The Seasons of our Discontent. A How-to Guide to Popular Uprisings

February 24, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

The Arab Spring, the Turkish Summer, the Romanian Autumn, the Russian Winter. It seems that the four seasons have become a catchall term for democratic protest movements from around the world. Apart from sharing an annual equinox, what do all these demonstrations have in common? What are the basic ingredients needed for such a protest to attain the necessary critical mass to flare up and engulf an entire society in turmoil. 

Few could have imagined that the symbolic self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, would have resulted in the most dramatic geopolitical change since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In true Werther-effect fashion, regimes across the Arab World have either been founded or have yet to emerge from the ripples sent out by the Tunisian Revolution.

Since the events of 2011 though, revolutions have spawned in a seemingly chaotic fashion, continents away from the Arab World, from Chile and Brazil to Turkey and Ukraine, and all the way to Thailand. Many now wonder which country will be next to fall prey to internal pressures. These uprisings have all had a series of common aggravating factors, which one should be mindful of when looking for answers.

1. Old Divides

Home is where the hatred is, goes the chorus of a Gil Scott Heron song. Although he talks about the perils of drug use, it can just as easily be used to explain how revolutions gain momentum.  Societies that have been marked by intense political or historical cleavages, which are unresolved and dormant, but have a tendency to boil over with anger when a minor albeit symbolic event occurred.  The protracted nature of most protests has stemmed from old divides that surface unexpectedly, in anti-systemic manner. For instance, in the case of the Arab Spring, the revolution was meant to overthrow a political order established during the Cold War, using Cold War patterns of thought, which had lost their relevancy for the rising middle class.

2. Young and unemployed

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, the fact that the young and unemployed are harbingers of most protests. In the developing world, statistics paint a dismal picture: rising youth unemployment is coupled with substantial increases in population. Social tensions reach their tipping point the moment a significant part of the population is without means to support itself, and has to resort to extreme measures to survive. Terrorism is one idea. The other is starting a revolution. If governments are wobbly enough, both may succeed in severely destabilizing a state. 

3. The revolution will be live

From the first Twitter Revolution in Moldova to the Euromaidan, social media tools have held center stage in the mobilization and organization of protests, no matter the continent. Often helped by external actors, protestors have been able to bypass traditional media channels and chosen to focus on promoting their messages using Facebook or Twitter, prompting governments to limit access to these networks or to shut them down altogether. Indeed, the power of the hashtag has managed to supersede the ballot box, better managing popular frustrations than the democratic mechanisms of yore.

4. Subterranean politicking

Perhaps the most interesting trait of all these seasonal revolutions has been the abrupt fashion in which they were launched and subsequently gained traction, surprising both seasoned and casual observers. The tipping point has been associated with major dissatisfaction towards the incumbent government. Whether it was about a plan to demolish a park (Turkey) or to sell off a gold mine (Romania), the movement created in its wake used this event as a springboard to attract the support of the masses. Then it progressively expanded its list of requests, from the small and narrow to the wide and systemic. The movements have usually cited far-reaching concerns with the failures of democracy as the reason for engagement rather than specific grievance. This trend has been called by Mary Kaldor of the LSE,  “subterranean politics”, for the way these social frustrations have bubbled up to the surface. Despite not being visible in the mainstream political debate, the protests have struck a chord with mainstream public opinion, leading to the dramatic rise of far-right parties across Europe, or political Islam in certain parts of the Arab World.

When all these factors combine, we have the perfect recipe for a mass protest movement. They highlight the failure of traditional democratic mechanisms to channel popular frustration away from the street and towards the checks-and-balances system of existing political institutions. Moreover, all such movements were haunted by the illusion that overthrowing the government can lead to real political change. Unfortunately, that has rarely been the case with Algeria remaining the only example of a successful democratic transition. One should therefore be wary of the power of the masses to bring about healthy political outcomes. Despite its misgivings, the ballot box remains the sole arbiter that can legitimately shape societies.