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Power to the People?

From Beirut to Hong Kong to Santiago, governments are eager to bring an end to mass demonstrations. But, in the absence of greater institutional responsiveness to popular grievances and demands, people are unlikely to stay home.

NEW YORK – People all over the world are resorting to mass demonstrations to express grievances and press unmet demands. While, in some ways, popular protests are a triumph of democratic principles and civic activism, they also carry serious risks, including violence by and against protesters. Their pervasiveness today points to a failure of governments, democratic and authoritarian alike, to hear, let alone meet, the needs of their people.

The issues at stake are wide-ranging. In Catalonia, demonstrators are demanding the release of nine separatist leaders facing lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the regional government’s failed attempt in 2017 to secede from Spain. In Chile, economic inequality is fueling increasingly violent demonstrations, triggered by a fare hike on the Santiago metro.

In Lebanon, what began as protests against corruption and poor economic stewardship are now targeting the removal of the country’s decades-old sectarian kleptocracy. And in Hong Kong, protesters are resisting mainland China’s increasing encroachment on civil liberties and the rule of law in the city, and have already forced their government to withdraw the extradition bill that started it all.