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November 05, 2019

Grassroot movements and a new era of instability

Protest movements in Lebanon and Chile remind us of the gilets jaunes movement which started last year in France. Despite different country setups we observe some similarities in the movements themselves: sparked by a tax on whatsapp calls, underground fares, or diesel, they turn into a generalised protest movement to express a wider set of grievances. The government gives in and cancels the initial measure, only to find themselves faced with an explosion of new demands including the outright abolition of the status quo and the displacement of a discredited political class. Add Ecuador and Iraq to the list and we see a global phenomenon of grassroots protests against economic and social inequality, political exclusion, and corruption among the political and economic elites.

Grassroots movements like these are characterised by the absence of leadership, which makes them both powerful and weak. Powerful because they can bring together many in one big movement at short notice via social media, but weak because there are too many directions into which the movement can disperse. And they all face two different responses from the government: violent repression or an impasse that essentially preserves the status quo.

What will happen next? We know what happened in France: after weeks of gilets jaunes protests the infighting between different factions of the movement started. Also Macron rebooted a new official version under the label of the grand débat essentially discrediting the popular protest itself and taking the edge off its demands. We do not know yet what will happen in Beirut or Santiago or in any of the other cities currently undergoing protests, and what it will take for these to calm down. What is clear, though, is that we are facing a period of political instability similar to the Arab spring in 2011, Occupy in the US, or anti-austerity movements like the Indignados in Spain which spread all over in Europe. Also clear is that the governments will find it much harder to square fiscal responsibility with a surge in social and political demands now that the boom times are over.

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