Why are Middle East protests more effective than ours?

Readers and social media pals respond to my post wondering why protests in MENA (Middle East / North Africa) have had major impact and toppled governments while similar huge protests have had little effect in the US and UK.

ocicat_bengals (on Twitter)

How many people have been killed?

Good point. Our government doesn’t murder peaceful protesters in the streets (nor do I expect they ever will.) But when it happens elsewhere, it inflames the protests, draw the undecided to their ranks, and de-legitimizes the government. This makes the protests even bigger and stronger.

John Couzin (in the comments to the post)

It could be that in the UK you arrange your protest in advance, get permission from the authorities and in most cases liaise with the police on stewarding and an agreed route. Then after a nice walk around town you go home and get on with working for your living. As a rule they are nice polite affairs where most people don’t want any trouble. When there is trouble the “official” march condemns the trouble makers as “anarchists” and the press have a story.

I don’t think that is the formula with the present protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed. It was the same with the big Iraq antiwar protests here in the US. The marches were carefully planned in advance after much meeting with police and negotiations by lawyers. In other words, it was all choreographed. Protesters chanted hooray for our side then went home. How convenient for the authorities to be dealing with such curiously pliant and basically passive antiwar coalitions.

But in MENA, the protests are genuinely from the street (and not stage-managed by hard left coalitions whose primary goal is to recruit for their party rather than end the wars) and without being melodramatic about it, the protesters there clearly are willing to die for their cause. Maybe that’s the difference.

Don Klein (on Facebook)

I could go into my theoretical “systems far from equilibrium” argument, but the societies in the Middle East are more tightly and artificially controlled so that some outbursts get amplified beyond the anticipations, whereas in the West they are within the elastic boundaries of anticipated behaviors. Too bad, but …

Absolutely, where repression is the worst, when the kickback finally happens it is often the strongest. For many of the big antiwar protests here, the primary focus (even if they didn’t want to admit it) was to get mass media attention. In MENA they want to bring down governments.

We need to go beyond the self-imposed boundaries that Don mentions. Because right now in the US, marching down a street with a shiny little parade permit saying you want to end war is approximately as effective as signing online petitions. No actual pressure is brought upon the government by those actions and they can ignore you with no consequences.

Also, Victor Hugo was right, all the armies on earth cannot stop an idea whose time has come. In a very real sense, that’s what we’re seeing in MENA now.

Please, jump in with thoughts, ideas, and comments.


  1. “Good point. Our government doesn’t murder peaceful protesters in the streets (nor do I expect they ever will.)”
    I’m sure there have been protests in America where protesters have been killed by the state. The last time a protester was shot by the army in the UK was the dockers strike 1911, two strikers were shot on the street in Liverpool at a protest during the strike. Then we had the 1919 Glasgow 40 hour week strike after a brutal attack by the police it became known as bloody friday, the city was more or less locked down, with troops on the street and machine guns on the roofs of buildings in the city centre and tanks in city centre warehouses. The troops were not from the local area, the local regiment was confined to barracks for fear they would join the local protesters. I firmly believe that the state will use whatever force it deems necessary to retain its power. If the police fail, then the troops will be brought in to the picture. We did have a death on the street at the hands of the police at the G20, Ian Tomlinson, and he wasn’t even involved in the protests just a guy going home from work during the protest.

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