Vincent Bevins, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution

IssueApril - May 2024
Review by Glyn Carter

Between 2010 and 2019, more people took part in protests than at any other point in human history. Across the world, movements formed that looked revolutionary. But, after the heady successes of the Arab Spring and elsewhere, in most of the countries rocked by the waves of democratic movements, things were soon no better, and may now be worse, than before the protests started. Vincent Bevins calls this ‘the missing revolution’.

The risings in the Arab world, in Brazil and Chile, Hong Kong, Turkey, Ukraine and elsewhere weren’t identical, but they had common strands. They were triggered by relatively small, reformist, campaigns. 

In Brazil, it was the cost of public transport. In Hong Kong, it was a bill allowing deportations into mainland China. 

The protests were largely nonviolent, and they took place against a backdrop of great economic hardship. If some were called by organised groups, they soon outgrew their founders and became to a greater or lesser extent anarchistic, horizontally-organised, and leaderless. 

The risings exploded into national movements which caused massive upheavals because of police brutality. 

The power of If We Burn is based on Bevins’ interviews with some of the grassroots activists, bloggers and others who were at the centre of the protests. None would call themselves leaders. Few would have accepted that leaders had any role or value. 

Bevins asks them to look back and answer a difficult question. After everything was going so inspiringly well, what went so heartbreakingly wrong? (Actually he’s far more tactful, asking what advice they’d give to a younger version of themselves.)

On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazazi burned himself alive in front of a local government building in Sidi Bouzid, a small city in central Tunisia. Bouazazi was a street hawker of fruit and vegetables, and the act was a desperate reaction to constant harassment by officials.

His suicide sparked protests led by left-wing parties and trade unions, who used the anger to organise marches demanding an end to police harassment, and a reversal of the effects of the IMF globalisation formula of reduced social spending, low wages and high unemployment.

The protests mushroomed. 

As police brutality escalated, liberals joined lefties, and rejected half-measures promised by president Ben Ali. Then the police flipped, and refused to fire on protesters. Less than a month after Bouazazi’s self-immolation, Ben Ali fled the country. 

Six months earlier, a young man had been beaten to death by police in Alexandria, Egypt. Photos of his bloody, disfigured corpse went viral, sparking a wave of demonstrations against the police. 

The fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia inspired a hitherto unimaginable sense of possibility.

A demonstration was called in Tahrir Square, Cairo, but the square could not hold the protesters, who jammed streets and bridges all around.

Tahrir Square was occupied, and savage incursions failed to disperse the crowds.

After 16 days, the generals refused to order their men to fire into the crowd. Without their support, president Mubarak had to flee.

Between Tunisia and Egypt lies Libya. Events in the neighbouring countries prompted regional rebellion against president Gaddafi. As Gaddafi planned massive and bloody reprisals, NATO embarked on a bombing campaign ostensibly to protect the rebel regions, but actually to bring down Gaddafi. (This was probably a factor in Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency.)

Similar regional rebellions escalated in Syria. Again, global and regional politics, ethnic and sectarian histories, not to mention ISIS, lined up to bring about the 21st century’s bloodiest war, in which nearly half a million people have died.

Vincent Bevins was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who in this period was based in São Paulo, Brazil. He was following a campaign by young anarcho-punks against hikes in public transport fares, called the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL, Movement for Free Passes).

Bevins knew some of the campaigners, and his admiration for the sheer courage, stamina and commitment of the young people who braved the streets comes through. While he casts a cold journalistic eye over the histories, he is open about his biases. 

It was not the MPL campaign itself that sparked a ‘Brazilian Spring’. It was – as in Tunisia and Egypt – massive and disproportionate police repression. 

Newspapers can spin reports by saying that the police were provoked. But TV and Facebook images of police clubbing, gassing and even shooting ordinary people have a power that politicians and editorialists cannot wave away. The violence failed to intimidate – it just brought more people onto the streets.

Bevins also points out that no one minded much when punk kids were beaten up, but when the educated offspring of the professional classes were hit with the same batons, the police’s legitimacy could not hold. George Lakey calls this phenomenon a ‘dilemma demonstration’. 

