2019 was the year the streets of the world were, quite literally, on fire. The fury which spilled onto the streets of France, Sudan, and Venezuela at the start of the year soon took on a life of its own, spreading infectiously to Algeria, Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, Iraq, Bolivia, Spain, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, Italy, Iran, Colombia, Georgia, Malta, Thailand, Poland, and India – among many others.  Even here in the Netherlands, the streets of The Hague were clogged by massive “tractor protests,” driven by angry farmers pushing back against accusations of climate change culpability. Liberal democracy or repressive autocracy, it appears no government was immune to the wrath of the ordinary citizen this past year. Indeed, 2019 was an unprecedented year of global turbulence.  Arguably, not since the electrifying social movements of 1968 has the world seen such displays of deep discontent, on such a dramatic scale.  Armies of civilians have taken up powerful arms of non-violent expression, in a unified global act of civil resistance against the status quo.  

The sparks which ignited each protest movement originated from an eclectic matchbox, with no apparent commonality between individual matchsticks. In Sudan, it was the price of bread which sparked the initial outrage. In Lebanon, it was a tax on WhatsApp calls. In Chile, it was a hike on metro fares. In Iran, it was a four-cent increase in the price of fuel. In Hong Kong, it was a proposed extradition bill.  

The resulting outcomes of each protest movement were also equally idiosyncratic. Some demonstrations led to heads of government stepping down: Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Saad Hariri in Lebanon. Other protest movements prompted political concessions, including the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong, the scrapping of the WhatsApp tax in Lebanon, and abandonment of the metro fare hike in Chile. Still other civil uprisings were met with ruthless government crackdowns and internet blackouts, with gross violations of human rights, extreme police brutality, and untold violence resulting in significant casualties. Amnesty International documented human rights abuses in the state handling of protests in Iraq, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Sudan, Spain, Iran, and Chile.  

The common link which bonded all the 2019 protest movements together, however, was irate masses of people feeling increasingly disenfranchised in an increasingly globalised world. All around the world, young students and their elderly grandparents alike decided that they had had enough of a world order in which the corrupt elites have gone too far in enriching themselves with funds stolen from public coffers; a world order in which gaping inequalities are growing ever more disparate; a world order in which increasingly repressive leaders have engendered the backsliding of democratic institutions and the rise of authoritarianism; a world order witnessing increasing infringements upon basic human rights and stronger clampdowns on political freedoms; and a world order in which unchecked environmental destruction threatens the very survival of the earth.  

In an age of social media hyperconnectivity, the 2019 global demonstrations also exhibited a strong sense of shared communal struggle and solidarity – not only intranationally, but also transnationally. Despite the fact that most of the protest movements were leaderless and decentralised, many displayed a high degree of mobilisation and remarkable organisation.  At the national level, rallies were organised primarily through word of mouth, which spread like wildfire over social media platforms. Without 21st century technology, Hong Kong protesters would not have been able to adopt Bruce Lee’s mantra to “be formless, shapeless, like water” by employing guerilla-like tactics of flash mobilisation, frequent shifting of locations, and rapid dispersal, signalled electronically. At the transnational level, protesters in one country offered moral support and shared strategies with their counterparts in other countries using social media. A video demonstrating how Hong Kong protesters managed to defuse a tear gas canister went viral in Chile.  A Sudanese protester gave advice to her Lebanese peers on how to treat tear gas symptoms using a mixture of water and yeast. Hong Kong protesters taught their Chilean counterparts how to use bricks to build roadblocks in order to slow down police. Lebanese protesters sang anthems in support of their fellow demonstrators in Iraq and Chile. And the classic Latin American “cacerolazo” (casserole) tradition of creating a cacophonous symphony of pots and pans – a tactic which can be traced back to Venezuela in the 1970s – played a defining role in the 2019 protest movements of Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. Each individual protest movement may have imbued their own unique flavour, but all were unified by striking similarities and a common cause. 

Were the demonstrations of 2019 simply a coincidental constellation of events? Or were they an ominous harbinger of further global unrest brewing on the horizon?  On the surface, one could be fooled into believing that each protest movement was unique, given the wide diversity of triggers and varying outcomes. But at a deeper level, all of the protest movements shared a common underlying discontent with today’s institutions. Taken together, the demonstrations were a unified protest against a globalised world order, and in retrospect, the underlying political, economic, and social issues which gave rise to the global protest movement have been insidious for decades. 2019 simply witnessed the bursting point of long pent-up anger and frustration.   Perhaps the global protests were a signal that the modern nation-state failed its people. 

Perhaps the demonstrations reflected deeper tectonic rifts in the global system, which, if not properly remedied, threaten to tear the world apart. Or maybe the uprisings were a symptom of a highly inadequate social contract between the Leviathan and its citizens – a social contract which needs to be torn to shreds and drawn up again from scratch. The people have risen up in a crisis of political agency; they have cried out that the modern era requires a radical new system in which they are able to represent themselves. Only then, will they have hope for the future. 

Image in header by masumol on Pixabay