A May '68 for the modern era

A May '68 for the modern era
Comment: The Global South is witnessing an unprecedented wave of protest movements, and a new kind of global solidarity, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
21 Nov, 2019
'Cacerolazo' is an international form of protest involving banging pots and pans [AFP]
As mass protest sweeps across the Arab world, Africa, South America and Asia, it feels a lot like revolution is in the air.

Poverty, unemployment, state violence, political repression, corruption, totalitarian governments, climate disasters, racism, xenophobia… the people are marching, striking, occupying and banging their pots and pans on their balconies from Beirut to Paris. The actions are a direct call and response with with the Global South, against issues that in 2019 are universal in their impact on the majority. 

More importantly, activists themselves are making the link between the different struggles. 

The recent video of thousands upon thousands signing the Italian partisan anti-fascist song 'Bella Ciao' across the Arab world, beautifully captured the internationalism and mood of hope, which has defined the current mobilisations.

An anthem of liberation, Bella Ciao has recently been adopted by Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian, Turkish and Syrian protestors, with lyrics translated and edited according to the specific political and social frustrations faced by the people of each country.

While much has been made of its appearance in the recent Netflix series, 'La Casa Del Papel', the use of the song in videos and at demonstrations, of course, has far more to do with its message of resistance.

There is shared anger over political and economic systems which have caused the masses from Hong Kong and
Lebanon to Bolivia and Chile, to suffer considerably. While such sentiments may be expressed in different languages and through a variety of tactics, all are demanding the transformation of a system dominated by profit-seeking over all other basic social necessities.

Poverty, unemployment, state violence, political repression, corruption, totalitarian governments, climate disasters, racism, xenophobia… the people are marching, striking, occupying

Furthermore, across each demonstration both on the ground or on social media, a sense of solidarity is extending between populations around the world who are rising up. 

As fears continue to linger from the furious state repression that followed the last wave of Arab uprisings, the sense of collective struggle and resistance learned from these earlier examples, is clearly playing a significant role in protests well beyond the Middle East.

For example, despite the fall of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and after the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, the people continued to protest with an even stronger conviction.

They have learned that small, limited changes of personnel at the top of the state are not enough. The distribution of economic and political power needs to be altered fundamentally, and - in the words of the Algerian movement, 'They all have to go'.


In Chile, protesters are demanding a full overhaul of the system. A photo of a young female protestor has rapidly become iconic of the current moment, as she holds up a sign that reads, 'Neoliberalism was born in Chile and will die in Chile'.

Her protest refers to the US backed coup in 1973, when Augusto Pinochet took power in a violent military coup and invited Chicago trained economists to reform, privatise and sell the national economy off to the highest (western) bidder.

This approach became a blueprint for "reform", as progressive leaders were toppled, bought off, or replaced throughout the Global South, and similar economic reforms were ushered in by the World Bank and the IMF.

It's of symbolic importance then, that as we witness a new wave of uprisings against the outcomes of these policies, the Bolivian people are marching, striking and revolting against a new US-backed coup aimed at toppling the government of Evo Morales.

It draws together, powerfully, the dual nature of the current system: corruption and poverty on the one hand, violence and repression on the other

Of course, across the globe those occupying the streets with the demand of freedom are no stranger to state violence and possible - or even likely - physical repression by their regimes.

Sudan witnessed bloodshed in June as state forces killed at least 100 demonstrators. In Lebanon and Iraq, armed militias are increasingly targeting protestors in an attempt to break up the powerful social movements there.

Even in France - the so-called country of human rights and liberty - police violence against the yellow vests drew more people onto the streets to challenge the arrogant rule of Emmanuel Macron. In Hong Kong, militarised police forces are laying siege to university campuses occupied by students and staff.

In Iraq, over 300 people have been killed following anti-government protests that erupted on 1 October, and thousands more have been wounded. But efforts continued despite these murders and clashes. General strikes have been organised as have demonstrations and the takeover of public space.

One placard from the protests in Iraq reads"We are a generation: Born in your wars, spent our childhood in your terrorism, our adolescence in your sectarianism, and our youth in your corruption. We are the generation of stolen dreams and premature aging."

Read more: Algeria's cry: 'They've all got to go,' even the bots!

It draws together, powerfully, the dual nature of the current system: corruption and poverty on the one hand, violence and repression on the other.

Indeed, as the rich continue to get richer, welfare states are being gutted through privatisation, and unemployment is only ever alleviated through the growth of unstable, precarious, and often unofficial jobs. The state has become increasingly reliant on militarised policing and heavy-handed curtailing of political rights to maintain the status quo.

If this is often very visible in military dictatorships in the Middle East, East Asia or Africa, similar tendencies are at play in the West, from the assault on civil liberties under the cover of the "War on Terror" to the militarised police operations responding to demonstrations by poor and racialised communities in Ferguson or the French banlieues. 

Yet, each population that is attempting to overthrow corrupt leaderships and the structures that brought them in and supported them, is rediscovering old alternatives and inventing new paths for change through the collective process of struggle.

They are removing the isolation, fear, and imposed historical amnesia so crucial to the maintenance of the status quo.

This opens up debates about the historical roots of the issues being taken on by protestors - it is not for nothing that indigenous flags have flourished in Bolivia and Chile, but also in North Africa, as protestors reclaim the identities that are considered so dangerous by their respective states.

The mobilisations also force open the question of international complicity and accountability in the oppression meted out against each people around the world, and it facilitates the sharing of demands, tactics and lessons.

In the month ahead, major strikes will rock the UK and France. At the same time, Algerians will be preparing to boycott the sham national elections a week later, Bolivians will be struggling against the attempted coup, and in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Hong Kong, the people will be in the streets, on strike, and occupying campuses to bring their respective governments to their knees.

The outcome of these uprisings is still uncertain, it is still being defined by those rising up. Ultimately, as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara says, "Those who struggle might lose, but those who don't have already lost." 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.