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The Power of Protest

2018 was a year of powerful street movements across the world – protests that led to some of the most extraordinary consequences in recent history. Armenia’s Velvet Revolution affected regime change, while Algeria’s wave of protests forced politicians out of office, with protesters demanding President Abdelaziz Bouteflika abandon his plans to run for a fifth consecutive term.

Some protests transcended national territories to address issues that also work across and beyond borders, such as the Global Climate Strike (for which hundreds of thousands of people attended events in over 90 countries) and the Women’s March (for which there were around 250 events globally).

It was also a year in which protests were used as a pretext to violently repress dissent, eliminating opposition across entire countries. Nicaragua (see p.x), for example, saw the world’s biggest drop in its score for Civic Space between 2017 and 2018, reflecting the total and violent crackdown that President Daniel Ortega’s regime carried out.

Many protests, including Nicaragua’s, were sparked by economic concerns. Citizens took to the streets not for purely ideological reasons but over the material conditions of their lives – issues as fundamental as food prices, in Sudan and Turkmenistan.

In some contexts protests have become the only meaningful way to participate politically, particularly where elections have become a charade to lend legitimacy to a group or individual’s ongoing grip on power, or even to centralise democratic power into their hands.

Worldwide, there was a strong generational element to much of 2018’s popular movement. Youth-led civil groups demanded accountability from ageing political elites, bringing new dynamism to civic space, such as Africa’s hip-hop politicians and the youth-led protest movement in Ethiopia.

Tactics wielded against protest and protesters, however, are increasingly sophisticated and violent. A combination of legislative and policing measures, as well as stigmatising rhetoric, work together to limit the space for protest and deter people from taking to the streets. Brazil, in particular, has seen a highly complex and strategic campaign against protest over the last five years.

In certain countries, the government limited the digital sphere to control protests, limiting the flow of information both to and from media outlets, and between protesters and organisers; see, for example, Chad’s internet shutdown .

Russia’s citizens, despite harsh consequences for many protesters, took to the streets over and over again in 2018 to make their voices heard , as did protesters in Venezuela after the country’s election.