x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Broken promises unite middle class protest movements

Young people around the world are emulating the Arab uprisings, pushed into the streets by high unemployment, greed and a perceived dignity gap.

We all know the details of the story by now: a young Tunisian vegetable vendor loses his licence to work because of predatory local police; he refuses to pay a bribe; he complains at the municipality; they tell him to get lost; he lights himself on fire; a nation erupts; a leader falls; the Arab uprisings begin.

The Arab uprisings (a better term for what we are witnessing than "Spring") has added a new word to the lexicon of commentators and pundits: "dignity". It is a lack of dignity, we have been told, that helps explain why so many young Arabs felt the need to rise up against their governments and why Mohammad Bouazizi lit himself on fire on that fateful December day.

Trapped in a cycle of joblessness, hopelessness and idleness, the crisis of the Arab young man, particularly in the populous non-oil rich countries, had been brewing across the region for the past decade. Commentators may have picked up on the lack of dignity in the lives of so many young Arabs only recently, but this is neither new nor a revelation. It has been a reality for at least two decades.

Until young Arabs begin to feel the sort of dignity that one feels with steady employment, governments that serve rather than exploit or steal, a voice in their future, and a sense of accountability from local institutions such as the police or municipal governments, we will see the dignity gap grow. There are other Mohammad Bouazizis, and they continue to burn, even if they never draw a match.

But this is not just an Arab story. It is global. There is a reason why so many Indians flocked to the anti-corruption, hunger-striking campaigner Anna Hazare, and why so many young, educated Indians took their first foray into politics following this 73 year-old man. The reason is simple: he spoke their language. He understood that nothing is more stultifying and demoralising than living in an environment of predatory corruption, where civil servants spend as much time seeking bribes as solving problems or business elites collude with government elites to fill their pockets as middle classes struggle.

Over the past few months, we have witnessed protesters man the barricades in Europe, from Athens to Madrid and from Rome to London, now in 82 countries demonstrating against mounting government cuts amid an environment of recession, anaemic job growth, a looming banking crisis and a loss of faith in governing institutions. While too-big-to fail banks get bailed out, small business dies, the young man or woman loses hope, and the factory worker gets a pink slip. The Bouazizis of Italy, Spain, Greece and the United Kingdom are simmering with a loss of dignity.

And now, America has entered this disparate, amorphous global movement bound by common narratives of discontent and alienation. The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread nationwide to at least a dozen US cities. Police have arrested hundreds from Chicago to Colorado. A stubbornly high unemployment rate, an economy teetering on the edge of a second recession in less than three years, and a growing disconnect between institutions of governance and political and business elites on the one hand and ordinary Americans on the other feeds into this disaffection strangling the American dream.

What is interesting about the US movements, however, is that there are likely far more frustrated citizens than those willing to take part in protests. The political leanings of the Occupy Wall Street crowd is decidedly leftist, which makes many Tea Party Republicans - who feel the same frustrations with Wall Street and government corruption - uncomfortable. Further, some of the more radical protesters (not to mention the outright kooks) who pepper such protests in New York and elsewhere also make the US moderate middle class uncomfortable. But that same moderate middle class is frustrated too, frustrated by a sense that playing by the rules, doing things right and working hard are no longer enough.

The real test of successful political and social movements is how wide their tent can be. Thus far, the Occupy Wall Street tent seems narrow. Some of their spokespeople are shallow, full of clichés and anti-capitalist diatribes. It remains to be seen if the movement will widen and grow. If so, American political and financial institutions could be in for trouble. But right now, it looks more like thunder but no storm.

Amid this gathering of forces, the resignation of UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox only added more tinder to the fire and seemed to embody several of the threads of this narrative of discontent. Amid a sputtering economy, a growing euro-zone crisisand British soldiers put their lives on the line in far-off lands, Mr Fox allowed a young associate free rein to seemingly trade in influence with wealthy defence contractors, replete with dubious meetings in fancy five-star hotels.

The single mother living outside of London trying to raise two kids while holding two jobs deserves better. She has little time to join protest movements. She is not full of Marxist theories against capitalism. She will not light herself on fire. But she, too, is burning.


Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @afshinmolavi