'If We Burn ... Then What?' A New Book Asks Why A Decade Of Mass Protest Has Done So Little To Change Things


Author: Christopher Pollard

(MENAFN- The Conversation) In 2010, in response to ongoing ill-treatment by police, a fruit vendor performed an act of self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. This set off an uprising that led to the removal of dictator Ben Ali and a process to rewrite the constitution in a democratic direction.

Inspired by this, huge demonstrations against police brutality erupted in Egypt, centred in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the protesters calling for the removal of the country's president, Hosni Mubarak .

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution – Vincent Bevins (Hachette)

These events catalysed what Vincent Bevins calls the“mass protest decade”. The years from 2010 to 2020 saw a record number of protests around the world seeking to transform societies in broadly progressive ways. Many groups were inspired by democratic ideals.

These protests were truly global. Those in Tunisia and Egypt became part of the wider uprising that came to be called the“Arab Spring”.

In 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) or“Free Fare Movement” led to mass protests in Brazil. Initially directed against rises in transport fares, they rapidly expanded to include an unwieldy and contradictory set of groups and grievances.

Many other protests sprang up, including Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests in 2014, dubbed the“umbrella movement” in their first phase by the global press.

Read more: Whatever Happened to the 'Arab Spring'?

From bad to worse

In his new book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution , Bevins starts by asking“how is it possible that so many mass protests apparently led to the opposite of what they asked for?”

The answer he provides is suggested in the book's title, which he expands as:“If we burn ... then what?”


Aiming to make sense of the significant role of mass protest across the decade, Bevins focuses on countries where the protest movements were so large that the existing government was either seriously destabilised or dislodged: Bahrain, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Hong Kong, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine and Yemen. His book explores why movements failed to achieve their goals and why, in many cases, things got decidedly worse.

In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak regime ended up being replaced by the even worse El-Sisi dictatorship . In Brazil, the leftist-led protests ended up undermining the progressive government led by Dilma Rousseff , when groups on the right adopted similar tactics, media strategies, and anti-establishment and anti-corruption rhetoric. What ensued led to the impeachment of President Rousseff and the rise to power of far-right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro .

For a significant part of the mass protest decade, Bevins was based in Sao Paulo as the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In If We Burn, he draws on his extensive experience as a journalist, as well as his academic background. He has travelled around the world and conducted over 200 interviews in 12 countries, which he has woven into an interesting narrative history.

His particular focus is on the activists who conceived and enacted the protest movements. Bevins covers their experiences at the time and, later in the book, what they came to understand about the events that unfolded, and their advice for future activists. He also engages with others, such as politicians and journalists, and draws on the work of social and political theorists.

The narrative is slanted towards his Brazilian home base. Bevins was there to witness the Free Fare Movement and the waves of mass protest it unleashed. Caught up in the action, he experienced, among other things, tear gassing. His colleague Giuliana Vallone was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.

Vallone found her picture“flying through social networks”. Her image was used as a part of the Brazilian media's reframing of the protests from broadly bad (leftist troublemakers) to broadly good (nationalists and patriots).


Journalist Guiliana Vallone was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet during the Free Fare Movement protests in Brazil. YouTube

The effect of this reframing illustrates the power of dominant news media. As Bevins argues, media narratives shaped how the decades' protests were viewed around the world, but they also shaped the configuration of the protests in real time, influencing who showed up, and why.

The reframing turbo-charged popular support for the mass protests across Brazil – but not in ways that aligned with the goals of the originators of the protests, which were taken over by an assortment of better organised right-wing groups, including proto-Bolsonaristas.

In a classic right-wing tactic, one group – the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) or“Free Brazil Movement” – even appropriated the originators' name.“In Brazilian Portuguese,” Bevins notes,“'MBL' sounds nearly identical to 'MPL'.”

