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The spectre of protest

Published Jun 24, 2013 01:28pm

enter image description hereGovernments have a huge headache on their hands.

The massive protests in Turkey and Brazil (and the promise of more in Egypt) appear to be a sign of extreme anger inside people spilling on to the streets.

Some months ago, a government was brought down in Bulgaria after a huge hike in electricity rates. The rest of the world didn’t seem to take much notice.

The ouster of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president hasn’t quelled the people’s desire for more change in the West Asian nation. Egyptians are now planning a huge demonstration on June 30 demanding President Mohammed Morsi’s resignation.

Make no mistake, the anger is real.

If the protests in Turkey started with efforts to change the land use of a park, they went on to demonstrate that people are generally unhappy with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

The violence unleashed by Erdogan’s police force is a reminder that the job of the State is to keep the people in order.

In Brazil, President Dilma Roussef’s decision to withdraw a proposed bus fare hike hasn’t led to the suspension of protests. Millions have been on the streets.

To summarise: no one is giving up. They remain at it.

It’s not my case to suggest that these protests are joined at the hip. They are not. Each has their own context and drivers.

But the concept of “sharing” – your anger and concerns is common to the protests. Facebookers and Twitter users have leveraged these two media to telling effect to both propagate concerns and organise protests.

We’ve also seen that traditional media often allies with social media with telling effect – so that the why and where to gather become non-issues. Communication is constant and seamless.

Of course, we have seen that governments have tried to crack down on the use of mobile phones or the internet in general.

But, so far, these ham-handed methods have not worked. Neither has the brutal methods used by the police. Brutality has limited uses, especially when elections have to be fought.

From Turkey to Brazil and earlier from Shahbag in Bangladesh to Bulgaria, people are sending a rather simple message of distaste to their governments.

Many of these protests are leaderless in the sense they are beyond the pale of established political outfits, a phenomenon that is commentary enough on mainstream groups.

Entire families were sitting in Taksim square in Turkey, quite uncaring about the consequences of police action. In that sense, these are a new kind of protest where previously apolitical people have also taken to the streets.

While change of government may be welcomed by the protesters, these are not simply about changing governments. There is frustration about issues like corruption – an issue which established governments have shown little appetite in addressing – especially since they might benefit from dealings with the corrupt.

In Brazil, the construction of new stadiums for the upcoming football World Cup is a major target for the millions who have taken to the streets.

A sense of exclusion from mega projects where the State may spend millions of dollars is also evident. It’s a pretty simple whats-in-it-for-me type of message that’s coming through these protests.

To my mind, these are good for democracy and people’s participation in politics. Protests imply engagement with issues and that can only be welcomed by democrats.

The governments that engage with the protesters will be better off than those which use brutal methods to crush dissent.

In this new, networked, connected world, dissent can’t be crushed.

Governments might find that their decision-making will have to become far more consultative if they want to keep their streets quiet.