From Hong Kong [Gambia, Liberia] to Iraq to Chile, protesters around the world have taken to the streets to rally against their governments in recent months. On the surface, some protests have appeared to be spontaneous outbursts of anger over seemingly minor concerns. But almost all of this year’s major protests have deep roots and are the result of years of mounting frustration over environmental inaction, economic troubles, mismanagement, corruption or governmental repression.
Protesters were only lacking a final spark.
With protests roiling the globe, we explain the key figures that are driving the anger in a number of countries.
With his announced resignation Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met one of the core demands of protesters who have paralyzed the country for almost two weeks. But the move is unlikely to calm tensions between protesters and a political elite that critics argue is corrupt and responsible for mismanagement, economic woes and environmental issues.
Whereas the country’s problems appear to range widely — from high levels of air pollution to a garbage crisis that pollutes the Mediterranean Sea to fears of an economic collapse — protesters see a common thread among them. One factor that has mired Lebanon, they argue, is the country’s power-sharing system, which is rooted in French colonial rule and distributes parliamentary seats along sectarian lines. The speaker of parliament is always a Shiite Muslim. The president is a Maronite Christian. The prime minister is a Sunni Muslim.
Supporters of that system say the setup prevents one sect from taking control and throwing the country into turmoil. Critics argue that the differing interests of those groups in parliament make it impossible to reach consensus quickly, if at all. The Iran-backed Hezbollah group — a political party in Lebanon supported by many Shiites, although considered a terrorist organization by the United States and many other Western countries — posed a particular obstacle to Hariri’s more pro-Western stance. Hezbollah is expected to remain a problem for future efforts to form a new government.
How long could that take? Nobody knows, but don’t hold your breath. It took the Lebanese parliament 12 years to pass a budget. It was finally approved this January in a move meant to prevent the country’s debt crisis from spiraling out of control. Passing the budget was also a requirement by Western lenders for promised loans.
But parliamentary approval may have come too late, as the country’s debt crisis has continued to worsen throughout the year. Amid deeply rooted discontent with the state of continuous paralysis, tensions boiled over in mid-October when Hariri’s government proposed a 20-cent-a-day fee on Internet voice calls. Though almost negligible compared with Lebanon’s broader problems, the proposal appeared to encapsulate a broken political system that has made average Lebanese poorer — and the wealthiest richer.
One key question will now be which role Hezbollah and the allied Amal Movement will play. After their supporters attacked anti-government protesters Tuesday, concerns over a violent escalation are on the rise.
Protests also rocked Iraq last month, as Iraqis voice their anger over issues that appear similar to those in Lebanon: corruption, poor infrastructure and unemployment, among other issues.
Although Iraq is relatively oil-rich, about 50 percent of its revenue goes to pay government workers who, in the words of Washington Post contributor Max Boot, “do little work.” Many officials are suspected of using the country’s coffers to enrich themselves and their political patrons. This perceived level of graft placed Iraq among the most corrupt countries in the world in 2018, according to Transparency International. The group ranked Iraq near the bottom of the global pack — 168 out of 180.
Like in Lebanon, government critics have a broad agenda, with many demanding a revamping of Iraq’s political system.
More than 200 people have been killed since the beginning of last month, including at least 83 people since Friday, after government soldiers opened gunfire against protesters, according to human rights groups. There were also clashes between protesters and Iran-backed militias, which have gained more influence in Iraq in recent years.
Now in its fifth month, Hong Kong’s protest movement has shown no signs of fading away. To some in Hong Kong, the longevity of the mass demonstrations — which still draw hundreds of thousands of people on a regular basis — is rooted in a fear that their freedoms to express discontent with Beijing could soon be further curtailed.
Long before this year’s mass protests in Hong Kong, skeptics began to doubt that China would stick to its principle that had helped unite the former British colony and mainland China: “One country, two systems” — an agreement that had always included the justice system.
Optimists maintained that economic realism would preserve Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status as Beijing was gradually lifting its more than 1 billion citizens out of poverty and Hong Kong was drawing profitable businesses. But in recent years, the Chinese economic transformation rapidly gained momentum, and so did pessimism over the future of Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous territory.
Ever since Britain handed over control of Hong Kong in 1997, pessimists have worried that Beijing would only temporarily tolerate the territory’s unique degree of political and economic freedom. They worried that Beijing was looking for an opening to rein it in.
One such opening came in February 2018, about 500 miles away from Hong Kong in northern Taiwan.
On vacation in Taiwan with her boyfriend, a pregnant woman was brutally murdered and her body stuffed into a suitcase. Her boyfriend, Chan Tong-Kai — a Hong Kong resident — later admitted to the crime. But Chan could not be returned to face charges because Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan.
The case provided an opportunity for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to blur the separation between mainland China and Hong Kong further, her critics say. Months later, she proposed amendments to the territory’s extradition law that would make it easier for suspects to be moved — including to mainland China.
Beijing had backed Lam for Hong Kong chief executive, and many critics argued she was merely a puppet of the Chinese government. The extradition bill, they said, was simply a ploy to allow Beijing more control over Hong Kong and its people.
Human rights activists, business owners and others feared they would no longer be able to rely on Hong Kong’s rule of law if the amendments were passed.
