Foreign Policy Blogs

The Protesters

When I look back to the ended year, I think of so many unexpected turn of events, civilizations ruined, great people we lost as well as so many remarkable achievements in global peace, freedom, and justice movements. Some of these developments are easy to forget and some are cherished already. In North Africa protesters overthrew entrenched autocracies, the US caught it’s most wanted man, a tsunami devastated Japan, the European Union teetered on the verge of collapse, while famine ravaged the horn of Africa and demonstrators mobilized across the globe to slam excesses in the financial industry. In short, 2011 is unique on so many levels.

A society’s well being depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream. In democratic societies all groups, but particularly the most vulnerable, have opportunities to improve or maintain their well being. When governments fail or are unable to keep with the common good, it’s a matter of time until we will see them going down. This reminds me Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that . “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Thanks to TIME Magazine, 2011 person of the year special edition, the liberal magazine honored to the protestors. There were indeed many to choose from. It’s a great recognition of the sacrifices paid by those who stand for freedom and justice. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy.

TIME’s nomination was not free from questions. There are philosophical differences in mapping who is protesting for fairness, who is fighting for freedom and who is terrorizing humanity. As Larbi Sadiki noted in his view “Veiling luminance”. He questioned the meanings of protest, dissidence, and objection apply to Osama bin Laden? Was he a protester? We all know he was a terrorist. He questioned the social construction of the protestors and challange the perseption of who is a protestor, what constitute a protest and if it is always a postie phenomena. Are terrorist’s protesters? Is it the medium of protest, its reach, geography or end that defines the properties or identity of a “protester”? Do Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela epitomize “the protester”. Would Ché? Castro? ANC? Hamas? The Afghan Mujahedeen (once allies of Bin Laden)? The Tunisian Federation of Trade Unions? All had something to do with “redefining people power”!

Despite such critics, the protestors of 2011 were disproportionately young, middle class and educated. Almost all the protests last year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from, or endorsement by, existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small democrats.

While there are universal values which are the common denominators of all the 2011 protestors, there are no ready-made recipes for bringing an end to their plights. Their quest requires a broad and long-term perspective analysis on what caused the protests and how institutions respond to their plights. Time will tell the historical, cultural, and social factors in a given society or country that shape the protest. I hope 2012 will be time to act on our global peace and development challenges on the baseis of respect, tolerance, and mending our long standing political deference.



Abeje T. Chumo

Abeje T. Chumo is an expert on International Law and Use of Military Force in International Relations. He has special interest and skills linking human security with freedom, peace and social justice issues in East Africa. He continuously promotes alternative dispute resolution forums as a way forward to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.