As 2020 begins with news of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, it is important that we reflect on the defining features of the 2010s for a better understanding of the times we're going through. Among the most striking political stories of the last decade were, of course, Brexit in the UK and President Donald Trump's win in the US. However, if one is to decide what really defined the decade across continents, it certainly is the rise of civil rights movements and protests by the ordinary people. In 2010s, millions of people took to the street to demand freedom, justice, and democratic rights from Europe to Asia to Africa.
The list of countries hit by major protests since 2010 is remarkably long and covers almost every region of the world. Just in 2019, significant protests erupted or continued in Egypt, Hong Kong, Sudan, Indonesia, France, Iraq, Iran, Spain, Chile, Lebanon, Colombia, Venezuela, United States, India, Algeria, Haiti, Brazil, and Peru, among others. It's not surprising that 2019 is being called "the year of protests". However, do these protests with diverse political, social, and cultural contexts have anything in common? What do they tell us about the current state of politics around the world?
Protests led by tech-savvy youth
Protests in 2010s, from Africa to Europe, have been led primarily by the youth with the help of Internet. Some have tied Facebook and other social media platforms to the creation of a "disconnected" and "self-centred" new generation. Yet, it is these tech-savvy teenagers and young adults that have been at the forefront of large-scale protests around the world. The road-safety protests in Bangladesh, organised by school-going children, challenged the authoritarian nature of the political sphere. In Sudan, students, particularly young women, took a leading role in protests that ousted a 30-year-old regime in 2019. The young's concern for political and economic future along with their skills in using social media have characterised the nature of the protests. Facebook, Twitters, WhatsApp and YouTube have played a significant role in galvanising protests.
These technological developments have made it easier to spread outrage, facilitate information dissemination, and create informal networks among large numbers of people. Besides, videos of protests shared online have also inspired further participation. As such, these platforms have fundamentally changed how protests are organised in the Twenty First Century. However, the reliance on social media is also the reason behind these protests being less organised and less enduring and why disinformation and government-imposed restrictions such as shutting down the Internet proved to be major impediments.
For freedom and democracy
One of the key features of the mass protests is that many of these emerged with the demand for greater freedom and democratic rights. The decade began with a series of pro-democracy protests that spread rapidly across the Middle East and North African regions. Known as the Arab Spring, these protests demanded a fundamental transformation of the political landscape and more political participation of the people. Similarly, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong came about to protest a proposed electoral reform which, the protesters believed, restricted their rights to choose their government. The Umbrella Revolution also formed the background of 2019 protests in Hong Kong against an unpopular extradition bill, which would have permitted extradition to mainland China. The protests forced the government to back down and the bill was withdrawn in September 2019. Protests in other countries led by young people, for example in Algeria and Sudan, ousted authoritarian leaders in 2019.
However, it is important to note that as the number of pro-democracy protests increased in the 2010s, democratic norms and values have deteriorated at the same time. This erosion in democracy, or democratic backsliding, has been evident in the declining freedom of press and freedom of expression as well as the rise of extreme nationalist ideology across North America, Europe, and Asia. Despite the democratic backsliding, or perhaps because of it, millions of people hit the street with the demand for more democratic rights, greater political participation, and accountability from their governments in the 2010s.
Although many of the recent protests around the world including the 2018 road safety movement in Bangladesh emerged suddenly, longstanding grievances over economic and political issues have been the driving force behind these protests. In Tunisia, the birthplace of Arab Spring, street protests began after a 26-year-old vendor set himself on fire protesting police corruption amidst high unemployment, poor living conditions, and corruption in the country. The Arab Spring protests in the neighbouring countries had a similar background of economic and political grievances. More recently, the Yellow Vests protest in France in November 2018 was also caused by an increase in fuel taxes, eventually leading to a call for actions to address inequality. Similarly, in Venezuela, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against everyday hardship. Severe food and medicine shortages and an extremely high inflation led some 4.5 million people to flee the country. Of course, most of these protests have been responses to local politics with specific demands and goals. Yet, people's ongoing dissatisfaction and frustration over poor governance, corruption, lack of economic opportunities as well as governments' failure to provide goods and services are some of the grievances shared by demonstrators across countries.
Across continents, many of the political protests in 2010s have been anti-government in nature and called for reforms in the political and economic arenas. Admittedly, these protests were met with mixed results. For example, while the Arab Spring led to positive changes in Tunisia, similar protests led to civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In other cases, authoritarian politics remained intact or re-emerged crashing all hopes for democratic changes. The anti-government nature and democratic demands of the protests provoked harsh reactions from the governments. In Hong Kong, hundreds of protesters were injured while thousands were arrested as of December 2019. Violence against the protesters intensified as their demands grew from revoking the extradition bill to establishing full democracy. In Iran, demonstrations against a 300 percent fuel hike in December 2019 was met with an Internet shutdown and brutal crackdown on the protests. In India, the Modi government's responses to protests against the controversial new citizenship law included attacks on students, mass arrests, shutting down of the Internet. Despite such violent responses by governments, the protesters have time and again challenged the status quo and the undemocratic concentration of power.
From Asia to Africa to Europe, the world has witnessed an overwhelming number of protests over the last ten years. Despite having distinct characteristics, these protests illustrated the greater struggle for various forms of freedom. In particular, demands for more democratic rights, accountability of governments, and a better future for all citizens have been the fundamental reasons for the protests. One can debate the success or failures of these protests to bring about desired changes. Yet, millions of protesters across continents have demonstrated that large numbers of ordinary citizens do not feel represented and are willing to fight for more social, economic, and political freedom. The 2010s should thus be remembered as the "decade of protests" by the ordinary people.
Fahmida Zaman is the co-editor of "Political Violence in South Asia" and a PhD student in political science.