Over the past fifteen years, no regions have been more affected by the rising tide of global protest than the Middle East and North Africa, on the one hand, and Europe and North America, on the other. Activists in these regions sparked a global resurgence of anti-government protest toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and in the early 2010s, with the Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings underscoring how mass protest could challenge entrenched power structures. Organizers in these regions pioneered a new, digitally driven model of protest organization, which has reshaped how protesters convey their messages and rally supporters. And protests in these regions were cited by activists elsewhere in the world as models for how to organize and convey grievances to those in power. Yet over a decade after the wave of protest first crashed over the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, and North America, stark differences have emerged in the protest environments of each area. Protests across North America and Europe have evolved to fit more recent political and social debates, and are part of the ongoing pluralist politics of those regions. In contrast, many of the recent protest drivers in the Middle East and North Africa reflect the same long-standing grievances that fueled the Arab uprisings over a decade ago, and thus reflect how “stuck” many countries are in deeper political terms, and the consequent potential for disruptive change at some later time.
Many Reasons to Protest in MENA
In the years immediately after the Arab uprisings, protests declined in the Middle East and North Africa as governments reestablished harsh control and the energy of anti-government movements dissipated. In the past five years, however, protests have significantly roiled a number of countries across the region.
Data from the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker show that across the Middle East and North Africa since 2017, thirty-six major anti-government protests have broken out in fifteen countries, plus Gaza and the West Bank. Protests have not hit all countries in the region equally, however. Some countries, like Tunisia and Iran, have confronted many different anti-government mobilizations, averaging at least one new protest per year. Others, like Iraq and Lebanon, have seen broad protest movements against the entire political system become quasi-permanent, lasting years and seeking wholesale political and economic reform. And still others, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have managed to avoid the kinds of mass demonstrations that have disrupted political life across much of the region.
Although these protests are rooted in local circumstances, most are attributable to frustrations that transcend national borders. Over half of the protests in the region were driven, at least in part, by economic issues. Acute economic shocks, like a rapid drop in currency value or a hike in commodity prices, have provoked protests in many places, including Iran, Jordan, Oman, Syria, and Yemen. But more significant are protests driven by simmering grievances like chronic unemployment, high costs of living, and income inequality. In Morocco, for example, the death of scavengers in a coal mine in the Jerada region in 2017 spurred a months-long movement over the lack of economic opportunity, unsafe working conditions, and the lack of economic development.
Since 2017, thirty-six major anti-government protests have broken out in fifteen countries, plus Gaza and the West Bank.
Governance issues have also been a potent driver of protest. As governments have struggled to deliver services, citizens have resorted to taking to the streets to demand better performance from their governments. In Libya, for example, extended cuts to power and water service in 2020 triggered significant protests over the government’s failure to meet basic needs, eventually leading officials in the country’s eastern and western governments to resign. State use of force, too, has been a trigger for many protests. State use of force has been a frequent cause of anger in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, where protests have frequently recurred in response to arrests, beatings, forced evictions, and deaths of Palestinians. Deaths in police custody have also triggered mobilizations in Bahrain and Tunisia. And finally, as in other regions, corruption remains a source of deep frustration—allegations of corruption have contributed to more than 30 percent of protests in the region, including mass demonstrations in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Kuwait.
Yet attributing protests across the region solely to one driver or another may be misleading. Protests in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be rooted in a web of interconnected and compounding issues that contribute to, and grow out of, sclerotic political and economic systems. For example, Lebanon’s “October Movement,” which drove more than two years of demonstrations against the government, grew from an initial protest against proposed taxes to encompass wholesale frustration with the sectarianism, corruption, and economic mismanagement that have frozen politics and brought the state to the brink of failure. Similarly, in Iraq, localized protests in Basra over unemployment and poor public services ballooned into a nationwide movement against corruption, unaccountable political leadership, and religious sectarianism. Such massive outpourings are not altogether surprising: in unrepresentative political systems, grievances often have no meaningful outlet aside from the streets. Yet taking to the street often entails grave personal risk. Protesters across the region frequently face harassment from authorities, arrest, imprisonment, and violence. During protests in 2019 in Iran over a fuel price hike, for example, at least 1,000 people were killed, and thousands more were arrested. The fact that protesters knowingly face these risks, however, underscores just how serious their grievances are. Many feel as if they have nothing to lose.
