Our Age of Unrest

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the election of Mohamed Morsi as President of Egypt. During the first year of Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become more divided. After his election victory, instead of seeking to build consensus around a new political order, Morsi sought instead to monopolise power. As a result, this anniversary is being marked by protests instead of celebrations.

The demonstrations in Egypt are only part of the wave of mass protests that are ricocheting around the world. In Turkey, weeks of violent clashes were sparked by a heavy handed police response to a demonstration to save a public park in Istanbul. And in Brazil, the largest protests in over twenty years were triggered by a rise in fares for public transport.

In his book ‘Why It’s Still Kicking off Everywhere’, BBC journalist Paul Mason links the uprisings of the Arab Spring to protests against austerity in Athens, and the anti-Wall Street demonstrations of the Occupy Movement in cities across the United States and Europe. But do the protests in Cairo, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Athens really have anything in common? I believe they do. And to understand the common link, consider first Athens.

It is not surprising, given its bailout by the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank, that trust in government and in political parties in Greece is at an all time low. More worrying is that fact that Greece is by no means an exception. According to Eurobarometer, in 2012 there were only four countries in Europe – Luxembourg, Austria, Finland and Sweden – in which a majority of citizens trusted their government and parliament.  Taking Europe as a whole, only 27% of Europeans trust their government. Trust in political parties – whether Left of Right – is even lower.

Mary Kaldor at the London School of Economics has been researching the new political parties and protest movements that have emerged in Europe since the financial crisis began. In a recent talk she pointed to a common thread that links the demonstrations in Cairo, Istanbul, Rio de Janiero and the capitals of Europe and the United States. The common link is that the protesters do not believe that their political representatives represent them.

More Democracy, Not Less…

The protesters across the different nations are coming at this, of course from different directions. While all the countries involved are nominally democratic, they lie at different points along the path to mature democracy. Egypt’s democratic future is the least secure. The democratic institutions in Turkey and Brazil are more established, but large sections of society in both countries feel excluded from the benefits they expect democracy to bring. And across Europe, as the Eurobarometer results clearly show, a majority of citizens have lost faith in representative democracy.

Mary Kaldor points to a second – and vitally important – issue that unites the protesters around the world. Their desire is not, as it was in Europe in the 1930s, for strong leadership and the jettisoning of democracy. Quite the opposite. What the protesters want is not less democracy, but more – more participation, more accountability, more freedom of information, more equal societies. The protesters from Cairo to Rio all want their governments to represent the interests of everyone in society, not just the interests of privileged elites, or the interests of intolerant majorities. They do not want governments who believe the world was made for them and their friends alone.

The spark for the protests in Turkey was the refusal of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to protect Taksim Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces left in central Istanbul. The passion of Turkey’s demonstrators in protecting a public park is an apt metaphor for our current age of unrest. Demonstrators around the globe share this anger at governments’ failure to adequately protect public goods, and their willingness to sacrifice those public goods to the demands of vested interests.

One placard from the Gezi Park demonstrations captured the attitude of the protesters towards our current breed of politician. It read ‘Politicians Are Like Babies Nappies – They Need To Be Changed.’

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