you know, have not hesitated to send in thugs to, uh, burn down tents. That there is a spectrum of violence. And so they read this some tight rope. The protesters are walking with their trying to up depression. We’ve got some texting, you know. Bad skip and triggering by once on a larger scale than what we’ve seen so far.
Jordan: Michael, thanks for this and stay safe.
Michael: Thank you very much,
Jordan: Michael Safi reports for the guardian and the observer. That was the big story. For more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You’ll find them all there. You can also talk to us on Twitter at the big story. FPN. You can find us and all of the other podcasts on the frequency podcast network at frequency podcast, network.com or wherever you get podcasts, be an Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page