We are nearing the end of a year that probably has seen more mass protests in more places around the world than any other 12 months in history. So it is remarkable that, so far, the spectacular results that came from previous waves of rebellion — in 2011 or 1989 or 1968 — have been mostly absent in 2019.
Yes, longtime rulers were ousted by popular demonstrations in Algeria, Sudan and Bolivia, and the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq were forced to resign. But the wave of revolution that toppled multiple Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, and three Arab dictators in 2011, has had no counterpart this year.
While that may seem discouraging, there has also been nothing comparable to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the slaughter of students in Mexico City in 1968 or the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that same year. Numerous governments, from Hong Kong to Chile, have employed violence against street demonstrators, and have inflicted casualties in the hundreds. But only Iran resorted to machine guns to clear its streets — and nothing compares to the bloodbath launched by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against those who marched against him in 2011.
What’s distinctive about 2019 is the way governments — the democratic, the autocratic and those in between — have tried to subdue unrest with negotiations, concessions and promises of reform. It’s a sign their leaders learned something from Tiananmen Square and Assad; they don’t want to become synonyms for butchery. It may have saved some of them from overthrow. And it creates the possibility that the uprisings of 2019 may eventually lead to significant political change.
One place where that seems to be happening is Chile, which was long regarded as Latin America’s most economically successful and politically stable country. A protest against subway fares organized by middle-school students in October morphed first into rioting in which train stations and shopping centers were burned, then into mass marches by hundreds of thousands of people.
The right-of-center government of Sebastián Piñera, in turn, moved from ordering troops into the streets, at the cost of at least 23 lives, to showering the protesters with political and economic concessions. Last week, the government announced a $5.5 billion spending package aimed at creating 100,000 new jobs; it has proposed a new monthly subsidy for 1.3 million poor families, a guaranteed minimum wage and new health insurance programs.
Perhaps most important, the government agreed with opposition leaders to hold a referendum next April on whether to replace the constitution drawn up under former dictator Augusto Pinochet. The result could be sweeping changes in education and social programs that have been the focus of discontent in Chile for years.
It is far from certain that similarly brokered change can happen in Iraq and Lebanon, but it looks at least possible — thanks to the perseverance of protesters. In both countries, pro-Iran forces tried to suppress demonstrations by force; in Iraq, as many as 400 people have been killed. But the repression seems to have failed, while intensifying a backlash against sectarian politics in general, and Iranian influence in particular. The recent resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whom Iran had tried to keep in office, came just days after the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi city of Najaf was sacked and burned.
Some Iraqi politicians are now pressing for new elections, and in both Iraq and Lebanon, there is debate over constitutional reforms to curb sectarian politics. The history of both countries suggests that dramatic change is unlikely anytime soon. But it is significant that the political battle has migrated from the streets to the parliaments.
Brokered reform is happening or under negotiation in several other countries rocked by rebellions, including Sudan, Colombia and Georgia. But the most intriguing case may be Hong Kong, which has been the archetype of the protests of 2019. When demonstrations first erupted there in June over an extradition law, most analysts expected an uncompromising response from the local and Beijing governments.
That’s what happened — only the protesters refused to quit. Gradually, the regime of Xi Jinping has given ground, first withdrawing the extradition bill and then allowing local elections that were swept by the opposition. Despite threats of a new Tiananmen Square, troops have stayed in their barracks.
The opposition movement may well be ground down by riot police and mass arrests in the coming months. But if it survives, and Xi’s evident reluctance to use troops to crush it prevails, then the regime’s only alternative may be more concessions — maybe not the full democracy that Hong Kongers demand, but something closer to it. That would be in keeping with the results we are seeing from 2019: not revolutions, but managed change.