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Why So Many People Are Taking To The Streets In Protests Around The World


Today Iraq's prime minister announced that he will resign after months of protests in that country. Around the world, millions of people have been demonstrating many thousands of miles apart from Tahrir Square in Baghdad...


SHAPIRO: ...To the streets of Bogota, Colombia...


SHAPIRO: ...To a barricaded university in Hong Kong.


SHAPIRO: To understand why so many people are taking to the streets now, we turn first to three reporters. NPR's Jane Arraf has been covering protests in the Middle East, NPR's Philip Reeves in South America and reporter Guy Hedgecoe is with us from Madrid.

Welcome to all three of you.



GUY HEDGECOE: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: From Lebanon to Iraq, Iran to Algeria, people have been marching against their governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do they all have something in common?

ARRAF: Well, they actually do, and the most obvious one, Ari, is these are protests led by young people. And the common theme is injustice, basically - government corruption, unemployment, poverty, lack of government services. They have this rage against the traditional political class. Like, where do these people get their fortunes when the rest of the people are going hungry?

The most violent responses so far to this have been in Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, I spoke to a young university student - graduated from political science, has not been able to find a job for six years. And this is what he told me about how he felt about that government response to their demands.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We know what they want. They want to kill us to stay in there - in the government, to stay stealing, to take everything from Iraq.

SHAPIRO: So young people protesting a government that they see as dysfunctional. Phil Reeves, you are right now in Rio de Janeiro, but I know you've been all over Latin America. Tell us which countries you've been to and how similar what you've seen sounds to what we just heard from Jane.

REEVES: Oh, I see similarities, definitely. I mean, there've been protests in half the countries of South America in the last couple of months.


REEVES: They've been triggered by different things in different cases, driven by forces that are peculiar to each nation, but there clearly are some big underlying themes. For example, listen to Fernanda Rochas. She's a sociology student in Chile who's been taking part in the protests there.


FERNANDA ROCHAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She's saying that people are tired and the state needs to stop repression. That's a reference to the brutal tactics used by some of the police and army there. But she also goes to much bigger themes immediately. She talks about a crisis in health and in education, and she talks about an overall social crisis, which she thinks has to stop.

In Ecuador, the protests there were against austerity measures. In Bolivia, the protests started out because of the perception among the opposition that there was election fraud by Evo Morales in order to keep power. So that plus a contempt for the political elite caused by mind-boggling corruption scandals in Latin America - and finally, it's really worth noting that these protests, from the outside, seem to be leaderless, but they're organized. So it seems to me they're making - these protesters are making full use of the cross-fertilizing emotion-magnifying powers of the Internet.

SHAPIRO: So to pivot then to Europe, where the protests look very different, whether we're talking about the yellow vests in France or climate demonstrations in Sweden or the marchers in Spain where you are, Guy Hedgecoe - tell us about what you're seeing.

HEDGECOE: Well, most of the demonstrations we've seen recently in Spain have been up in the Catalonia region up in the northeast of the country. Catalonia is the largest economy of Spain's 17 regions, and there are a number of reasons why there have been these demonstrations. Half of Catalans - or just under half of Catalans want to break away from the Spanish state. There's been this independence drive over the last few years. Now, it's driven by several reasons. Some of them are political. Some of them are cultural. But there are also economic reasons driving this independence push.

Now, unusually, it's not the sense that Catalans are being left behind by the rest of Spain or left behind by globalization. What's driving this in an economic sense is that Catalans are seen as the - sort of the powerhouse of Spain, and yet they have to return many of their taxes - or most of their taxes to the central government, which then redistributes them around the rest of the country. So in a way, they feel that they're almost subsidizing other poorer regions in the rest of Spain, and that irritates many Catalans. And that's one of the main reasons why they want to break away from the rest of the country.

SHAPIRO: Almost a reversal that in Spain, it's the haves angry about the have-nots, whereas in the Middle East and Latin America, it's often the have-nots angry about the haves but still returning to this question of distribution of wealth and inequality.

REEVES: Up to a point, Ari. I mean, Chile - it's important to remember it's actually, economically, the most successful of the countries in South America. And a lot of the people who are taking part in those protests are middle-class and, indeed, even from the wealthier classes.

SHAPIRO: Are you all seeing a fear of contagion from countries in the region where there haven't been big protests yet?

ARRAF: Absolutely. I mean, we've seen protests in Iran. Protests in Iraq are thought to have influenced each other. But there are a lot of countries that are looking at this, a lot of countries where there are entrenched political leaders and a lot of grievances, thinking, oh, gosh. That could happen here. And it takes us back a little bit, I think, to the Arab Spring in 2011, which kind of fizzled out almost everywhere.

SHAPIRO: In Hong Kong, pro-democracy parties made big gains in recent elections. In Iraq, as we mentioned, the prime minister has said he will resign. I mean, do you think demonstrators are likely to succeed, or are we likely to see violent crackdowns?

