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Opinion From Hong Kong to Chile, 2019 is the year of the street protester. But why?

A protester throws a rock during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Oct. 20.
A protester throws a rock during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Oct. 20. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

By last week it was undeniable: 2019 has become the year of the street protester. As hundreds of thousands marched in Hong Kong and Santiago, Lebanon and London, what has become a global explosion of people power was prompting panic among a host of governments — and raising some interesting questions about how and why it was all ­happening.

Of course, the phenomenon is not new, even in modern times. Since the late 1980s, when people took to the streets in the Philippines and South Korea, and then in the captive nations of Eastern Europe, mass movements of people have been overthrowing governments or, at least, creating political turmoil.

But this year is exceptional for the sheer breadth and diversity of the unrest. Hong Kong, which has now had 20 consecutive weeks of mass protests, has had perhaps the most noted uprising. But the Middle East has seen demonstrations in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and Iraq in addition to Lebanon.

Activists Joshua Wong, Denise Ho, Brian Leung and Nathan Law say Hong Kong's protests are a clash of authoritarian and democratic values. (Video: Parjanya Christian Holtz/The Washington Post)

In Latin America, Chile’s riots followed mass protests in Ecuador, Argentina and Honduras. In Eastern Europe, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Georgia have been rocked. Vladi­mir Putin has had to contend with the largest street demonstrations in Russia since 2012. And the list goes on.

Why now? After all, the global economy is still growing, as it has for the past decade. In most of the world, poverty is declining. Governments in many countries where people are marching are corrupt, repressive or simply dysfunctional — but arguably no more so than they have been for decades.

Facile explanations have flourished. In Chile, where at least 18 people have died in demonstrations, foreign correspondents who rushed to seek explanations from Santiago’s left-leaning intelligentsia came away with a suspiciously ideological story: The “neo-liberalism” that Chile has practiced over the past 30 years, it was said, had failed. But wait. The poverty rate has fallen from nearly 50 percent to 6 percent during that time, living standards have risen dramatically, and inequality is less severe than in all but two other Latin American ­countries.

Some Middle East analysts jumped to the conclusion that the unrest in Iraq and Lebanon showed that people were finally fed up with sectarianism, especially that promoted by Shiite Iran. Maybe — but that doesn’t account for the uprisings in Sunni Algeria, Sudan or Egypt. A New York Times survey posited “a louder-than-usual howl against elites in countries where democracy is a source of disappointment.” But that doesn’t explain Algeria or Hong Kong.

A simple conclusion could be that the global unrest has no shared characteristics other than the tactic of taking to the streets. But I think there is more to it than that. Hong Kong and Egypt, Chile and Lebanon have two things in common: pervasive social media and a rising generation of discontented youth who are masters of it. The combination of the two has changed the balance of power between government and society in both democratic and authoritarian states.

Chile’s protests began not with unions or opposition parties but with middle and high school students, who used social media to call on riders to jump subway turnstiles in protest of a fare hike. The protest went viral; the government, caught unawares, overreacted and called out the army. Soon the whole country was in turmoil. Similarly, Lebanon’s unrest began with young people outraged over a tax on phone calls made on WhatsApp.

In Egypt, thousands of mostly young, male soccer fans took to the streets of Cairo in response to a call from a previously unknown businessman who posted videos on YouTube denouncing corruption. The panicked regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi responded by arresting numerous opposition activists who had nothing to do with what was an entirely new channel of discontent.

By far the most sophisticated use of new media is by the opposition movement in Hong Kong, which has used it to remain leaderless. Activists coordinate over secure apps such as Telegram; they used another app to identify and avoid police deployments before Apple pulled the tool under pressure from Beijing. As elsewhere, the backbone of the movement is young people, including ­teenagers.

This is a motivated generation, pushing for dramatic change in the political status quo. In that sense, the youth of 2019 are a little like those of 1968. Their command of new communications technologies makes it easy for them to attract followers, circumvent the usual channels of public debate and blindside governments. They are able to mobilize large numbers on small issues, such as fare increases, and tap into general discontent that otherwise might have remained unexpressed.

The mass protests they have generated have had very different aims in very different places. But they augur a new era of political conflict.

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Read more:

Zainab Mudallal and Mili Mitra: Lebanon’s protests are full of hope and joy — for now

Munqith Dagher: Why are Iraqi Shiites leading the protests against their ‘own’ government?

Stacy Torres: The protests in Chile aren’t about 30 pesos. They’re about 30 years of failure.

Kareem Chehayeb: Lebanon’s protests and wildfires tell the same grim story

Mimi Lee: How NBA fans can respond to the league’s dismissal of Hong Kong