Read more: Why Bolsonaro failed to overthrow democracy – and why a threat remains

International solidarity

On June 13, 2013, while being tear gassed, the crowd in Sao Paulo chanted“love is over – Turkey is here”. They were referring to the ongoing repression of protesters in Turkey, whose occupation of Gezi Park , next to Taksim Square in Istanbul, began as a protest against the park's redevelopment, but became a focal point for wider discontentment with the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bevins posts the words on Twitter and is stunned to see them go viral. He receives a flood of images and messages in response. Signs pop up in Gezi Park over the following weeks reading“the whole world is Sao Paulo” and“Turkey and Brazil are one”.

The story exemplifies a new type of international solidarity. Facilitated by the speed of social networking sites, digitally mediated mass protests in significant public places, often squares, emulated the Tahrir Square“model”.

The global protests extended from Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Turkey, to Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall St in the United States, to the Plaza del Sol in Spain and the “Euromaidan” protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukraine .

Bevins emphasises that these protests tended to share certain features: they were“digitally coordinated ... horizontally structured ... apparently leaderless ... apparently spontaneous”.

He describes this phenomenon as a“repertoire of contention”. It involved a certain“recipe of tactics” that became largely taken for granted as the“natural way to respond to social injustice”.


Demonstrator at a Free Fare Movement protest, Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 19, 2016. Andre Penner/AAP Repertoire of contention

During the protest decade, this“repertoire of contention” was more successful than expected. It often put so many people on the streets that it gave protesters real political leverage. They were suddenly in a position where they could make demands and extract reforms from the political establishment. In some cases, they generated“revolutionary situations” where they might potentially take power themselves.

But this type of protest is, as Bevins observes,“very poorly equipped” to take advantage of the kinds of destabilisation or“revolutionary” situations that they create. In such situations, groups must either enter the ensuing power vacuum or use their leverage to negotiate with the establishment. The problem was that to do this effectively required the type of representation and organisation that had become almost impossible.


Vincent Bevins. Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA

On one hand, Bevins says this was due to the“material conditions” existing before the popular explosions. In the North African dictatorships, for example, unions and alternative political parties had been severely weakened or suppressed. As such, the protests took the“horizontal” form characteristic of the decade.

But in countries with democracies, however imperfect – Brazil and Chile, for example – there were unions and alternative political parties. The horizontal nature of the protests there tended to be driven by an ideological commitment to“horizontalism”.

The ideal was a form of radical participatory democracy, emerging from left-libertarian and anarchist traditions, in which“everyone is equal”. Hierarchy is eschewed, as is any type of enduring formal structure of leaders or spokespeople. As the anthropologist and activist David Graeber wrote:“It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations.”

Bevins reports that, at crucial moments, due to their lack of organisation and structure, key actors often replicated tactics they had learned beforehand. Their“repertoire” left them ill-prepared for both the challenges and opportunities that arose.

An unprecedented, technologically facilitated sense of solidarity and inspiration flowed around the world, but it happened so quickly that it led to the“cutting and pasting” of approaches into different national contexts.“Transfer of solidarity” became bound up with“transfer of tactics”.

This meant, in particular, that the“alter-globalisation” movement, conceived in the democratic context of North America, had a disproportionate influence, creating a mismatch of tactics and circumstances. The hasty adoption of tactics meant most movements did not take the time to think through strategies that might be successful in their local context.


Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, December 8, 2019. Vincent Yu/AAP

Read more: Louisa Lim's 'outstanding' portrait of a dispossessed, defiant Hong Kong is the activist journalism we need

New strategies

Bevins suggests that by taking this and other lessons on board, the deep desire for progressive change, both nationally and in the global system, might come closer to being realised in coming decades. The“mismatches” can be overcome with study and reflection on the events of the mass protest decade. More suitable“repertoires” might be arrived at.

The spontaneous horizontal protests, Bevins observes,“did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums”. But the power vacuums they created were filled by those who were ready.

