Historically, political or anti-government movements were less frequent but had more impact. Nowadays, it’s almost the exact opposite of it.
If we consider the past few years, we find that more (and more) sit-ins, protests, marches, demonstrations and riots have taken place, drawing thousands and thousands of people but they have accomplished much (and much) less.
In fact, there seems to be a “protest fatigue” setting in globally.
There are a variety of factors that could be contributing to the weariness.
First of all, sensational media reporting has, to a considerable extent, erased the emotional impact of street movements. There was a time when photos, for instance, showing riot police tear-gassing or pepper-spraying protesters elicited derision and loathing. Now, if we come across such images on social media or on our Facebook news feeds, we move on or we even tend to mute related news – because there’s just too much of it out there.
Secondly, in way too many cases, it has been observed that some interest groups initiate a meaningful struggle which eventually gets hijacked and loses track of its primary cause. The Taksim protests in Turkey started off as peaceful sit-ins in a single city by locals opposing the demolition of an historical park. But it soon got lost in the way when thousands others – with various other concerns – joined in and blew the sit-ins into full-blown anti-government riots.
Also, there’s too much violence involved and it’s gradually contributing to a much more negative interpretation of the term “protest.” More often than not, scores of people have died or gotten severely injured in recent demonstrations – that too for a failed cause.
While a lot less attention is paid towards organizing activists and planning a scheme to lure the government into negotiations, a lot more effort is put into destroying public property, clashing with riot police and, in some extreme cases, with one another.
And last but not the least, the outcome of the entire struggle – i.e. everything that happens “after” the demonstrations – is generally so disappointing that it’s becoming rather a tedious routine. It’s contributing to an “another-day-another-protest” mindset.
Let’s now consider some of the most recent and widely reported examples from 2013-2014 and see how successful the anti-government campaigns have been lately.
Initially, a group of Turkish citizens just wanted to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. However, peaceful the sit-ins spiraled into nationwide anti-government riots against the then-prime minister and now president Tayyip Erdogan in May 2013 when the authorities responded with brutal force.
At least eight people were killed, some 8,000 injured, 104 sustained serious head injuries and 11 people lost an eye as a result of the police crackdown on the protests.
They failed… miserably.
The violent demonstrations – which, according to some analysts, were the most challenging events for Erdogan’s 10-year term and the most significant nationwide unrest in decades – didn’t have any significant effect on the embattled PM’s governance, which is conversely getting stricter by the day.
Case in point: Erdogan made history when he won the first direct election of a president (which was before elected by MPs in the Turkish parliament) in a ballot held earlier in August, receiving 52 percent of the votes. Before that, his Justice and Development Party won handsomely in March's regional elections, another indicator of Erdogan’s undimmed popularity despite massive opposition.
On July 3, 2013, Mohamed Morsi was deposed as Egypt’s president after a series of protests – the biggest in the country’s history – called for his resignation. Although he was the nation’s first democratically elected leader, his orthodox way of governance led to a nationwide unrest and divided Egypt into several groups.
Many hoped his ouster would bring hope to Egypt and the situation would improve. However, this wasn’t the case and the country was soaked in blood when the Egyptian military allegedly killed thousands of pro-Morsi protesters in cold blood.
Read More: Egypt: Revolution, What Revolution?
Egypt has come full circle; from the ouster of one military strongman – Hosni Mubarak – to the welcome of another – President Abdel Fatah al Sisi.
There was a time when the Egyptian Uprising was described as a successful model to bring about real political change – now it’s just a bad (bad) example for street revolution as well as democracy.
The Brazilian protests began in the first week of June 2013 following the transportation-fare hike by the authorities and were mostly attended by students and young people. But with the passage of time, more and more people joined in and the Free Fare Movement turned into a fully fledged anti-government movement – an expression of pent up frustrations regarding the plutocratic regime which is much more interested in spending money on football stadiums rather than focusing on the common man’s needs and wants.
The movement became Brazil's largest since the 1992 protests against former President Fernando Collor de Mello.
These were not a total loss. Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad decided not to increase fares in an attempt to halt the unrest.
But the people came out again the following year when FIFA World Cup was held in June, despite massive resistance.
Yet again, money and sports triumphed over the needs of the common man.
Thailand went through one of its roughest political phases between November 2013 and May 2014.
At one point its capital city braced for a shutdown, fueling fears the south-east Asian country could be heading for civil war.
Although the protests eventually resulted in the removal of the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a military rule was established as a result of a coup d'état – a power transformation which spawned further resistance.
Hundreds of thousands had filled Independence Square in December 2013 to denounce then President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of an EU pact under Kremlin pressure. It was one of the biggest protests in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
They worked out … but they didn’t.
Although Yanukovych was ousted and a pro-EU government was formed, Ukraine lost the Crimean Peninsula to Russia and is still struggling with political stability allegedly suffering at the hands of Kremlin.
A series of political demonstrations occurred throughout Venezuela from February to June 2014.
Two opposition leaders, Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez, urged Venezuelans to take to the streets against President Nicolas Maduro.
Several students also took part in the protests with posters and slogans denouncing rampant crime, political corruption and inflation.
However the events took a deadly turn three weeks into the protests, which have been called a "Venezuelan Spring," resulted in thousands of arrests, between 800 and 5000 injuries, and over 40 deaths.
This is an ongoing struggle – only it shows no signs of yielding any results. Maduro’s still in power – his policies are pretty much the same.
The streets of Islamabad – the capital city of Pakistan – two major anti-government protests took place simultaneously under Imran Khan and Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, leaders of two separate political groups, demanding the incumbent prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to step down and resign.
Indeed, these sit-ins marked some of biggest in the South Asian nation’s recent history, drawing tens of thousands of people across several cities. But so far not much has come out of the protests even after three months of sit ins and fiery speeches. Result:
After camping out in front of the parliament building for months, one of the leaders, Qadri officially ended his sit-in in Islamabad. Although Khan didn’t follow suit, it is unclear what he plans to do next – especially when the government is showing no signs of compromise.
However, Michael Kugelman, Pakistan analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, stated in an interview that the movement has at least weakened and discredited the Sharif-led government.
Tens of thousands of activists occupied the streets of Hong Kong in September, protesting to keep their promised democratic rights, which they feared could be taken away by the central government in Beijing.
These sit-ins were later termed the “longest series of political protests” since the 1997 British handover to China.
There is no end in sight to these protests.
On November 18, a small group of pro-democracy protesters broke into the city's legislature, and police stopped others forcing their way in as tensions in the Chinese-controlled city escalated following a period of calm.
Considering the aforementioned examples, we can’t really say that protests don’t work at all – that would be an assertion too sweeping, of course. However, substantial results in almost all of the cases were/have not been achieved as well – which ultimately comes down to the fact that there is a lot of enthusiasm among activists – no doubt about that – but organization and planning is either absent or diminishes with the passage of time.
Sociology expert Dr. Dana Fisher from Columbia University says that participants of politically charged protests need to be a representation of the population that's willing to commit.
"You need people coming out on more than one day. You need sustained action. You need people to go home and continue to show their dissatisfaction. They need to make it clear they're not going to take it anymore. They need to show politicians that change is required," Fisher stated.
Sure, these protests helped generate awareness, but in practice it is hard to find significant changes in public policy.
However, this certainly doesn’t mean people should stop raising their voices against oppression. Martin Luther King Jr. did it fifty years ago – surely someone can (and will) do something similar again.