10 Reasons Why Everyone Is Protesting

From Egypt to Bulgaria to Brazil to Turkey, growing middle classes are pushing for greater accountability and improved services.


A protester holds up signs during a demonstration in front of a government building in central Sofia on June 21, 2013. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

A national leader rarely faces a doubly threatened ouster--both by public pressure and a military coup--but that is the situation confronting Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi. The opposition has given him a day to step down or face a civil disobedience campaign, and the military has signaled a coup if Morsi cannot turn around his problems within 48 hours.

Morsi joins a handful of leaders around the world who have recently found themselves subject to an surge of populist wrath. In Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Turkey and other nations, the cascade of events has caught the leaders themselves and the world as a whole off guard.

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Observers have scrambled for an explanation in a slew of articles plumbing the possible reason for the sudden onslaught. Perusing the instant analyses, and making a few calls ourselves, we glean 10 common threads, as well as clues for the future.

It is an exceptionally combustible time ...

We are watching "the summer of middle class discontent," write the Washington Post's Anthony Faiola and Paula Moura. Or perhaps the more apt phrase is the "age of unrest." Mass rage just seems to be in the air. For a variety of reasons, the populations of numerous countries seem prepared to be very, very angry. They even find happiness in it (see picture above). The type of countries involved share a form of government--they are not tyrannical dictatorships, but vibrant democracies--and the intensity of the indignation. Is this another adverse sign of globalization? Big thinkers might be prone to think so, but, writes commentator Moises Naim, "the reality is that the protest movements are highly localized, focused on grievances specific to a single country."

... that has precedent in history

But this is not new. We have seen this strain of epidemic anger before--in the years 1848 (the cascade of European revolutions), 1968 (the global youth rejection of the established way) and 1989 (the collapse of Soviet bloc), writes The Economist. In fact, writes political historian Francis Fukuyama, our times seem to have the ring of the Bolshevik, Chinese and French revolutions. But the danger is analyzing too deeply, Fukuyama says, since contemporary forecasts often prove to be exaggerated. Marx was wrong to predict the end of capitalism; Bob Dylan was right enough that the times in 1964 were a-changing, but not as much as he thought; and the year 1989 did not end tyranny, nor even Communism.

It's momentous, only we don't know how ...

No one seems prepared to write off the confluence of events as mere coincidence--the consensus is that 2013 seems historic. In a few years, writes former CIA analyst Paul Pillar, the factors underlying the discontent may very well be the subject of doctoral dissertations. But what is the historical significance? That is anyone's guess. Taking their shot at the answer, the Post's Faiola and Moura conclude, "If the 1960s were about breaking cultural norms and protesting foreign wars, and the 1990s about railing against globalization, then the 2010s are about a clamor for responsive government, as well as social and economic freedom."

... except that a 1968 text by Samuel Huntington seems to be involved

Every important era has its associated theoretical text, and the one being cited the most at this point is Political Order in Changing Societies (pdf), a 1968 work by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. Huntington today is more famous for his 1993 thesis about the Clash of Civilizations, but before that he was best known for the 1960s work, which sought to define why countries become violent and unstable. The reason, Huntington wrote, was "in large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions." In other words, rulers fail to keep up with their population's pace of social, educational and/or economic advancement.

A new, better-educated middle-class ...

A key factor in all the countries involved is the emergence of an educated and aspirational middle class. "Middle-class people want not just security for their families but choices and opportunities for themselves," writes Fukuyama (as did we at Quartz earlier this year, in item No. 4 in our rules of geopolitics). No one should be surprised about this particular aspect of the uprisings--we have multiple early signposts of this trend. A 2008 Goldman Sachs report signaled the coming of a large new global middle class. And protests in China in 1989, Venezuela in 2002, Iran in 2009 and Russia in 2011 were led by these "urban, educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject," writes New York Times columnist Bill Keller.

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Steve LeVine is the Washington correspondent at Quartz.

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