How to make protest effective

We need to do more than march from A to B if we want political change.

It’s so difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the crisis in Europe. This past Saturday, I watched closely as Portuguese rallied in enormous numbers against the foreign imposed austerity measures. The energy of tens of thousands filling the streets is momentarily intoxicating as ever, especially when they sing Grandola, Vila Morena, a song charged with revolutionary energy and optimism. But as soon as the last verse is sung, the crowds begin to demobilise; videos, photos and memories are the only evidence that there was even a protest of such scale. Because the next day, as the political leaders remain indifferent, the discussion already switches to the next austerity measures and the next bleak economic headline.

This has played out countless times in each crisis hit country in the eurozone. The social anxiety of the public spills out onto the streets as anger and then recedes back into anxiety. Then, a sense of defeat sinks in during the following weeks and months, until the latest provocation of yet more sacrifices transforms that anxiety into yet more protests by thousands of angry, crisis-fatigued citizens.

I think the reason for this is obvious, though I suspect many who attend, promote and organise these protests don't want to hear it. The protests aren't to challenge the government, but only to probe the government's resolve. When the government's resolve proves to be unshaken, since there is no policy alternative within the current framework of the Troika, there's nowhere to go but to return to that state of social anxiety. The point A to point B marches play it safe, expressing their demands but not setting out an objective that is to be reached through various tactics. I would call it public relations but I think organisers of protests like Que Se Lixe A Troika on Saturday sincerely believe mass marches every few months can stop the austerity. I'm here to say that this is a miscalculation.

It’s easy to see how opposition to austerity will eventually triumph, the policies undoubtedly cause tremendous economic and social damage. Each round of cuts and tax hikes align more people against the government and the international creditors known as the Troika. Inevitably, the protests in Spain, Greece, and Portugal has swelled with each passing year. But this slow grind of declining legitimacy for governments in southern Europe has great risk. As we can see in Greece, a neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, has surged onto the highest stage of Greek politics, now polling 3rd overall, this as its militias violently attack immigrants on the streets. Spanish society, if eroded by a similar amount of austerity, could see regional and cultural differences hardened. Portugal, with no parliamentary far-right in existence, could be tempted by similar extreme nationalists in the years ahead as frustration with mainstream parties grow.

There is a clock ticking away in Europe, but it isn't necessarily counting down till the day when the streets banish the troika's authority. Rather, this is a clock ticking down to when that far-right menace erupts to break up the European project on its own terms, all the while fanning once-dormant national rivalries. This isn’t without precedent in Europe. It was during the 80s that another federation of nations, Yugoslavia, was subject to fierce austerity which provoked strike action like we see in Europe today. But they fell short, and by the early 90s, nationalists would assert themselves and give Europe another bloody chapter of warfare and ethnic cleansing.

The forces opposed to austerity must set political objectives, and deploy tactics to reach those objectives. This doesn’t have to mean preparing for insurrection and the siege of congress like some in Spain are organising for. In Portugal, daily mobilisations could replicate the success of the recent protests in Bulgaria. With the right-wing coalition government in Portugal plotting further austerity to the tune of 4 billion euros in cuts, the urgency should be widely shared. The streets must themselves become political actors, not merely a visualisation of the discontent politicians see in any monthly political survey. There has to be a willingness by anti-austerity forces to fail, to overplay their hand. It doesn't require the approval of the whole country or hundreds of thousands of people to get involved. Even thousands, if they are committed and share common purpose and tactics, can achieve a government's resignation. Those thousands shouldn’t be hard to find amid the misery that exists across southern Europe today.

This is a cross-post from David Ferreira's blog Igualitárista

A demonstrator at Saturday's protests in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty.)
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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