When Big Protests Happen to Good Economies

Israel, Turkey and Brazil have all witnessed mass street protests even though on the surface they all appear to be thriving economies and functioning democracies.

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Way back in the summer of 2011 not a few people looked on the tent cities that sprouted along Rothschild Boulevard as Israel's Arab Spring. It was a ridiculous comparison to have made -- Israelis were engaged in a peaceful middle class protest-cum-street party while the Egyptians were toppling a dictator at the cost of hundreds of lives.

In hindsight, we can be grateful that the two protests had nothing in common except that they occurred the same year.

For the purists who say that Israel needs nothing less than a social revolution, it was a colossal failure that evaporated without achieving its aims. But Israel's democracy, however flawed it may be, did address many of the protestors' demands and brought to power a host of new faces to politics, not the least Yair Lapid and a few of the protest leaders themselves. It's a work in progress, but it is progressing.

Not so in Egypt. More than two years after Hosni Mubarak was sent packing, the Egyptians have suffered through military rule, incompetence and now chaos all the while watching whatever economic gains they had made in Mubarak's final years waste away.

In fact, far from aping the Arab Spring, Israel's social justice protests seem to have been a harbinger of a new sort of mass grievance that has caused mass protests to explode seemingly out of nowhere in Turkey and Brazil.

These protests have several things in common.

For one, they seem to spring out of a minor grievance. In Israel it was cottage cheese and the high cost of renting in Tel Aviv. In Turkey, it was plans to build a shopping mall and mosque in a rare bit of green space in central Istanbul. In Brazil, it was over a hike in bus fares.

But in each case is that however minor the initial peeve, it turned into outright rage directed at a government that the people themselves happily put into office.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been in office for a decade, enjoying ever bigger mandates along the way. Before the protests broke out in Sao Paulo last month, Brazil's Dilma Vana Rousseff enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the Western world. And here, if Bibi hasn't had quite the stellar electoral record of his peers in Turkey and Brazil, he was the hands-down favorite as the people's choice for prime minister.

The second is that the protests grew virally through social media, which have proven to be an extraordinary efficient way of mobilizing masses of people. It not only gets the word out about time and place, but provides unfiltered broadcasts of police abuse, disseminates news and information – not all of it accurate – that fans the flames of anger and , however briefly, and creates a cool factor of something that everybody in your social circle is doing.

Social media have enabled these protests to circumvent the usual sources of political leadership – political parties, labor unions and the like – in favor of tiny, informal but committed teams of people.

The third is that in all three countries no one could have guessed that protests of such a scale could occur at all. They were all directed at democratically elected governments and occurred in economies that, far from being battling recession or high unemployment, were enjoying brisk economic growth. They were led by the middle class – not the poor – and were not directed at a particular grievance but against the direction the country is moving.

Impressive numbers that impress nobody

He may have been the object Turkish protesters' rage, but Erdogan had, nevertheless, presided over an economy that grew 64% in the 10 years to 2012, even if the pace slowed sharply last year to just 2%. Per capita income tripled to $10,500 from $3,500 in the period.

Brazil's gross domestic product expanded 4% annually in 2003-2010. Although the country suffered a more severe slowdown in the last year to growth of just 0.9%, it wasn't obvious that the mass of Brazilians was discontent. The Economist published an article only a month before Brazilians took to the streets headlined, "Brazil isn't growing – so why are Brazilians so happy?" which lauded the economy for exactly the things the protestors are now complaining are absent – narrowing inequality, growing social safety nets and a rising middle class.

Israel's numbers in the run-up to the 2011 social justice protests were no less impressive. The global recession was the source of little stress to the economy, unemployment was falling and in the year of the protests themselves GDP surged ahead 5% in 2010 and 4.6% in 2012. The government wasn't slashing social spending to bail out banks. People's home were rising in value, not sinking ever deeper under water.

The backdrop of economic prosperity is what separates the protests in Israel, Turkey and Brazil from Occupy Wall Street or the mass demonstrations in Europe since 2008 and makes them so interesting to try and understand.

These were all natural and predictable reactions to economies in distress, the dismantling of social programs and the malfeasance of bankers and other financial kingpins. Democracy is what separates them from the Arab Spring or the grassroots protests in Russia that got underway at the end of 2011. Arabs and Russians had no choice but to take to the streets for change; in Israel, Turkey and Brazil, they had the ballot box, the media, social networks and other channels for effecting change, but ignored them.

So what drove Israeli, Turks and Brazilians into the streets when they did?

One is a sense that the growth and prosperity wasn't reaching everyone equally enough.

Despite rising incomes over the decades, Turkey ranked last among the 34 countries included in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Better Life Index. Brazilians are angry over poor schools, hospitals and transportation as well as crime and corruption. "All you need to do is walk around a little to see how undeveloped we still are," Andre Tamandare, a health worker who joined the demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro, told Reuters this week.

Israel, meanwhile, has it well-documented income gaps, poor government services, business and labor monopolies, and failing schools.

We live in an age of hyper-democracy, where the slightest hint of privilege or deference to authority is rejected. It's an era where trust in leaders and their motivations, historical perspective and an understanding of the intricacies of economics are all in short supply. Expectations are high and ever rising. What the streets of each of these three countries are teaching us is that the business of economic policy making isn't as easy as it once was.

The tent protest on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, 2011.Credit: Nir Kafri
An anti-government protest in Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey.Credit: AFP
Supporters of Morsi pray.Credit: Reuters

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