Now those flickers have ignited wider protest movements, lifting the lid on deeper inequalities, frustrations and lack of autonomy that go back decades. And the discontent doesn’t appear to be subsiding anytime soon.
Indeed, across the globe, activists are taking to the streets in highly organized, persistent movements to tell their leaders: this isn’t good enough.
Experts say we are seeing a tipping point of ordinary people fed up with measures imposed from above by a ruling class.
For a spark to turn into something bigger, there needs to be “a much wider lack of trust in the political elite, a feeling of crisis of authority, and a wide variety of grievances and feelings of discontent,” said John Chalcraft, professor of Middle East History and Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
That’s the case in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong, he added. These are now “sustained protest movements, continuing even after their initial grievance has been met.”
Students take note
Students have played a key role in all these protests. In Chile, thousands of students last week launched a mass fare-dodging campaign in the capital Santiago, flooding metro stations and jumping turnstiles.
The widespread unrest is about more than a hike in transport fares, say experts. It’s reflective of simmering anger over rising living costs going back years.
In 2011, Chile’s students also staged mass protests, that time over tuition fees. Transport tickets are not tuition fees, said Chalcraft, but they are still “social and economic demands” that reflect deep inequality in the country.
But for a movement to really take hold, it needs more than students. It requires meaningful links with a wider section of the population, added Chalcraft.
Over the last seven days, anti-government protesters from across Lebanon’s sectarian divide gathered for the biggest demonstration the country has seen in almost two decades.
Campaigning doesn’t end at national borders, either.
Every weekend for more than four months, pro-democracy, anti-government protesters have taken to the streets of Hong Kong. As the demonstrations have dragged on, protesters have embraced more extreme, sometimes violent, tactics in battles with police.
In the Spanish city of Barcelona, pro-independence protesters have been using encrypted messaging to communicate with counterparts in Hong Kong, according to Julie Norman, a teaching fellow in Politics and International Relations at University College London.
Furious protests took place across Catalonia last week, triggered by the lengthy prison sentences handed to pro-independence politicians on October 14.
Norman said the Hong Kong and Catalan groups have been sharing tactics for dealing with police, and invoking each other’s struggles at rallies.
But even when governments have made concessions in response to protests, it has done little to take the wind out of the movements.
After Lebanon dropped the proposed WhatsApp tax within hours of protests starting, then introduced an ambitious reform package, protesters were asking “well why didn’t they do that before?,” said Chalcraft.
Similarly, Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam in September withdrew the extradition bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, which has a 99% conviction rate and a history of political prosecutions.
A month later, violent protests continue to paralyze parts of the city and Lam appears reluctant to address activists’ other core demands, including an independent inquiry of police.
Meanwhile in Chile, the government’s crackdown has seen troops on the streets, bringing back memories of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship, said Chalcraft. “Some would say it’s an overreaction to protests around metro tickets that has escalated the situation,” he added.
These protest have generally started off as “very peaceful, non-violent,” said Norman.
“When we see the protests sometimes using other tactics, that’s often in response to what the state introduces,” she added.
What do you mean by ‘success’?
In terms of that initial issue that sparked each movement, these protests have been successful — Chile has dropped its fare hike, Lebanon canceled its proposed WhatsApp charge and introduced reforms, and Hong Kong scrapped its extradition bill.
Of course, that’s not what’s really sending protesters into the streets night after night, and those wider battles continue.
In Chile, which has one of the highest rates of inequality in the developed world, “that kind of social structure takes a lot longer to dismantle,” said Norman.
But the very fact that so many people have mobilized, fully aware of the risks to their safety, should be seen as a success, she added.
“Everyday, everywhere, people are pushing for their rights and for equality in different manifestations,” said Norman. What’s notable at this moment in history, she said, is “the degree of mobilization.”
Here’s a closer look at those three current examples:
What’s happening? Chile declared a state of emergency in the capital Santiago after widespread protests sparked by the proposed price hike for subway tickets a little over a week ago.
At least 18 people have died in clashes between protesters and security forces. Shops and business have been looted and set on fire, and metro stations vandalized and closed to the public in widespread demonstrations over living costs and rising debt in the usually stable country.
What’s been the state response? President Sebastian Pinera announced the suspension of the price hike Saturday. On Tuesday, he apologized for “decades” of accumulated problems and announced a new social and economic agenda but it did little to quell the unrest.
The government has responded by deploying thousands of police and armed soldiers to put down the unrest — the first time the military has been deployed since Pinochet’s military dictatorship ended in 1990.
What’s the bigger picture? Chile is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, but it also has one of highest levels of income inequality in the world.
Many jobs are informal or temporary, with young people and women among those struggling the most to find quality, skilled work. Calls for wider economic reform over a number of issues including pensions, healthcare and public education show the cracks in the country’s progress since its transition to democracy.
What’s happening? Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across the country for anti-government protests that began last Thursday.
The protests were sparked by a proposed 20 cents per day charge for voice over internet protocol (VOIP) use, a feature used by WhatsApp, Facebook, and other applications.
Very quickly, the proposed VOIP tax had morphed into a larger rallying cry for the downfall of the government and drew out the largest demonstrations the country has seen since March 2005, when mass protests ended a decades-long Syrian military presence in the country.
What’s been the state response? The government has now scrapped plans for the VOIP tax.
It also approved an ambitious program that slashes officials’ salaries by 50%, levies large taxes on banks’ profits, scraps further austerity proposals, and seeks to stem big financial losses in the electricity sector, along with other reform measures. But the reforms do not appear to be appeasing protesters.
What’s the bigger picture? People in Lebanon, buckling under the strains of a rapidly declining economy, are taking aim at what they see as crony capitalism. Decades of corruption and government mismanagement by the country’s sectarian leaders have come at too hefty a price, Lebanese protesters say.
What’s happening? Hong Kong’s protests began in March, but they kicked off in earnest in June. They were sparked by widespread opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed extradition to China, but have since expanded to demands for full democracy and police accountability.
What’s been the state response? In September, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill after three months of large-scale protests, which have roiled the city and damaged its economy. That, however, did not stop the demonstrations.
What’s the bigger picture? Hong Kong belongs to China, but it has its own currency, political system and cultural identity. Many Hong Kong residents don’t see themselves as Chinese, but rather as Hong Kongers.
Ultimately, young Hong Kongers are concerned about China’s growing encroachment in the city — and the perceived threat to freedoms unavailable to Chinese mainlanders, such as the right to protest, the right to a free press, and an independent judiciary. This has led to the regular and increasingly violent protests in the usually peaceful city, resulting in more than 2,000 protesters arrested so far.