A protester in Cairo, February 2011. <br>CREDIT: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ramyraoof/5416807660/" target="_blank">RamyRaoof</a>
A protester in Cairo, February 2011.
CREDIT: RamyRaoof

The Varieties of Protest Experience: How Accountability Gaps Link the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street

Feb 8, 2012

Beginning with the 2009-2010 protests in Iran—which now serve as both prelude and, because of their manifest failure, as a cautionary event—there has been an eruption of popular movements spanning the Global North and South. From Spain, Israel, Italy, Greece, and the United States, to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia, millions have marched, encamped, gone on strike, chanted en masse, and occupied squares, parks, streets, and roundabouts. Considered collectively, the magnitude of all this activity is staggering. Not since the events leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and prior to that the momentous year of 1968, have so many people protested their own government's policies, and in some cases, challenged the very legitimacy of these regimes.

The question is if these protests can be interpreted as a single phenomenon, since they are spread out across great distances and separated by barriers of language and culture. Are they driven by the same kinds of popular grievances or rooted in the same kinds of failures of governance? Can we locate a common strand of thought or purpose that binds them together? It is true that there are widely divergent domestic situations in all of the countries where protests have occurred, and so we have to be careful not to collapse each movement's distinctive features into one another. But we also should be open to drawing conclusions about what these movements may share, and what common elements may be driving them. Some events should be chained together: they are just too conspicuously similar to view in isolation.

Given their populist tinge (from "the people want the fall of the regime" in the Arab states to "We are the 99 Percent" in the United States)—not to mention the biases of our democratic age—it would be easy to scan all these different movements and see a drive for more democracy as what binds them together. But I don't think this would be wholly accurate. The common conflation of "democracy" with "elections," and the prominent role elections have played in the Arab Spring, likely contributes to the idea that these protests are all "pro-democracy" in nature. But democracy, at least in its modern, liberal form, incorporates much more than elections: it encompasses a multitude of values, some of which, as Isaiah Berlin famously observed, exist in great tension with one another, such as the concepts of liberty and equality—and even within different ideas of a single concept like liberty. Guiding principles like pluralism and the rule of law are also integral to our contemporary understanding of democracy, but truly pluralistic societies are difficult to foster and maintain, and the rule of law (and not individuals, or institutions such as the military) endures in certain societies not via force but through shared values, and extraordinary delicate cultural predilections.

And so while an Islamist in Cairo may be protesting partly for the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and while an Occupy Wall Street protestor may be partly agitating for enhanced equality of opportunity—and also perhaps outcomes—neither of these demands are evidence of a push for more democracy per se. The Muslim Brotherhood member may not believe in equality of opportunity or outcomes (he may, for instance, favor a privileged place for Islam in Egypt's constitution, thus disadvantaging Egypt's sizable Coptic Christian minority), and the Occupy Wall Street protestor is probably unconcerned about her voting rights, because she lives in a mature liberal democracy that, despite its many shortcomings, safeguards that right among many others. Moreover, she would very likely disapprove of a political order where a religious majority was, through its newfound electoral power, able to discriminate against that country's minorities.

Different societies prioritize different values, but all societies demand that their government's values remain at least partially congruent with their own. In some places, liberal democracy itself may become an overriding concern; in others, different values may take precedence, even though these may (or may not) also be compatible with liberalism or democracy. When a government strays too far from its peoples' hierarchy of values, or violates that society's normative consensus on important issues, it risks being seen as unrepresentative in a very fundamental sense of the term, a sense that predates and in many ways transcends the strictures of electoral politics. An unrepresentative government that repeatedly contravenes its peoples' values or mores has become unaccountable to them. And accountability issues can threaten the legitimacy of a regime as a whole.

Accountability—the idea of a basic responsiveness of a regime to its people—thus functions as a kind of "meta-value" in politics. If there is a single concept that links the Arab Spring protests to those in advanced democracies like the U.S., it is this one. While accountability is a constituent element of liberal democracy it is not synonymous with it, nor do drives for the former automatically translate into the institution or increase of the latter. Of course, accountability-oriented movements can be proto-democratic (because democracies possess more "escape valves" for popular pressure than other forms of government, and by that very fact increase accountability), or have democratic ideals informing them (take for instance the neo-Athenian "General Assemblies" at Zuccotti Park) but they don't have to be democratic in intent, nor produce what is considered a truly democratic political system to successfully achieve their objectives, at least initially. A system can be somewhat responsive to its people without being republican in constitution. In fact, political theorists through the ages have presumed that some degree of accountability of the ruler toward his people was an important source of his legitimacy, whether the form of government was monarchical, oligarchic, or democratic. When a political regime becomes too rigid, however-too alienated, too corrupt, or too beholden to external powers or internal cliques—the people may revolt to correct this imbalance.

Take the case of Tunisia. On the morning of December 17th, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old Tunisian produce vendor, immolated himself in front of the local governor's office to protest the graft and corruption of local officials who had been extorting him in exchange for his vendor's permit. Bouazizi's actions led to local protests that enlarged and intensified, spreading across the country. On January 14th, 2011—only ten days after Bouazizi died because of his burns—Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country. Bouazizi, who was not known to be politically active, could never have known the immense repercussions of his final act of protest, indignation, and despair. His gesture initiated a sequence of events that has led to three revolutions in the Arab world, and significant unrest in a number of other states in the region. But he did not set himself ablaze because of a self-consciously "political" agenda—Bouazizi acted out of frustration with a political system, and in particular a bureaucracy, that was suffocating him. He desperately desired accountability for the actions of local officials: only when he attempted to get an audience with the local governor to air his grievances, and was immediately denied this request, did Bouazizi resort to burning himself.

