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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
There seems to be a lot of last straws around the world, surprising triggering points to violent protests that spin out of control: In Chile, violent protests were ignited by high education costs. In Turkey, it was the government’s intention to raze an Istanbul park, and in Brazil it was the price of bus tickets. Chinese cities regularly erupt over shoddy construction, pollution and corruption. Most famously, the Arab Spring was triggered by Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself afire after chronic harassment by government officials.
The global middle class will rise by another 2 billion members just in the next seven years. If the current trend of instability holds, that spells more trouble even for careful national leaders. After the Arab Spring, some of the world’s toughest rulers decided that the best course of action was to avoid the apparently fatal mistake of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—who stepped down voluntarily in 2011 after resisting for awhile—and to crack down instead. But the latest rash of uprisings shows that getting harsh does not necessary intimidate the masses: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been politically weakened after a series of brutal police attacks on protesters, and Syria’s Bashir al-Assad is in the midst of a lengthy and brutal civil war. Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin face certain trouble down the road, says William Courtney, a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. “Both have been in office too long, have come to think they are indispensable and popular, but over time have come to believe their own propaganda, and become more arrogant and detached from their people,” he told Quartz.
Yet the middle class cannot bring about change by itself in most cases. That is because it is the minority in most of the states where the uprisings are occurring; it will succeed in bringing political change when it can find common cause with other classes. This rule has applicability in the current protests: In Turkey, Erdogan may ultimately survive despite future trouble because of his popularity in the countryside, where the Taksim masses have not penetrated. The same goes for Morsi in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has broad appeal among the underclass that his critics lack.
The most significant demographic change is under way in China, whose middle class is growing the most, and national wealth—along with aspirations for a better future—surging. Barely a few days go by without another Chinese protest over social grievances. But China’s economy is not growing at the same pace it once was, suggesting that the unhappiness could worsen, posing increasing problems for Beijing. “If ever there was a threatening gap between rapidly rising expectations and a disappointing reality, it will emerge in China over the next few years, with vast implications for the country’s stability,” writes Fukuyama.
The most important message of the uprisings is that no one is immune. That is the message of the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, which grew out of isolated disgruntlement over perceived mishandling of deficits and wayward bankers, not to mention related protests elsewhere in the world including other recent uprisings in India and Sweden. Both the US and Europe are experiencing slow growth with no sign of better days soon, and could be the target of street action just as Brazil and Turkey have, says Pillar, the former CIA agent.