Christian Caryl

Beyond the Barricades

From the Amazon to the Nile, the masses are taking to the streets. But will the Great Awakening of 2013 actually lead to change?

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

A mass demonstration can be an intoxicating thing. There’s that sheer animal joy of finding yourself cheek to jowl with thousands of other human beings who share your aspirations and desires. For months or years you’ve been harboring your own thoughts about the need for change, and perhaps sharing them with a few family members or friends. Then you make your way to the city square and find it filled with countless faces you’ve never seen before, all alight with the same dream. The banners they’re carrying make the same points you’ve been making in private. You can’t believe that there are so many of them — it’s astonishing! Together, surely, you can stand up to the powers-that-be. 

Every mass protest is based on the same essential calculation: There’s strength in numbers. And that certainly seems to be the assumption that’s animating the astonishing numbers of demonstrators we’ve been witnessing in just the past few weeks, in places ranging from Egypt and Turkey, to Indonesia and Brazil, and even Bulgaria. The causes of discontent are myriad, though certain themes tend to resurface. (Middle-class anxiety is one, though I’m skeptical that it really accounts for everything.) 

The extent of the mobilization is amazing. It’s possible that this weekend’s demonstrations in Cairo were the biggest that have ever been seen on the planet; they do seem to have exceeded in size the protests that actually took place during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. As a result, everyone’s waiting to see how long President Mohammed Morsy can hold on — not least because the protests have graphically demonstrated that his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government enjoys virtually no support from the security forces. Indeed, the army’s latest threat on Monday to intervene within 48 hours if Morsy doesn’t answer the demonstrators’ demands suggests that the position of the Egyptian president is shaky. 

The popularity of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who appears to have been caught completely off guard by the rapid proliferation of the protests in her country, is tanking. The nationwide demonstrations against her Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have vividly demonstrated that a broad cross-section of Turks have deep-seated complaints about his leadership. Small wonder that some observers are questioning how long the rulers can cling to the status quo. "Politicians beware," warned The Economist in its recent cover story on the global wave of protest. 

And beware they should. But will they feel compelled to act? 

Don’t bet on it. First of all, one of the striking things about the current upsurge in mass political protest is that much of it is directed against elected leaders. While both Morsy and Erdogan can be accused of authoritarian inclinations, they got to where they are because of the ballot box — a point that is not entirely to be discounted. That they may also be guilty of overreaching their mandates (or "illiberal majoritarianism," as Tom Friedman calls it) is important, yet it doesn’t change the fact that large majorities of Egyptians or Turks actually voted for these leaders at some point in the recent past. Rousseff, Erdogan, and Morsy can rely on solid electoral mandates. 

The contrast is especially stark in the case of Egypt. Mubarak was a genuine dictator whose power relied on the fealty of the armed forces and societal elites; when their support evaporated, so did his power. Morsy has a large, highly motivated grassroots political organization and millions of mobilized followers behind him. I wouldn’t expect him to roll over any time soon — unless, of course, the army makes good on its threat to get involved. 

Social media are undoubtedly playing a big role in helping the protestors to communicate and organize. But what the enthusiasts of technology tend to overlook is that this can actually enable groups to coalesce around a grab bag of demands. The ease of organizing means that the threshold for coordinated action is much lower than it used to be. 

And that shows. Writing about the Egyptian demonstrators, Shadi Hamid notes that, "If one looks at [the opposition movement’s] justifications for seeking Morsi’s overthrow, the entire list consists of problems that will almost certainly plague his successor." Analysts have spotted a vast range of motives behind the protests against Erdogan. The demonstrators in Brazil have been inspired by a whole host of grievances against the government that range from inflation, poor public services, and hikes in transport fees to corruption and overspending on the World Cup. I’m glad to see that Brazilians are sticking up for themselves, but this list of complaints certainly doesn’t add up to a coherent political program. 

But formulating programs, you might object, isn’t really the job of street protests. They’re about displaying the desire for change; that’s precisely why we call them demonstrations. And that’s why, some contend, the conspicuous absence of established opposition parties or leaders in the recent wave of protests shouldn’t bother us. These are genuine grassroots phenomena, inchoate and messy– as organic and spontaneous as the masses themselves. Why should we expect some sharply formulated plan for action to emerge from the vortex of the streets? 

Well, those demonstrators presumably want things to change in some fundamental way — that’s why they mobilized in the first place. Yet change is hard to effect without a program. What do these protestors want? It’s not clear that they know that themselves. Some, indeed, seem to have fundamental doubts about the value of democracy itself: many of the anti-Morsy demonstrators are calling for the military’s return to politics, while a striking number of the Brazilians harbor deep-seated skepticism about the country’s party system. There’s a difference between mass mobilization and mob rule. Where do we draw the line? 

It’s popular these days to cite the virtues of civil society. Lately activists from places as different as Burma and Cuba have been telling me that pro-democracy opposition parties can no longer be counted on to do the heavy lifting of transcending dictatorship. So they’re hoping instead to cultivate the growth of non-government organizations, and the political awareness of their members, as a way of promoting genuine grassroots democracy. That’s an admirable goal — albeit a long-term one. Civil society groups are a vital component of any genuinely liberal society. (And it’s worth noting that we didn’t see anyone in Egypt take to the streets to protest the Morsy administration’s draconian draft law restricting the activities of NGOs.) 

But civil society has its limits. So, too, do street protests. Just for the record: my sympathies are entirely on the side of the protestors in all countries who are pushing back peacefully against the failures of incompetent or overweening governments. As Americans have seen all too vividly in the case of Occupy Wall Street, though, mobilization isn’t the same thing as actually effecting change. Taking a stand feels good. The hard part comes afterward.

 @ccaryl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola