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 the same issues are resonating in different parts of the world. The “Arab Spring” seems to be everywhere – and year-round.
Economic inequality prompted the displays of public anger in Iraq, Lebanon and Chile, although each had its own 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. 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 Egypt. In Bolivia, the unrest is about President Evo Morales’s fourth-term election victory, which some describe as a fraud (and he has resigned). In Barcelona, it is anger at the harsh prison sentences for nine Catalan leaders. In Egypt, it’s focused on corruption after a businessman, from self-imposed exile in Europe, posted videos on YouTube alleging the squandering of public funds.
In Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, Haiti and France, however, there is nothing so defined. As a Lebanese protester told the BBC in reference to the 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.” (The charge has since been scrapped.)
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, says: “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 Lebanon and that Lebanon learned from Hong Kong?
Copycat protests are no less authentic or organic, but they do have a problem. The more the protests are normalized, prompting more and more people to participate in them, the more routine they start to appear and the less threatening they seem to authorities.
They can still force some change: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned; Iraqi President Barham Salih offered new elections. But the protests’ amorphousness means they are less likely to trigger a systemic overhaul.
RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL is a columnist for The Arab Weekly. She blogs at rashmee.com