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The President's Take

Diverse Global Protests Share Common Target: the Status Quo

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley reflects on the diverse protests taking place in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Something is in the air, and it doesn’t seem to bode well for those in power. 

Dramatic protests across the globe each has its own dynamic, but all have something in common. Geographically diverse, they roil the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and, in the case of Hong Kong, Asia. The governments they target hail from the right, as in Chile, and the left, as in Bolivia; protesters take aim at autocratic regimes (see Sudan or Algeria) but also more pluralistic ones (as in Lebanon, Iraq or Chile). What they share is an unmistakable anti-establishment and anti-status quo flavour. Iraqis clamour for jobs, public services, an end to corruption and, increasingly, an overhaul of the political system. Crowds in Lebanon complain of rampant corruption and economic mismanagement, demand (and have obtained) the government’s resignation. Protests in Chile take aim at inequality and the rising cost of living. The removal of fuel subsidies triggered discontent in Ecuador

It’s not yet clear what impact these events will have on deadly conflict, our central preoccupation at Crisis Group. In some instances, demonstrations have been met with violence. That was the case in the early stages of the popular movement in Khartoum when the regime ordered a brutal crackdown. Security forces turned their weapons on demonstrators in Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces. Clashes pitting police against protesters in Chile have killed and injured dozens. Lebanon faces the lingering threat of more widespread violence provoked by armed militia. Much may depend on what lessons those in power draw from the past, and from whose past they choose to draw: from Syria, where ruthless regime repression eventually quelled the uprising, albeit at the cost of almost incalculable horror; or from Sudan, where the massacre perpetrated by paramilitaries in Khartoum almost certainly increased international pressure on the military junta to negotiate a path to civilian rule. Much depends, too, on whether opposition forces can remain unified and non-violent, the behaviour of outside actors, and the security forces’ role in the political system.

In some instances, the changes could have, or already have had a positive impact on conflict resolution. The Sudanese revolution, which we analysed in detail in this report, not only may pave the way for resolution of long-festering internal conflicts, but has prompted the withdrawal of troops fighting in Yemen on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition. The transition in Addis Ababa helped bring about the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea for which Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

Upheaval can also fuel conflict, however. Reforms always have winners and losers and more open politics can bring long suppressed communal tensions to the fore. Crisis Group welcomed Abiy’s steps to free up Ethiopia’s political system in the wake of popular unrest, but we also consistently warned of the risk of reigniting intercommunal rift. Those fears appear ever more well-founded, as evidenced by clashes throughout the country over the past month that left dozens dead. 

Crisis Group will continue to turn its eyes and ears to these and many other crises, and put forward practical recommendations in each instance on how to produce change without inciting deadly conflict.

As you read these words, our colleague Michael Kovrig still languishes in a Chinese jail. Bringing him home is and will remain our utmost priority.