The 2010s are coming to end with a coda of protest. It is perhaps appropriate that a decade that began with the Arab Spring ends this way – what began as hope morphed into tragedy and betrayal only to end in renewed promise. Be it Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, or Hong Kong, those who have taken to the streets may seem to have little in common – from anti-neoliberal rage in Chile to angst over the security and policy apparatus creeping over Hong Kong – but they are united in their refusal to allow unacceptable conditions continue to grow and normalize. While many spectators have pessimistically deemed the decade to be a repeat of the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s, the wave of popular dissent that we have seen should give pause to those who are ready to give up.
Indeed, for every negative development that the 2010s brought us – the rise of right-wing populism, failure to bring about meaningful legislation to combat climate change, the continuation of decades-long conflict and the ignition of new battlegrounds that show no sign of abating – there has been an equal and opposite reaction. Take the well-known example of Turkey, which has sunk into authoritarian rule under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For every war that he has started, dissident he has arrested, and green space he has attempted to remove, he has been met with dissent in myriad forms of dissent. The ballot box, the streets, the parliament, and newspapers have all been avenues where those who dream of a better society voice their concerns. No matter how Erdogan tries to stifle dissent, no matter the emotions he plays on, he is met with opposition. No one has given up hope in Turkey.
Nor has the disquieting rise of surveillance technology in China made it impossible to voice opposition in spaces where security is tightest. Much has been said on the concentration camps in Uyghurstan, where the Chinese government has all but outright stated its intent to replace ethnic Uyghurs with Han Chinese and to erase the presence of Islam in the area. Yet the Uyghurs who have been fortunate enough to escape Beijing’s grasp and tell their stories in the United States, Turkey, and Western Europe have managed to raise awareness of their issue from relative obscurity to the front pages of the world’s most important newspapers. The tenacity and refusal of the Uyghurs to accept Beijing’s plans for ethnic replacement should give inspiration to marginalized communities around the world.
In Iraq and Lebanon, protests have shown that this decade’s wave of ethnic and religious polarization, abated by the acceptance of cultural essentialism that has been disseminated by popular far-right figures, are easy to deconstruct. Rejecting decades of societal segregation and recognizing the commonalities between them, the disparate groups within the countries have shown their leaders and outside influencers that they reject narratives that their societies must live apart in sectarian strife. In many ways, what is going on now in the Middle East revives the hope and dreams of the Arab Spring protestors, particularly in Syria. Those who forcefully put down the Syrian protests or who hijacked them for their own extremist and sectarian ends are doubtless shaken by the resolve of the Lebanese and Iraqi protestors.
One can breathlessly continue with platitudes for those who are bravely displaying their dissent towards the status quo. As our decade comes to its conclusion, we do not need hindsight to understand that we have not seen this much popular protest since the 1960s – and perhaps what we have now far surpasses that. Thanks to the example that dissidents around the world have created, we can leave our decade knowing that we need not lose hope, and that we can count on everyday people to ensure that the next decade will not be a “low and dishonest” one.
This blog post was contributed by Philip Kowalski, who is a Program Associate at HasNa Inc.