In protest mode

Published June 10, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

IN a year of elections, some signs of democratic revival were inevitable. These have come in the electoral outcomes in India, Mexico and South Africa, where leaders have been held accountable at the ballot box. You can almost hear those who believe in due process breathing a collective sigh of relief after years of authoritarian creep. But what impact will these democratic stirrings have on public protest, and why does it matter?

In recent months alone, Pakistan has seen protests against inflation, food prices, border policies that hamper local trade, energy prices, alleged poll rigging, censorship, disappearances, etc. We are not alone. Indeed, we are living through a new age of protest.

A 2021 report on World Protests from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung think tank and Initiative for Policy Dialogue found that the number of protests worldwide had tripled between 2006 and 2020. The research found that 54 per cent of the protests recorded were triggered in response to “perceived failure of political systems or representation”, while 28pc included demands for “real democracy”.

The year 2022 saw even more protests — 11,000 across 145 countries — largely against high costs of living. In 2023, protests erupted in 83 countries, on proliferating matters as wide ranging as the Israel-Palestine war, cost of living crisis, climate justice, assaults on democracy, women’s rights and government service provision.

Will there be a coalescing of demands?

The intersectionality of protests is also increasing. Take, for example, the global protests against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Climate change activists aligned with the pro-Palestine protest movement early on, arguing that climate justice has to be underpinned by basic human rights and security and freedom from occupation.

Climate activists have been pointing out the immense climate toll of the war: greenhouse gas emissions from war activities, plus the significant emissions expected from future reconstruction activities. They have also accused Israel of carrying out ecocide, for example, by razing olive trees that have stood on the land for centuries. Given the West’s current focus on tackling climate change, the disregard for these issues in Palestine is highlighted as further proof of double standards, an argument that resonates with the core messaging of pro-Palestine protests.

More powerfully, the two movements have identified that many financial institutions or corporates that fund or facilitate the fossil fuels sector are the same that facilitate the Israeli defence sector or Israeli companies that operate in or profit from settled areas. By joining forces, the groups have been able to share tactics and intensify pressure on economic institutions.

Similarly, global women’s rights and feminist movements have aligned with pro-Palestine protesters given the excessive impact of the conflict on women and children, who account for at least half the lives lost in Gaza since October. Beyond the death toll, women have also been subject to sexual violence, inadequate healthcare, miscarriages and lack of nutrition. Allyship with Gazan women is becoming a feminist imperative.

Will this epic year of elections reduce some of this protest activity or intensify it? Will there be a coalescing of demands or further diversification? The growing intersectionality of protests has been a fascinating development, forcing disparate groups to engage with each other and find common ground, a refreshing development in polarised times.

But in the context of vibrant democr­acies, multifaceted protests are less ef­­­f­­­ective in holding democratic gov­­ern­ments to account or effecting policy chan-ge. As I recently wrote in relation to pro-Palestine prot­ests on US camp­uses, the most effective protests are the ones with local, relevant and tailored demands.

The activist community must consider how the gradually shifting political landscape will affect protest movements, because the ultimate goal must be to keep the spirit of protest and accountability alive. And as much as we live in an age of protest, we also live in an age of crackdowns, and the threat from authoritarianism and censorship continues to loom large, including in ‘democratic’ contexts.

For lasting, positive change, protest activity is essential. As political scientist Erica Chenoweth has pointed out, civil disobedience is the most effective way of changing political trajectories, with protests twice as likely to achieve their goals than violent means or any form of conflict. Chenoweth also found that it takes around 3.5pc of a population actively participating in protests to effect meaningful political change. In all scenarios, that means we should remain ready to take to the streets (literally or metaphorically), and remain open, once we’re there, to talk to each other rather than across each other.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

China’s concerns
23 Jun, 2024

China’s concerns

Pakistan has no option but to neutralise militant threat to Chinese projects, as well as address its business and political stability concerns.
War drums
23 Jun, 2024

War drums

If it is foolish enough to launch another war in Lebanon, Tel Aviv will be solely responsible for setting the Middle East on fire.
Balochistan budget
23 Jun, 2024

Balochistan budget

BALOCHISTAN’S Rs955.6bn budget for the fiscal year 2024-25 makes many pledges to the poor citizens of Pakistan’s...
Another lynching
Updated 22 Jun, 2024

Another lynching

The chilling alternative to not doing anything — which appears to be the state’s preferred option — is the advent of mob rule.
Tax & representation
22 Jun, 2024

Tax & representation

THE taxation measures outlined in the budget for the incoming fiscal year have triggered a lot of concern among ...
Life of the party?
22 Jun, 2024

Life of the party?

THE launch of Awaam Pakistan, a party led by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and former finance minister...