Even though the extradition law has been withdrawn, critics fear it is only a matter of time until more restrictions are imposed on Hong Kong, especially because the Hong Kong legislature is packed with pro-Beijing loyalists.
Like in Lebanon, Chile’s protests were — at least partially — triggered by changes that may on the surface appear insignificant but amounted to the last straw.
In Chile, that last straw was a 4-cent hike of subway fares, which unleashed protesters’ anger over what they say are shortcomings in public services and dangerous levels of inequality.
Chile was long considered to be an economic success story in South America. But it came at a cost: Especially younger Chileans say they have not benefited from what — on paper — has looked like progress.
Health care and education, for instance, were massively privatized. Pensions are vastly insufficient.
Chile is the most unequal country of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group member states.
Some protesters have blamed the country’s military dictatorship constitution from 1980, which has enabled subsequent governments to abandon social welfare measures and instead adopt a radically pro-markets stance.
President Sebastián Piñera, in office since last year, has been singled out by protesters for embodying the root of the crisis. The billionaire already pursued a similar privatization drive as president between 2010 and 2014.
Protesters again took to the streets of Catalonia over the weekend, after weeks of violent clashes in the northeastern Spanish region. On the surface, the trigger for their anger appears to be recent: They’re rallying against the conviction last month of nine Catalan separatist leaders, who were charged with sedition and misappropriation of funds. But the questions the trials have raised have once again exposed a deeply rooted desire among parts of the Catalan population to become an independent nation.
In October 2017, the former Catalan leaders held a referendum on Catalan independence. Only 43 percent of registered voters turned out, but of those, the overwhelming majority — 92 percent — backed a separation from Spain. (Polls suggest, however, that the independence movement is far less popular among the wider Catalan population. The majority now appears to be against independence, and many boycotted the 2017 referendum.)
In Spain, the government in Madrid viewed Catalonia’s referendum as unconstitutional, undemocratic and a provocation.
In a promise to some and a threat to others, Catalonia’s pro-independence movement has already called for another referendum. The movement draws from a profound sense among some Catalans that the region is fundamentally different from Spain in many ways. It has its own language, and its own distinct culture and politics — differences that not only survived but were also emboldened by past Spanish suppression.
After one of the worst such periods of suppression under military dictator Francisco Franco, from 1939 until 1975, Catalonia regained semiautonomy.
As one of Spain’s economic centers, the region has since attracted workers from across the country and Europe. Its self-sufficiency strengthened a belief among parts of the Catalan population that the region would be better off on its own and without having to pay taxes that, according to critics of the government in Madrid, mostly benefit other Spanish regions.
But Spain’s economic recovery in recent years has somewhat recalibrated Catalonia’s position. Spain’s capital, Madrid, is rapidly gaining economic and cultural influence. In Madrid’s lengthening shadow, some in Catalonia have grown only more determined to seek an independent future.
The protests began without big fanfare, and at least initially, they almost went unnoticed. In Belgium, 30,000 high school and university students walked out of their classes. In Germany, Switzerland and Australia, others joined the rallies, which soon spread around the world.
Inspired by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who skipped classes to launch a one-woman protest in front of the Swedish parliament, predominantly younger protesters demanded more action against climate change.
Thunberg and others have argued that youth action is needed, because they are the ones who will be most affected by the impact of climate change. With energy-related CO2 emissions still on the rise, there are few indications that world leaders genuinely share their sense of urgency, they argue.
The demonstrations have put pressure on governments to take climate demands more seriously. The German government, for instance, hectically passed new measures to decrease emissions amid the widespread protests this fall. But many activists argue that more decisive measures are needed. In some cases, frustration with government inaction has emboldened more controversial groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, which have disrupted traffic in a number of capitals, including London and Berlin over prolonged periods of time.
Dubbed “the summer of protests,” this year revealed the vibrancy of Russia’s civil society — and a double strategy pursued by the Russian government: At times, authorities allowed the demonstrations to proceed. At other times, they violently cracked down.
Some of the protesters are vehemently opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others are unsatisfied with a deteriorating economy.
“The last year has seen a shift in the mood of the Russian public that, in combination with several other trends, could spell trouble for Putin, were it not for the opposition’s inability to unify Russians and counter the government’s shopworn narrative,” journalist and Russia analyst Ksenia Kirillova wrote at the Atlantic Council.
Whereas the country’s economy has grown accustomed to annual growth rates above 4 percent, the figure for 2020 may drop to 2.4 percent, amid stagnating exports and high debts. Khan was forced to negotiate another IMF bailout this spring.
Khan’s opponents accuse the cricket star-turned-prime minister of causing the economic crisis and mishandling its fallout. Electricity and food prices have spiked. Unemployment is on the rise — even though creating more jobs was one of Khan’s core campaign promises ahead of his victory last year.
But Khan’s government has also faced criticism over its handling of India’s crackdown in the disputed region of Kashmir. The opposition alleges that Khan has largely failed to rally international criticism against its archrival.
Rick Noack currently covers international news from The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau. Previously, he worked for The Post from Washington as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow and from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Follow
Main photo: Protestors gathered at the Liberian Capitol. The global protest movements has not spared Liberia and Africa