In Egypt, that meant the military. The Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates, were also involved in the El-Sisi coup, via their funding of the anti-Morsi Tamarod movement . In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council“literally marched in to fill in the gaps”. The Hong Kong movement was crushed by Beijing. In Brazil, Rousseff was“not removed, not immediately; but to the extent that she lost influence in June 2013, that power did not fall to the anti-authoritarian left, as the [Free Fare Movement] would have liked”.


Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff campaigning in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 24, 2010. Antonio Lacerda/AAP

Lasting progressive change, Bevins argues, requires better organisation and vehicles capable of handing down knowledge, strategy and tactics to the next generation of activists. He offers the example of Chile.

In Chile, the role of unions and political parties, as well as the activists engaging in institutional politics, proved more successful in producing progressive outcomes than digitally organised, horizontal, mass protests alone.

The powerful student unions played a strong role. The“autonomist” left-wing activist Gabriel Boric , who emerged through university politics, ended up becoming president in 2022. He was pivotal in the referendum process that sought to rewrite Chile's Pinochet-era constitution.

Bevins proposes that the horizontalist left is so traumatised by the“sins of the Soviet Union” and“other revolutions” that many activists have given up“the things that work” – like organisation, structure and co-ordination.

“But if you refuse to use the tools that work”, he points out , you are“ceding your power” to those who will. It is“like showing up to a football game without a coach, strategy, or even a clear idea of who's on your team”. Being well organised does not guarantee success, but it is essential when you enter into conflict with other well organised forces.

Bevins describes the decade's dominant form of protest as being ultimately“illegible”. A key part of the problem was that“the square” was, in most of these protests, not asking for one coherent thing, or set of things. Activists, years later, often had widely divergent views as to“what the movements were all about”.


Vincent Bevins speaking at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, October 25, 2023.

Read more: How the 20 year rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has transformed Turkey

American influence

As the world's dominant superpower, the United States is entwined, in complex ways, with the individual countries and the regional power-politics Bevins discusses. In 2011, for example, the US took the opportunity provided by unrest in Libya, and a brutal state crackdown in response, to invade and overthrow the Gaddafi regime in a NATO mission . Hong Kong protesters came to believe they were“sacrificed” for the Trump administration's ongoing“propaganda war against China”.

Bevins also argues that the American domination of the internet has contributed to unrealistic views about the nature of social institutions, power and social change. The techno-utopianism that has accompanied its rise, the US-centric culture and ideas that circulate on oligarch-owned social media platforms, and“online communities born in the alter-globalisation era”, such as Indymedia and Adbusters , played an“outsize role” in the mass protest decade.

Protesters' ideas about what was possible and how to proceed were shaped by their immersion in this media landscape. Reflecting in retrospect on the prominent use of material from The Hunger Games, V for Vendetta and Star Wars, a Hong Kong activist said:“I think it is ... a little sad, and definitely very unfortunate, that we got so many of our ideas from pop culture.”


A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask in Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, December 14, 2012. Petr David Josek/AAP

The simplistic faith of“liberal techno-optimists” that the internet and social media are intrinsically progressive has proved unfounded, as has the belief that“the internet would make the world more like the United States”.

No protest action or technology is intrinsically progressive. As Bevins points out, is has become clear in recent years that the protesters'“repertoire” of tools and tactics can be used at least as effectively by right-wing demagogues and disinformation outfits. The shock of Trumpian politics was accompanied by a sobering realisation that“the internet was something that could be used by malevolent foreign powers to undermine the American project”.

Digital communication, Bevins observes, has facilitated“the existence of big protests that come together very quickly – so quickly, perhaps, that no one knows each other, people are trying to realize contradictory goals, and after the initial energy fades, nothing remains”. In a recent interview , he paraphrases one Free Fare Movement interviewee reflecting on how events unfolded in Brazil:“all we wanted to do for eight years was to cause a popular uprising; and then we did, and it was awful”.

Throughout If We Burn, Bevins shows that“movements that cannot speak for themselves will be spoken for”. As an Egyptian activist reflects:“we thought representation was elitism, but actually it is the essence of democracy”.


The Conversation

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