From the March/April 2020 issue of Discern Magazine

What’s Behind the Protests Around the World?

A tsunami of protests has swept across six continents, unleashing fury on a worldwide scale. Where will these explosions of mass outrage and revolt lead?

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The final year of this past decade is likely to be remembered by historians as the year of protests.

From Hong Kong to the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and Latin America, the streets were—often literally—on fire, as mass demonstrations engulfed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies in vehement demands for change.

The burst of uprisings in 2019 brought down leaders in Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, and it still threatens regimes in Ecuador, Egypt, Georgia, Haiti, Peru, Poland, Russia and Zimbabwe.

Under severe pressure, governments reversed course on controversial policies in Hong Kong, Chile and France, countries with decidedly different political systems, economies and cultures.

Fury on the front page

As seen in their headlines, major media outlets graphically reported the chaos but fell short in attempts to fully explain the virtually unprecedented civil turmoil. Some examples:

  • “The Story of 2019: Protests in Every Corner of the Globe,” The New Yorker.
  • “Global Wave of Protests Rattles Governments,” The Wall Street Journal.
  • “Why Are So Many Countries Witnessing Mass Protests?” The Economist.
  • “2019: A Year of Global Protest,” Foreign Policy.
  • “A Year of Resistance: The Global Spread of Civil Disobedience,” The Telegraph.
  • “What Links 2019’s Wave of Global Protests?” BBC News.
  • “Protests Are Everywhere. The World Is Rising Up,” The Globe and Mail.
  • “Protests Rage Around the World—But What Comes Next?” The Guardian.

Different sparks, same fire

The large anti-government demonstrations sweeping capital cities around the world—some peaceful and some not—have few common threads.

Each movement, according to Reuters, “had its own trigger. Some were fed up with corruption and entrenched elites. Others wanted democracy or independence. Some called for reforms and others opposed them. Worries over climate change and environmental destruction also galvanized activists worldwide. The frustrations were sometimes similar, from inequality to powerlessness” (“Wider Image: Portraits From the Frontlines of Global Protests,” Dec. 20, 2019).

A surprising number of upheavals started with popular anger over seemingly limited grievances that tapped into wellsprings of bubbling frustration.

  • In Chile, long a haven of stability in Latin America, it was a 4 percent rise in metro fares.
  • Fuel price hikes touched off the amorphous “yellow vest” movement throughout France and proved the trigger in Iran and Ecuador.
  • Climate-change protesters sowed havoc in Britain and Australia, demanding the kind of green tax increases that enraged the yellow vests.
  • In Lebanon the catalyst for riots was a tax on WhatsApp messages.

Elsewhere, the roots of popular revolt were more clearly political. In Hong Kong and Indonesia, protesters took to the streets after governments announced new laws that threatened civil liberties. In Algeria it was an announcement that the country’s ailing president intended to run for a fifth term.

But in all cases, as noted in Foreign Policy, the “popular ire, once unleashed, found much bigger targets: corruption, political dysfunction, and a general discontent with economic stewardship that seems to offer little promise for a lost generation” (Keith Johnson, “2019: A Year of Global Protest,” Dec. 23, 2019).

Seasons of discontent

According to social scientists, only the global unrest of the 1960s compares to the current wave in terms of the vast geographic scope of countries swept up in its wake.

The Washington Post described it as “a global explosion of people power” that has been “exceptional for the sheer breadth and diversity of the unrest” (Jackson Diehl, “From Hong Kong to Chile, 2019 Is the Year of the Street Protester. But Why?” Oct. 27, 2019).

The New York Times of Oct. 23, 2019, declared that “the rate of protest has accelerated sharply of late, as various factors have converged: a slowing global economy, dizzying gaps between rich and poor and a youth bulge that in many countries has produced a restive new generation fizzing with frustrated ambition.”

In addition, “the expansion of democracy has stalled globally, leaving citizens with unresponsive governments frustrated and activists sure that street action is the only way to force change” (Declan Walsh and Max Fisher, “From Chile to Lebanon, Protests Flare Over Wallet Issues”).

Expectations and frustrations

Many consider economic inequality to be the primary driving force propelling workers into the streets. But, ironically, this is occurring at a time when the global economy is still growing, as it has for the past decade, and our world has never been more prosperous. Many of the governments where people are marching are corrupt or repressive, but not demonstrably more than in recent decades.

So why are protests and turmoil brewing now? There is, according to David Gordon, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a “common discontent and a common disillusionment and a common sense among protesters that they deserve more—and that the political establishment is to blame” (quoted by Robin Wright, “The Story of 2019: Protests in Every Corner of the Globe,” The New Yorker, Dec. 30, 2019).

This results in what Bloomberg Opinion refers to as the “revolution of rising expectations,” where “a populace . . . that has never known anything but rapid growth may feel enraged when that growth slows. When they suddenly see their imagined future snatched away, people can become enraged” (Noah Smith, “Global Youth Protests at Risk of Spreading to China,” Jan. 5, 2020).

The youth bulge

Rising expectations mean that even young people who are, by historical comparisons, quite well off are dissatisfied and angry. That discontent, added to an increasing sense that using conventional political channels is futile, shows “people may be feeling unusually powerless these days, believing that their votes do not matter” (“Why Are So Many Countries Witnessing Mass Protests?” The Economist, Nov. 4, 2019).

