While Lebanese and Iraqi protests can force through some change, their amorphousness means they are less likely to trigger a systemic overhaul.
In no particular order, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Haiti, Spain, France. That list is not complete. Squalls of street protests around the world are filling television screens and Twitter feeds.
In some ways, it is reassuring that many of the same issues are resonating in different parts of the world. The “Arab spring” seems to be everywhere — and all year round.
The fabled “Arab street,” a metaphor once touted by Western analysts to explain ominous and inchoate public opinion, appears to run through many conurbations outside the region. Not too long ago, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote: “There is not one Arab Street.” To that, one might add, the notional Arab street is now in Europe, East Asia and South America, too, at least in the sense of febrile public sentiment causing political turmoil.
Economic inequality prompted the displays of public anger in Iraq, Lebanon and Chile, although each had its own bespoke trigger. Iraq and Lebanon share with Haiti the frustration of years of misgovernance.
What’s interesting about the protests almost anywhere in the world right now is their lack of form and a clear leader. Gatherings of differing sizes and intensities take random shape. Sometimes, as in Lebanon and Iraq, they sing or dance to infantile songs such as “Baby Shark” rather than revolutionary anthems.
As for goals, they are sweeping and indistinct, except for Bolivia, Spain and possibly Egypt. In Bolivia, the unrest is about President Evo Morales’s fourth-term election victory, which some describe as a fraud. In Barcelona, Spain, it is anger at the harsh prison sentences for nine Catalan leaders. In Egypt, the protests were focused on corruption after a businessman, from self-imposed exile in Europe, posted videos on YouTube alleging the squandering of public funds.
In Iraq and Lebanon, (or for that matter, Chile, Hong Kong, Haiti and France) however, there is nothing so defined. As a Lebanese protester told the BBC in reference to the now-scrapped daily charge imposed by the government on voice calls made through WhatsApp and other apps: “We are not here over the WhatsApp. We are here over everything.”
Haider Jalal, a 21-year-old protester in Baghdad, offered a broad manifesto for the sort of change he might regard as acceptable. It had to be wholesale, the draining of the entire swamp: “I hope to get rid of all the parties that participated in the political process from 2003 to today.”
So, what is happening and why? Michael Heaney, a research fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, said: “There’s been more protests and there’s been more coverage of protests, which means that people are learning more about protests. The other is that people are sharing information through social media and communicating with one another about protests.”
Does that mean Iraq is the copycat result of nearby Lebanon and that Lebanon learnt from Hong Kong, where the cycle of protests began five months ago? It’s probably fair to say that there is an imitative element because of repeated exposure to images and video from protests.
This does not render copycat protests less authentic, organic or deeply felt but they do have a problem. The more the protests are normalised, prompting more and more people — even families with young children — to participate in them, the more routine they start to appear and the less threatening they seem to authorities.
And, while they can force through some change — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned; Iraqi President Barham Salih offered new elections — the protests’ amorphousness means they are less likely to trigger a systemic overhaul or the clear view of the shining city on the hill demanded by protesters.
Originally published in The Arab Weekly