New challenges are adding to this complex web of grievances. As the coronavirus pandemic has strained state resources and weakened economies, citizen anger and alienation has only grown. Protests in Tunisia about economic malaise and unemployment fused with anger against the government’s ineffectual public health response, creating frustration so intense that overwhelming majorities of the population supported President Kais Saied’s seizure of power in July 2021, at least at first. Climate change, too, is fueling popular frustration. In Iran, the worst drought in decades brought thousands of people, mostly farmers, into the streets of Isfahan and elsewhere to decry government mismanagement of water resources and inadequate support for struggling farmers. While the long tail of COVID-19 and the future of climate change both remain unpredictable, they are already contributing to the interconnected set of grievances fueling protests around the region.
Not Just Economics in Europe and North America
In contrast to the declining scale of protest activity in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab uprisings, citizen mobilizations have become larger and more frequent across North America and Europe. Over the past five years, Carnegie data show that there have been at least ninety-nine major anti-government protests across nearly every country in Europe and North America. Many of these demonstrations have smashed recent participation records, including the 2020 racial justice protests in the United States, which attracted more than 20 million participants—the most of any mass protest in American history.
The protest landscape in these regions has shifted dramatically since the initial surge at the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade. Most of those early protests dealt with economic issues stemming from the 2008 financial crisis. But today, a considerably smaller portion—only about 9 percent of the protests since 2017—have dealt primarily with economic issues. By contrast, political concerns and corruption have been far more potent protest drivers. The plurality of protests have dealt with controversial government policies, like Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” in the United States, Brexit in the UK, religious laws in Montenegro, and the political takeover of a university in Hungary. Perhaps no set of policies hase spurred more protest, however, than the restrictions imposed by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many North American and European countries have witnessed—and are continuing to witness—such protests, as the “Freedom Convoy” protests in Canada and the anti-health-pass protests in Austria of January and February 2022 illustrate.
In most of Europe and North America, protest serves as an additional channel for representation alongside other democratic political processes and institutions.
Beyond reacting to particular policy measures, many protesters are responding to broader political or socio-economic dynamics. Some are long-standing, like economic inequality (as in the Yellow Vest protests in France) or racial inequality (as in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States). As in the Middle East and North Africa, pervasive corruption is a potent protest driver, having spurred protests in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere.
Other dynamics are newer. An especially notable example is rising illiberalism on the part of governments. Hundreds of thousands of protesters in Poland, for example, have turned out to decry various illiberal government initiatives in the past few years, including limitations on abortion rights, restrictions on media ownership, and the undermining of judicial independence. Protesters have turned out against similar trends in other countries facing illiberal threats, including Georgia, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States.
Ultimately, most of the difference in protests between the Middle East and North Africa and North America and Europe can be attributed to the fact that protests serve different functions in these regions. In most of Europe and North America, protest serves as an additional channel for representation alongside other democratic political processes and institutions. It is just one of multiple mechanisms by which public opinion can be conveyed to those in power. By contrast, the sclerotic, autocratic political systems that dominate the Middle East and North Africa have few channels for public grievances to be channeled to the leadership. Under such systems, protest becomes one of the only ways in which people can ensure their grievances are heard—though, far too often, they continue to fall on deaf ears.
This commentary is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
header photo: A protester raises his fist on shut-down highway I-94 on July 9, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Protests and marches had occurred every day since the police killing of Philando Castile on June 6, 2016 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Source: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images