Governments Can Kill Protesters—but Not Protest

The people want more democracy, even if their leaders want less.

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James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
An Iraqi protester clad with the national flag takes part in anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir square in the capital Baghdad, on Dec. 30.
An Iraqi protester clad with the national flag takes part in anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir square in the capital Baghdad, on Dec. 30.
An Iraqi protester clad with the national flag takes part in anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir square in the capital Baghdad, on Dec. 30. SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images

The cover page of the New York Times’ annual feature “The Year in Pictures” this year featured a Hong Kong riot police officer, anonymous behind a visored helmet, with a plastic shield brandished in one gloved hand and a baton in the other, flames leaping from the sidewalk behind—a figure at once dreadful and imperiled. No image could have more concisely represented a year in which state repression and public protest increased in equal measure, feeding off one another.

The batons, tear gas, and bullets are not news. According to the Civicus Monitor, which compiles data on the scope of personal liberty, 40 percent of the world’s people now live in countries where freedom of association or expression are routinely violated—up from 19 percent in 2018. But that’s only half of the story. The flames and the shield remind us, as the report also notes, that 2019 was a year of people power.

In Bolivia, massive demonstrations this year forced President Evo Morales to flee the country after he tried to rig an election; in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera declared martial law in the face of the largest protests since the ouster of the dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s; and in Ecuador, riots paralyzed the economy and left seven dead after President Lenín Moreno imposed an austerity package in order to qualify for a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The cover page of the New York Times’ annual feature “The Year in Pictures” this year featured a Hong Kong riot police officer, anonymous behind a visored helmet, with a plastic shield brandished in one gloved hand and a baton in the other, flames leaping from the sidewalk behind—a figure at once dreadful and imperiled. No image could have more concisely represented a year in which state repression and public protest increased in equal measure, feeding off one another.

The batons, tear gas, and bullets are not news. According to the Civicus Monitor, which compiles data on the scope of personal liberty, 40 percent of the world’s people now live in countries where freedom of association or expression are routinely violated—up from 19 percent in 2018. But that’s only half of the story. The flames and the shield remind us, as the report also notes, that 2019 was a year of people power.

In Bolivia, massive demonstrations this year forced President Evo Morales to flee the country after he tried to rig an election; in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera declared martial law in the face of the largest protests since the ouster of the dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s; and in Ecuador, riots paralyzed the economy and left seven dead after President Lenín Moreno imposed an austerity package in order to qualify for a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Elsewhere, vast demonstrations have rocked Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon—countries that were largely bypassed by the Arab Spring. In all save Iran, public outrage over corruption and neglect has forced out the heads of state. The spark of protest that was extinguished after 2011 has clearly flared back to life.

Because they are so diffuse, the uprisings of 2019 do not feel like a coherent event. Yet they are fed by common grievances and represent a common demand to be heard and heeded. “People want more democracy,” as Thomas Shannon, a former high-ranking U.S. diplomat, put it when I asked about the upheavals in the Americas. This was true even in a relatively liberal country like Ecuador, where Moreno slashed fuel subsidies and deregulated markets without so much as consulting his partners. Moreno was punished not only for adopting neoliberal policies—an all-too-familiar reaction—but for treating democratic accountability as an afterthought.

Chile, widely considered South America’s great success story, endured a full-blown public uprising after Piñera imposed an increase of about $0.04 on peak-hour transit fares. As provocations go, it was trivial. But the first protests popped the lid on deep resentments over profound inequality, widespread poverty, and disappearing pensions. “There was a crisis of representation,” Shannon said, “among significant hunks of people who did not trust politicians or political parties to respond to their needs.” Piñera made matters much worse by declaring martial law and cracking down violently on protests, in which 22 people died. Chileans regarded the democratic liberties they had won a generation earlier as sacrosanct, and they returned to the streets rather than cower at home.

Near-revolutionary conditions shocked elites into compromise in both of these relatively liberal states. Elsewhere, rulers have dug in; there is no reason to doubt the willingness of China’s Xi Jinping to crush the protests in Hong Kong rather than respect the limited freedoms that remain under the “one country, two systems” model. The Arab Spring should have taught the world that autocrats are prepared to wade through blood to keep their grip on power. Yet they don’t always succeed.

In the single greatest success of people power in 2019, mass protests forced out Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who in the past resorted to genocide to extinguish regional revolts. A transitional regime is now preparing a return to civilian rule, while Bashir has been sentenced to prison and may face  prosecution for war crimes (though his brutal henchman, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, remains a central figure behind the scenes).

Fury at the nexus between corruption and economic failure has propelled the protests in Lebanon and Iraq. When Lebanon’s economy tipped into full-fledged crisis earlier this year, Lebanese citizens stopped accepting the long-standing bargain in which a crumbling state was dominated and plundered by leaders of the country’s various confessional groups.

The young people who have taken to the streets in numbers last seen during the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005 have denounced not just cronyism but the ethnic spoils system itself. Protests have crossed sectarian lines, though they remain far stronger among Sunnis and Christians than Shiites. As one activist told the Guardian, the “hidden hand” that Lebanese rulers always blame for popular agitation “is actually just our dignity that woke up. We’ve been silent and sedated for so long, we’ve now awakened.”

No one crisis triggered the mass demonstrations in Iraq, in which over 300 people have died in three months. But simmering public anger bubbled over at a government that earns $68 billion a year from oil and yet cannot provide water and electricity to its citizens. Protesters crossed what had previously been a red line by turning their wrath on Iran; in November, Shiite protesters in the holy city of Najaf—shouting “Out, out Iran!”—burned down the Iranian consulate.

The rage at Iran has less to do with Iraqi nationalism than with Iraqis’ contempt for their own rulers, who are seen as puppets of Tehran. Protesters have also set fire to the headquarters of political parties and government buildings. As in Lebanon, young people with no memory of the horrors of an earlier generation no longer tolerate what their parents accepted. As Paul Salem, the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, argues, young Iraqis experience their grievances in generational rather than overtly sectarian terms. “They are Shiites, but this generation is developing an identity that is not only completely independent of Iran but opposed to it,” he said.

Salem compares today’s protests to Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, when citizens rebelled against Syrian domination. That is a sobering analogy, as the upheaval left Lebanon’s own sectarian governing bargain intact. A mobilized public can oust a discredited leader, at least in countries that have meaningful elections, as Iraq and Lebanon do. But political cultures, especially ones shaped and scarred by violence, change very slowly. It is rare for people who have retreated to tribal identities under the pressure of civil war to regain a sense of national purpose.

Yet it matters that people no longer accept what they accepted before; it matters that people expect to be heard. As the level of repression needed to contain public anger increases, some leaders will tighten the screws, while others will give way—or will be compelled to do so.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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