The protests in Libya that led to the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime also had somewhat obscure origins. They began as a response to the arrest in Benghazi of Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer who represented families with relatives who had been held in Libya's execrable Abu Salim prison. In 1996, the Qaddafi regime slaughtered over 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim, and then hid this fact from prisoners' families. For years, these families had no idea their relatives had been murdered by the Libyan state; they presumed them alive and in captivity. In 2004, Muammar Qaddafi acknowledged the mass killing at Abu Salim, and promised a full investigation—an investigation that, unsurprisingly, never took place. When Terbil was arrested in February of 2011, the families of the murdered prisoners protested on the streets of Benghazi, which lead to a violent response by the government, and then the gradual enlargement and intensification of protests.

Why was this the spark that set the Libyan revolution alight? The Libyan people had suffered under Qaddafi for over 40 years. Their resistance was, to be sure, long overdue, and there is no doubt that the uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia served as an inspiration. But the proximate cause of the Libyan revolution was stubbornly local: the families of Benghazi demanded accountability for the Abu Salim massacre—both in the sense of establishing responsibility for it and that an account of the massacre be provided to them—and could no longer contain their anger and frustration when their legal champion was himself arrested on obscure grounds.

So while authoritarianism obviously tends toward unaccountability, opposition to this kind of rule does not seem in the Middle East to be sufficient motivation for widespread revolt. If it were, much larger protest movements would have developed in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco. Some degree of political accountability below that found in electoral democracy may be sufficient to ward off a sustained challenge to an authoritarian system. Many of the Middle Eastern states that have so far managed to do so, like Oman and Jordan, are "enlightened despotisms" that make real efforts at improving the lot of their people and have allowed minor but tangible political freedoms, or are like Lebanon semi-democratic and permit, in a highly circumscribed manner, people to influence their representatives (Lebanon operates under a confessional system of representation where religious sects are all pre-apportioned a certain number of seats in parliament).

Thus, in the end, the legacy of the Arab Spring protests will hinge not just on whether post-revolutionary governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt develop into liberal democracies or something approximating it (which is already looking unlikely in Egypt), but by how the states in the region that seem unlikely to undergo revolutions react to popular discontent. If they introduce enough in the way of political and economic reforms, moderate, responsive authoritarianism may have prolonged its life in the Middle East. Whether this is a good thing is another matter altogether.

Recent protest movements in wealthier, democratic states have also coalesced on accountability issues. Beginning in July of 2011, protesters in Israel occupied part of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and organized massive marches countrywide (including one in early September with over 350,000 participants) aimed at greater social justice. The ambiguity of this general demand distorted the protestors' more tangible concerns: that the cost of housing in Israel had become prohibitively expensive; that there was a serious job shortage, especially for the young; and most importantly, that the Israeli political class, and in particular the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, had abandoned the Israeli welfare state in favor of a neoliberal economic order that favored the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. So, too, in Spain: the "indignant movement" that arose in May of 2011 focused on massive youth unemployment, the perceived injustice of government austerity measures, the rigidity of the Spanish political system, and the excessive influence of money in politics. In both of these countries, protests were driven by the sense that the dominant economic and political forces were totally unaccountable to the people, and were largely acting not in the peoples' interests.

In Greece and Italy, groups have also staged large protests against government austerity measures. The severe fiscal woes of these two countries, and their deep integration in the European economy, have severely weakened their ability to control their own economic restructuring. Rather, such efforts are largely dictated by technocratic international financial institutions such as the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are wholly unaccountable to the people whose lives they now affect. Moreover, domestic political leaders in Italy and Greece now appear increasingly subordinate to (and populated by) European technocrats. In November, for instance, groups in Italy marched in protest of the "bankers' government."

The Occupy Wall Street protests have similar roots. They were born from a sense that because of their rarified position in the American political system, financial institutions were allowed to cause the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and were not only not punished for their behavior but were subsequently given hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars without preconditions or stipulations. These same institutions are now making record profits, even while the long-term effects of their behavior are still rippling outward, causing immense suffering nationwide. But the unethical behavior of the banks is just part of what has driven protestors. Institutions and individuals will behave irresponsibly—"if men were angels, no government would be necessary," said James Madison—but it is government's job to hold these delinquent institutions and individuals to account. If it does not do so it has failed at one of its core responsibilities. The grievances of Occupy Wall Street revolve around this key principal. Their message is that the agenda of the finance industry, and that of the ultra-wealthy in general, is not in the public interest, and that our government has become more accountable to them then to the electorate as a whole.

The accountability issues driving protests in states like Israel, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the United States are obviously less severe than those in the Arab Middle East, but are in their own way equally vexing. While mobilizing in these countries is easier because freedom of speech and assembly is less restricted, the appearance of political accountability—through periodic and regularly-scheduled elections, comparatively low levels of corruption, and relatively robust civil liberties regimes—can actually serve to obscure the depths of the problems these societies face. It is easier to rally wide swaths of society to depose a dictator than to protest a judicial decision that equates money with free speech, as the Supreme Court recently did with its Citizens United decision. It is more intuitive for millions to march for basic human dignity than against a nameless, faceless plutocracy. It is easier to bring a simmer to a boil, but also more dangerous for those involved. What an irony, then, that the more fundamental accountability issues facing the people of the Middle East are likely just preludes to their less destructive, but more insidious, relatives.

A shorter version of this article was published in Dissent magazine in January 2012.

You may also like

JUN 17, 2024 Podcast

Linguistics, Automated Systems, & the Power of AI, with Emily M. Bender

In this episode, guest host Dr. Kobi Leins & University of Washington’s Dr. Emily Bender discuss why language matters in the development of technological systems.

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation