The idea of protest springs from a basic human need: freedom. When the need acquires a momentum, accrued over years of facing the same iniquitous conditions, people start coming together. The on-going coup in Egypt needs to be seen with this lens: that people are coming together to win back their freedom. In the age of social media, this need gets amplified and dispersed in ways that have not been experienced till now.
In 2007, farmers in Plachimada, Kerala, India protested against a Coca-Cola bottling plant, set up in their district. The plant was misusing water to the extent that farmers were facing a possible drought. In an age when Facebook and Twitter were just about gathering momentum and were not the kind of social media juggernauts that they are today, the agrarian community's plight was heard by international organizations, like Oxfam who spoke for them. The bottling plant was closed. If this was the power of protest in 2007, imagine the scale at which this power has grown.
With the growth of social media, comes the unintended spurt in online protests. Online petitions have fundamentally redefined the idea of protest. Take the example of Change.org, which has recently been heralded as 'world's largest petition platform.' The website has 25 million active users, spread across every country of the world. The list of petitions that have been deemed 'victories' include topics like environment, gender sensitization, justice for political prisoners and other themes of human rights. This list is a showcase of how people are taking to the Internet to voice their concerns for basic human rights.
However, are all forms of online petitioning giving way to actual social good? Perhaps not. A recent campaign started by UNICEF states the following: "Facebook likes do not save lives." The worrying trend of slacktivism renders social change to be a deceptively simple process. In terms of political movements like the one that Egypt, this form of online support might be detrimental to the democratic process of nation building in the long term. As the global audience is divided about whether the movement is working against the ethic of democracy or not, the voices from within are telling a different story: that the regime change form Gaddafi to Morsi was not a vote for an Islamic government but a manifestation of the need for democratic governance. The same Egypt which ensured the end of the Gadaffi regime is now making sure Morsi's fundamentalist regime ends. Now, the idea of using the army for the purpose is what is questionable for most commentators. In all of these conversations, what is interesting to follow is that the world is watching how Egypt, or the people in Taksim Square in Turkey are redefining social protest for democratic governance.
This takes us to the question of whether large-scale movements, which seek to build transnational alliances, are effective in bringing the change they seek. The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement is an instance of how youngsters across the globe were coordinating sit-downs, strikes, and other forms of creative protests. Unfortunately, the movement did not come across as focused, nor was it being held together by strong leaders. In places, where the protesters and the police engaged in violence, the movement began to be discredited. The question that follows from the example is what makes public protests, the only option of voicing dissent? Is it because people feel that they have lost the power to be heard in mainstream politics?
This question is resonant with a discussion within the Indian national struggle, in its nascent phase. When the Indian National Congress met in Surat, Gujrat in 1907, the leaders were divided over the degree of protest. While the moderate older generation of leaders wanted to restrict the Boycott movement to burning of foreign clothes (not from indigenous cotton industries), the younger leaders wanted to campaign with a wider interpretation: of boycotting all forms of colonial rule, including schools, colleges and administrative services. There emerged a spilt in the national movement, which was not to be sutured till Gandhi joined the party in 1916. He used the collective anger against colonization and channeled it towards creative means of registering protest non-violently, which are used till today.
It is ironic that the global community is struggling with questions that mirror concerns which are at least a century old. What can be inferred from this but the fact that the basic need for freedom is never fully actualized, till people fight for it? The energy of a mass movement needs to be channeled towards the intended change. Violence becomes an attractive option for a large group of angry members, of societies that have been facing iniquitous conditions. This has given rise to the 'youth bulge theory', which links the burgeoning youth population of the developing world to rising civil conflicts. But this theory has been criticized heavily for assuming a certain stereotype of the younger generation in the developing world.
Clearly, the social sciences are still struggling to understand the way protests are working in today's times. Events such as September 11, economic recession and the rise of unemployment, have impacted every aspect of life. Likewise, people rise above their immediate contexts to come together on issues that impact everyone.