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Analysis: Is a winter of discontent on the way?

October 21, 2011


By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

LONDON | Sun Oct 16, 2011 11:21am EDT

LONDON (Reuters)- With the "Occupy Wall Street" movement going global
and Middle East unrest stirring again, an autumn and winter of
discontent looks increasingly likely.

In the corridors of Whitehall, Washington, think tanks and even
investment banks, there are dark murmurs that the events of the year
so far may only be the beginning.

Some fear the world faces a systemic rise in anger, protest and
political volatility that could last years or even decades.

In many countries, a young social media-connected generation is losing
faith in traditional structures of government and business, arguing it
has been betrayed and denied opportunity.

In the developed world, the wider middle class fears its prosperity
has evaporated, demanding someone be held accountable and the global
elite find a way of delivering growth once more.

"This could be with us for a long time," said Jack Goldstone,
professor of public policy at George Mason University in Washington
D.C. and an expert in demographics.

"You have a generation who are fed up being told what to do by rich
western countries or rich western people. In Egypt, they took down one
government but they may not like what replaces it and they may take
that down too. It's going to be a difficult period."

In the Western world, the crisis initially produced rather less
physical protest than many expected. But it now seems on the rise.
Greece, Spain, Italy and Britain have all seen some of their worst
unrest in decades.

On Saturday, the U.S. protests against the global financial system
that began in a New York Park in mid-September spilled overseas to
dozens of countries as sometimes hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands
took to the streets.

Many were peaceful, but in Rome cars were torched and police fought
running battles with "black bloc" activists. In London and several
other cities, protesters in tents stayed on.


"Even a small number of protesters to start with can inspire many more
to come along and join in," said Tim Hardy, founder of left-wing blog
"Beyond Clicktivism" and a regular attendee at London protests. "If
they manage to establish a base camp, I expect numbers will swell."

On Friday the Milan office of U.S. bank Goldman Sachs was attacked by
an angry mob. Most protest has been peaceful, but is likely ramp up
political pressure on the financial industry. Already, policymakers
talk of tighter regulation and targeted tax rises and media attention
is increasingly turning to the activities of tax havens and secretive

"One word: accountability," said Hayat Alvi, a professor teaching
Middle Eastern and national security studies at the United States
Naval War College.

"This is the season of demanding accountability and the application of
the rule of law, especially targeting the ruling political elites and
the economic elites as well."

Britain's August riots showed post-crisis unrest might not always be
overtly political, with tough inner-city youths using social media
platforms to co-ordinate looting and arson. With so much of the world
in flux, some expect that kind of nihilistic violence to also rise.

As the summer heat eases in the Middle East, the region seems braced
for more trouble.

Egyptian protesters who ousted Hosni Mubarak in February increasingly
complain the military still rules, is effectively rigging coming
elections and that little has genuinely changed.

Last week saw the worst clashes since Mubarak's fall, primarily
between the military and Coptic Christians. Many in Tunisia, the first
state to oust its leader, make similar complaints.

Conflict and confrontation in Syria look to be worsening, with
sporadic reports of defecting troops and others taking up arms against
Bashar al-Assad. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other countries,
analysts see a risk of new protests in coming months.


A host of other dissident movements are showing increasing confidence.
In Israel, India, Chile, China and elsewhere, online or street
protesters have often managed to win concessions.

Some believe the current anger against autocrats, bankers and elites
is a symptom of fundamental shifts in the structure of global

In the Middle East and North Africa, one of the key drivers has been a
large bulge in the youthful population struggling to find work. An
educated, westernized group using social media tools to coordinate got
protests started, quickly joined by broader masses angry at rising
food prices.

In western states, there are strains caused by an aging population
that is driving up government costs, reducing growth and blocking jobs
from younger people.

At worst, some experts warn that could produce an economic malaise
that lasts for decades.

"It is these demographic issues that are driving much of what we are
seeing at the moment," said George Mason University's Goldstone.

"It makes politics very unpredictable. You can get paralysis, but you
can also see dramatic shifts in policy to left or right. You can see
the rise of ideologues as we saw in the 1930s. We are very much at the
beginning of this."


[0] Special report: In cyberspy vs. cyberspy, China has the edge

[1] Paralysed from the neck down in a crash while working in Sri
Lanka, Reuters reporter Peter Apps was back working the day after
being released from hospital. Graham Holliday reports: [ ‘I
visualised going out and interviewing’ ]


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