With mass protests breaking out across a number of world capitals, it would seem the last few months have been unkind to the world. People in Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, Egypt and more recently in Iraq, Chile and Lebanon, have been forced to take to the streets seeking justice and equality, and respite from corrupt governing systems.
Yet, rocked by messy and violent protests of desperate people resorting to desperate measures to raise their collective voices against disparity and inequality, the world is fast waking up to an unpleasant fact—although we are seeing its manifestation now, the actual unkindness has been going on since long. In fact, it has been enshrined in an insidious, self-perpetuating system that underpins much of modern society.
Almost all of the protests have economic motives—the one in Chile sparked by hiked subway fare, in Lebanon due to tax on WhatsApp calls, scandalous revelation of corruption against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt by a former government contractor, and increasing disparity and corruption in Iraq. And from there these protests have snowballed into cries for bigger demands: dismantling of corrupt political systems and reforms.
In Chile despite the president reversing his decision to increase subway fare and apologising to the people, the protests did not stop. In Lebanon, Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister could not quell the protestors; they are demanding bigger reforms and have vowed to remain on the streets till their demands are met, reminding one of the resilient protestors of Sudan who left the streets only after the Transitional Military Council gave in to their demands for a civilian transitional government and transparent elections. In Iraq the people are still protesting asking for their rights and reforms despite brutal government crackdowns that have left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
These protests reveal the decay in the political institutions of these countries, where democracies have turned into corrupt systems that feed on the people and national resources.
Chile, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, has the one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, where according to a 2014 data by Forbes, the combined wealth of its billionaires is equivalent to 25 percent of the country’s GDP. According to a report by The Guardian, the country has an incredible unemployment rate of 55 percent. Of the people who are employed, only 50 percent can barely save up enough to fund a pension. Since more Chileans live in debt, they have to pay more for the same services than the rich, because the rich can pay in cash, while the commoners have to depend on credit.
The situation is similar in Lebanon where income inequality is stark. According to a 2017 UNDP report, the Gini coefficient puts Lebanon at 129 in income inequality among 141 countries. World Bank estimates suggest that the country’s budget deficit stands at 11.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), while its government debt stands at a staggering 151 percent of GDP. Lebanon is suffering from a severe shortage of US dollars, which has forced its government to find new financial instruments and trade mechanisms to import essentials: staples, medicine and fuel. And amidst these economic hardships, the embarrassing revelation that the prime minister in 2013 had presented gifts worth USD 16 million to a swimsuit model in Seychelles, has only made matters worse for the government. Despite support from the powerful Hezbollah, Saad Hariri had to resign from office in the face of unrelenting protest on October 29.
In Egypt, a revelation by a government contractor that the president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was involved in corruption in commissioning palaces across the country, led to street protests by helpless people. At a time when the country was reeling from austerity measures under an IMF loan programme amounting to USD 12 billion, such news came as a trigger for the people who had had enough of austerity, while the government high-ups were indulging in mass corruption. According to Goldman economist Farouk Soussa, the protests in Egypt “serve as a reminder of the potential risks to social stability emanating from the decline in living standards among a large proportion of Egyptians in recent years, combined with widely reported allegations of corruption in the ruling political and military elite.” It was soon contained though by the coerce might of the Sisi administration.
In Iraq the living condition of the common people is so dire that education of children is hampered due to economic disparity. According to a report by France 24, in Iraq graduation from secondary schools is highly dependent on socio-economic factors, as a result 72 percent of the graduates come from the wealthiest section of the country, while only 23 percent of the poorest students can manage to complete secondary school.
Political theorist Francis Fukuyama tells us how three elements are essential for a well-ordered society and good governance: a strong state, the rule of law and democratic accountability.
Often when the centre becomes too strong it supresses accountability and rule of law, especially in democracies where balancing factors like the opposition, free media and civil society are repressed. And with diminished rule of law and accountability, often these governments become corrupt institutions that allocate the country’s resources to feed their own insatiable needs.
This leads to economic disparity where the elites, including the government cronies, enjoy public assets and wealth, and the rich become richer, while the poor become poorer. And this goes on for a while, until things reach a boiling point when the sufferers rise up and take to the streets in their quest for economic and political equality.
For a nation to flourish and prosper, a healthy democracy is required where strong centres are complemented by accountability and rule of law, a strong opposition, freedom of media and free discourses of the civil society; where allocation of national resources are made wisely and for the betterment of the citizens. Otherwise these protests will keep taking place, from one country to another, calling for the fall of one corrupt governing institution after another.
This is not the way of the silent majority, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem