AMU Homeland Security Legislation Opinion

Protests and Politics

By William Tucker

Early last week protests erupted in Egypt over a film defaming Islam and soon spread throughout the Muslim world. Although protests have also been seen in Europe, they have not reached the size or violence seen primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. While the protests may have been organic in nature at first, they will not remain so. Protests are often co-opted by organized political entities who have an interest in using the associated disruption as leverage for their own gain. What this means is some organizations, or nation-states, have an interest in prolonging the protests as they are an effective means of deflecting attention from other issues. An example of this is the ongoing conflict in Syria, or perhaps the developments in the Iranian nuclear program. Both these issues have been covered in great detail by the international media – and rightfully so – but recently they have been knocked off the front page of newspapers. The Iranian and Syrian issues are far more important in the larger scheme of things, but both nations are benefiting from the coverage of the protests. Don’t take this to mean that the protests were the brainchild of some Iranian-Syrian conspiracy, but both nations have an interest in prolonging the protests because, coincidentally mind you, they are keeping the U.S. preoccupied. It is no coincidence that Hassan Nasrallah, the General Secretary of Hezbollah, made a rare public statement today calling for the protests to continue. Hezbollah has long been supported by Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, and also has an interest in maintaining the status quo.

In some cases governments have an incentive to organize protests for nationalistic reasons. The South Pacific has been increasingly active as nations in the region seek to protect their claims over territory or water. As China has become increasingly aggressive in using its growing navy to bolster its claims, other nations in the region are pushing back. Recently, Japan and China have been fighting over the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in China) which are uninhabited, but thought to be rich in resources. Japan recently made a move to purchase the islands which prompted protests across China. China certainly has an interest in stirring nationalistic sentiment to support its increasing militarism. The protests have disrupted Japanese factories in China as a result, and will likely have a large impact on Japanese-Chinese bilateral trade. In this case the protests are being purposely orchestrated to bring attention to something that the Chinese government deems vital to its interests as opposed to supporting international protests to deflect attention.

In most cases, protests are nothing more than street theater. They are easy for the media to cover and they do impact the larger community in which they take place because of the associated disruption of day to day activities. Protests do occasionally work out to the benefit of the protester, but by and large they are easily used by better organized political entities. For the individual protester it may seem that their efforts are wasted, but there exists a symbiotic relationship between the protester and the organizations that seek to leverage the protests. How that relationship is exploited, and to what end, is what we need to keep an eye on.

Author’s note: In March 2011, I wrote on a similar topic a few months into the ‘Arab Spring.’ You can view that article here.

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