The Debate

Street Protests: Holding A Country Ransom

Crowds in capital cities are exercising a disproportionate influence on political crises – and they are being abetted by inadequate foreign reporting

Street Protests: Holding A Country Ransom
Credit: via Flickr

Bangkok. Cairo. Bangkok again. Istanbul. Cairo again. Kiev. Caracas We are increasingly inhabiting a world in which street protests are back, especially in capital cities. Rulers of France from Napoleon to de Gaulle understood the old adage that “he who holds Paris, holds France”; but in this recent age of globalization and increased communications, the political classes in the West had been lulled into the comfortable assumption that dissent was becoming as evenly distributed as the internet.

Each of the above examples involve a legion of localized causes: corruption is a prominent complaint; mismanagement of policies; ethnic and linguistic tensions; religious conflicts; and ideological battles. The list goes on and on and each fracas is, on the face of it, different. Attempts to see commonality between them by those looking in rarely move beyond the idea of a “democratic deficit,” popular will and other trite attempts to project onto this chaos the norms of developed Western polities.

In reality, there is an underlying theme which is being ignored by much of the foreign media, but which those on the ground will be acutely conscious of. What we are witnessing is in fact an increasing divergence between the emerging urban middle classes on the one hand and ordinary people – usually the rural poor – on the other. The bourgeoisie, for want of a better word, have begun to lose their ability to empathize with those beyond their own circle and many are losing sight of the interests of the country as a whole rather than those purely of the cities.

After all, there are reasons why politicians such as Thaksin and Erdogan are supported by the country at large, albeit outside of Bangkok and Istanbul. Yanukovych was by far the Ukraine’s most popular politician just a few years ago. Even Morsi indisputably won an election. It was because they promised and often delivered on policies aimed at the fragmented rural majority. Thaksin, for instance, by fair means or foul managed to implement landmark healthcare coverage for millions of the most destitute in Thailand. Yanukovych represents an entire half of the country wary of creeping antagonism towards a neighbor which they consider a sentimental home. Morsi, like it or not, was voted in by a substantial demographic who were willing to give the Islamization of the Brotherhood a try. Even in Venezuela’s imperfect landscape, there are plenty who appreciated the regime’s distribution of oil money in the form of infrastructure and, in election years, household appliances.

In the West of course, urban areas have become bywords for the most deprived parts of the country. In emerging markets, by contrast, cities are where the wealthier live. Thus, whereas in the West the communication revolution has seen a trend of accommodating the non-urban middle classes, in the developing world the corresponding lack of infrastructure is in fact disenfranchising the deserving poor. All the benefits of development in the first instance are serving the needs primarily of city-dwellers, and advances in technology, rather than being evenly spread, are simply enhancing the bubble within which the new middle classes live. One only has to experience life in areas such as Jakarta, Bogota and Nairobi and compare it with the problems of their hinterland to realize this. They have become too sophisticated, too quickly.

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We need to remember that just as important as the feeling of middle class disenfranchisement from the government, is non-urban disenfranchisement from the capital. For whilst the former produces demonstrations and riots, the latter may well engender civil wars, failed states and create fertile ground for ethnic and religious extremism to emerge. The less educated majority end up resenting not just the governing party but the whole system. When they see politicians they voted for deposed – Morsi, Yanukovych and Thaksin – they will not consider the nuances of constitutional struggle, but only that they are not allowed the government they wanted. “You can vote for whoever you like, unless we disapprove” seems to be the message coming from Tahrir Square, the Maidan and Sukhumvit. Regardless of immediate outcomes, the legitimization of protest movements is setting back the institution-building of real democracy by years and maybe even decades.

And the problem is enhanced by foreign reporting. Neatly compact urban street protests are highly photogenic and easily captured on camera. Crowds sell news. But as the coverage of the Ukraine crisis has shown, attempts to test the sentiment outside of such areas is difficult. Most TV crews are barely even covering Donetsk or Kharkov, let alone the provinces of Zaporizhia or Luhansk. Are they just being lazy? To an extent, yes. Are they being politically driven? Sub-consciously. It is difficult for outside observers to empathize with anyone other than those who are so passionately occupying the capital. It also involves much greater effort and investment in time – time which is not afforded by the twenty-four hour news cycle. And in any case, Yanukovych, just like Morsi, represents an unfathomably non-Western sentiment which just does not seem worth covering – they are evil, aren’t they? Who supports Russia or Islamization in this day and age?

Western leaders need to learn to grasp this dynamic more comprehensively. Otherwise the support they provide in the short term – including the shockingly early recognition of protest governments and oppositions in cases such as Libya and Syria – could end up leading to much greater long-term instability in the very countries they wish to help stabilize. The potential deposition of Erdogan for instance, which seemed to have the chattering classes rubbing their hands together in glee last year, would be a complete disaster for Western policy in the Middle East. Interventionist policymakers must stop obsessing about “the middle-classes” as though they are the sole definition of progressive identity – a narrow viewpoint which is an unspoken consequence of the Washington Consensus. Although Juvenal commented disapprovingly about panem et circenses, that must indeed sometimes be the basis for realist foreign policy – the alternative is the collapse of the whole edifice which one seeks to erect.

Andong Peng is a researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. His area of focus includes Chinese foreign policy and communications.