Many of the current protest movements appear to be spearheaded by financially strapped young adults, who are increasingly feeling that they are not sharing in the benefits of an extended period of global economic expansion.Many of the current protest movements appear to be spearheaded by financially strapped young adults, who are increasingly feeling that they are not sharing in the benefits of an extended period of global economic expansion. They see their prospects of earning a decent living wage slipping away with every price hike or benefit cut.

An Oct. 26, 2019, article in The Guardian noted that “younger people are at the forefront of calls for change,” and with 41 percent of global population under age 24, “this global phenomenon of unfulfilled youthful aspirations is producing political timebombs. Each month in India, one million people turn 18 and can register to vote. In the Middle East and North Africa, an estimated 27 million youngsters will enter the workforce in the next five years. Any government, elected or not, that fails to provide jobs, decent wages and housing faces big trouble” (Simon Tisdall).

New ways to protest old concerns

Communications technology, and the way younger people in particular connect via smartphones, has provided a new means of identifying and belonging to a cause. It has certainly accelerated, amplified, popularized and sustained protesters’ push to be heard.

The Middle East uprisings in 2011 took advantage of ubiquitous cell phones and social media, notably Twitter and Facebook.

By 2019 encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp and AirDrop enabled protesters to stay one jump ahead of the authorities. They provided a more secure means of communicating, a degree of anonymity and less need for a single leader to mobilize.

The Financial Times highlighted the commonality that all of these revolts “are convened by smartphone and inspired by hashtags.” It called the current protests “leaderless rebellions,” because they allow a movement in one place to take inspiration from news of revolts in another location or even country (“Leaderless Rebellion: How Social Media Enables Global Protests,” Oct. 25, 2019).

Ironically, while some authoritarian governments have taken draconian measures to shut down the Internet inside their borders to dampen and disperse dissent, others increasingly see protests as vital sources of power, an unruly and vital phenomenon that should be harnessed. They have also learned to co-opt social media, disseminate propaganda, rally sympathizers, or simply spread confusion or disinformation as to whether a protest is an authentic, grassroots expression of dissent.

Intolerance rules the day

Even nations considered winners in the global economy are not immune from the flood of irate political protests or the danger of losing their moorings during this period of unrest and chaos.

According to The Economist, a “growth in intolerance, a breakdown in the bargain at the heart of Western-style democracy—that losers, who may often represent a majority of the popular vote, will agree to accept rule by the winners until the next election”—is at the heart of many protests.

This anger and intolerance manifests itself in almost endless demonstrations for and against newly elected national leaders, public policies, long-standing moral behaviors and environmental disputes.

Regardless of the specific geography or local issue, the deficit of historical understanding, combined with a perspective based on victimhood and mistrust of authority in a godless and amoral world, provides fertile soil for the toxic emotions of frustration, rage and intolerance seen in street protests.

A leader of rebellions

Revolutionaries and leaderless revolutions may correctly identify injustices and inequities, but they usually fail to deliver real solutions, which often leads to situations more dire than before.

Unfortunately, no human government can relieve the oppressed, install righteous government or solve this world’s myriad other problems because there is a spiritual element that most people miss.

We are instructed throughout the pages of the Bible that there is a real spirit world, filled with fallen angels possessing power to influence mankind and stir up wrong attitudes and emotions (Ephesians 2:2; 6:11-13).

The Bible reveals that Satan the devil is the “god of this age,” with sway and influence that spans the globe (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9) and leads to bondage and destruction.

Since one of Satan’s original acts was to rebel and attempt to overthrow the government of God (Isaiah 14:13-15), it is no surprise that the attitudes of anger, discontent and intolerance are increasingly on display today, perhaps because he knows he has only a short time left (Revelation 12:12).

More rage ahead

Neither authoritarian governments nor the world’s democracies seem to be immune from the protests the world is witnessing, because many of these protests are reactions to legitimate problems.

Though the current hot spots and protests may diminish, the conditions that spawned global unrest on every inhabited continent in 2019 are unlikely to recede. Rather, there are dark days to come as protests, violence, social injustice and economic disparity are certain to intensify in the face of any eventual economic downturn. In fact, they may simply become the new status quo.

The instability rolling through country after country today is but a foretaste of a future period described as a time of tribulation worse than any in human history (Matthew 24:21; Daniel 12:1; Jeremiah 30:7).

Jesus’ Olivet Prophecy foretells the signs preceding His second coming: “But when you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified” (Luke 21:9). The Greek word for “commotion” in the New King James Version is also translated as uprisings, insurrections, rebellions, tumults, riots or revolutions in other translations. These and other prophesied events will have “men’s hearts failing them from fear” (verse 26).

As scary as that sounds, there is a bright future just after those dark days. We read of a coming 1,000-year age of peace after Christ intervenes to bring all nations under God’s authority (Revelation 11:15; 20:4). He will be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Christ will relieve the weak and oppressed and will establish righteousness, prosperity and social justice (Isaiah 9:6-7).

There will be no need to protest an unresponsive government in that future glorious day.

For more information, please download our booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm. It is provided free of charge in the public interest.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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