REEVES: In some cases here - very significantly, I think - they are succeeding. We have seen, in Ecuador, the government backed down on its plans to cut fuel subsidies, the thing that triggered the protests there. In Chile, the president, Sebastian Pinera, has made a number of concessions, and Congress there has agreed to rewrite the Constitution. And while people are communicating with each other across the Internet and seeing protests in other places succeed, I think that increases the likelihood that protests in the region will continue for that reason - because they're delivering results.


HEDGECOE: I think sometimes, protest movements tend to want to compare themselves with other ones elsewhere around the world. Sometimes, they want to avoid those comparisons. I think the Catalan independence movement wants to avoid comparisons with Brexit - you know, Britain's attempt to break away from Europe - because the Catalan independence movement sees itself as very pro-European. So they're very wary of comparisons with the Brexit movement.

Next door in France, you have the yellow vest movement, which are people who feel they've been left behind economically. There's a feeling that it's fizzled out somewhat, so that movement certainly seems to be struggling, rather, in the current situation.

SHAPIRO: And Jane?

ARRAF: Yeah. Well, they've made gains in Algeria. They managed to get a president who had been in power for more than 20 years to step down. In Iraq, the prime minister says he'll resign, but the costs in Iraq have been enormous. Almost 400 young protesters have been killed. And one thing we've seen is that this is a generation, basically, that feels it has nothing to lose. They are fearless, and with every person who is killed, it seems to increase that determination for them to stay out in the streets, to risk their lives, because they feel like that's the only way forward.

SHAPIRO: With a global view of this wave of protests, that's Jane Arraf in Syria, Phil Reeves in Brazil and Guy Hedgecoe in Spain.

Thank you so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

HEDGECOE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn now to Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies protest movements. Welcome to the program.

SEVA GUNITSKY: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: How does what we just heard from these correspondents fit with what you have learned and concluded from your academic research?

GUNITSKY: Well, it seems consistent with the idea that it's hard to pin down one common cause as much as we'd like to because the sparks are so different in these places. In Chile, it was a hike in subway prices. In Hong Kong, it's an extradition law. In Bolivia, it's a contested election, and so on and so forth.

SHAPIRO: So can you pinpoint a reason for what appears to be a massive global wave in protests even if the instigating factors were different from country to country?

GUNITSKY: Well, I think even if the direct causes are different, we can see behind them a set of common grievances, and that is the sense that people don't feel like they're in control of their government. And they want more say in the kinds of things that shape their lives on a daily basis. The economics play a huge role, but it's not just economics. It's also demographic - the sense that young people are denied a stake in the economic system that they're supposed to perpetuate, that the system is especially rigged in favor of the older generation who hold all the power.

SHAPIRO: Social media allows protesters in Lebanon to see what protesters in Hong Kong are doing. How much of a factor is that in the growth of these demonstrations?

GUNITSKY: So we've seen a lot of learning among protesters, especially over the past year or two, partly because social media makes learning instantaneous. And, you know, I think people do sometimes overstate the role of social media. I think the Arab Spring was the culmination of this idea that social media was going to bring down all the dictators because it allowed everybody to organize. But it quickly turns out that's not the case because governments can use social media, too, for their own purposes. They can mobilize their supporters. They can surveil opposition. They can find out what their people are thinking.

So just as reform movements learn from each other, governments also learn from successes and failures abroad. And we see this sort of ever-escalating arms race between the protesters and the leaders and techniques of protests and techniques of protest suppression on social media.

SHAPIRO: And what does the research show about how these demonstrations are likely to end? What makes the difference between a successful protest and one that results in a violent crackdown by authorities?

GUNITSKY: It seems to be the case that protests are just easier to organize today, and there's now more non-violent protest movements in the last 20 years than ever before, averaging more than 50 movements each year. During most of the Cold War, during the '90s, you had about half that. So this is a golden age for social movements in some way, at least for their numbers, at least for their visibility.

But success rates, not so much. Actually, we've seen a decline in the success rates of social movements by about 20% compared to just 10 years ago.


GUNITSKY: And I think there are really two main factors at work here that could explain that. One is the nature of the protests themselves. They're easier to organize than ever, partly because of social media. It enables collective action. It allows protests to be mobilized on a larger scale than ever before. But social media still cannot replace the really hard work of building durable movements, which means physically organizing people, which means having a leadership structure.

The other big factor is that autocrats are smart. They can adapt. They can co-opt challengers by buying them off. They can anticipate protests. We saw a lot of this with previous protest movements in the 1990s, for example, and I imagine we'll see a lot of the same things today.

SHAPIRO: Seva Gunitsky is author of "Aftershocks: Great Powers And Domestic Reforms In The 20th Century."

Thanks for joining us today.

GUNITSKY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.