The authorities had to choose between letting the protests continue... or cracking down. The first option increased the campaign’s chances of success, while the second risked undermining the people’s consent to be ruled like this. If the people do not crumble in the face of brutality, what power do repressive states have left? 

While the rising in Tunisia was started by trade unions and communist parties, elsewhere risings tended to involve horizontal networking, social media, and consensual decision-making. The MPL groups in São Paulo would talk day and night about next steps. The campaigns were for tangible reforms, but the culture was of non-compromise, and avoiding party politics. 

One criticism of the book is that he builds it more-or-less chronologically, to show how events in one country inspired actions in another. But the approach does make it difficult to follow the plot of each storyline over several years.

And the plots did get complicated.

In Brazil, the MPL stopped the fare rises, and the movement initially strengthened the left-of-centre Workers Party and its leaders, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. But others co-opted the MPL’s street demonstration tactics, and set up a parallel movement cunningly called MBL – Movimento Brasil Livre (Movement for a Free Brazil).

What started as an official legal campaign against corruption brought a spurious impeachment against Rousseff. This, and the imprisonment of Lula during the 2018 election, led to the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro coming to power – supported by MBL, which turned out to be a right-wing front organisation. Bolsonaro appointed the former anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro as minister of justice and public security.

The anarchists around MPL had been outflanked, outwitted and out-organised. Happily, Brazil’s democracy survived Bolsonaro, and Lula won a second term as president in 2023.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohamed Morsi, won the nation’s first-ever free elections, and began repression of their own. After a loose online grouping called Tamarod promoted rebellions against Morsi in 2013, general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup, massacred a thousand Brotherhood supporters, and went on to be elected president in 2014.

Tamarod, it turned out, had been funded by el-Sisi’s military, Gulf states, and businesses. It was supported by the police and the media. Just as the MBL appeared to be the same as MPL, Tamarod looked the same as the Tahrir Square organisers – but it wasn’t. Dictatorship was back, and the energy that overthrew Mubarak did not return. ‘We were played,’ one of the Tahrir protesters says.

Tunisia’s current president, Kais Saied, assumed dictatorial power in 2021, leading to protests. In April 2023, professional footballer Nizar Issaoui set fire to himself after police accused him of terrorism for arguing about the price of bananas. But, 13 years after Bouazazi’s self-immolation, there were no mass protests.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first rode popular calls for greater democracy, then grew increasingly autocratic.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (in 2004 – 2005) pushed the country to the West, but did not overthrow the country’s elite-dominated political-economic structures. The Maidan Square protests in 2013 maintained that momentum, but left Russian-speaking areas behind, and did nothing to prevent Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Water’ uprisings in 2014 and 2019 undermined the local administration, only for the Chinese to move in and end the ‘two systems’ compromise that followed British withdrawal.

In the 2010s, Bevins concludes, street protests created revolutionary situations, often by accident. 

The anarchist energy, the horizontalism, was powerful as a disruptive and oppositional force, but had fatal weaknesses. It was useless for steady ongoing improvements. Nor, despite the ideals of the activists, was it up to addressing underlying structures of economic power that make people poor – and also deny them any means of changing things. 

Horizontalism was perfectly suited to the articulate, educated middle classes who can dominate assemblies. When no accountable spokespeople were selected, the media chose for themselves who would front the movement. 

These movements brought down or fatally wounded governments, but had no plans for what would happen after success. They created political vacuums, but had no means of filling them. 

It should be no surprise that the military, the right, big business and foreign interests, all better organised, all with experience and knowledge of how to run centres of power, filled these vacuums.

Looking back, the campaigners Bevins spoke to bemoaned their own lack of organisation. ‘Not one person told me they had become more horizontalist, more anarchist, or more in favour of spontaneity and structurelessness,’ he says. Some joined representative politics. Some joined the Leninists, who remain a stronger force in the Global South than in the West. Some left the political arena altogether.

George Lakey’s book Toward a Living Revolution (Peace News Press, 2012) starts by painting the same patterns from an earlier era. Mass movements forced dictators out of El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944. But El Salvador soon had another dictatorship; Guatemala had 10 years of liberal government, but could not withstand a US-backed coup.

The bulk of Lakey’s book is devoted to what he sees as the five essential stages for transformation that alter not only the balance of political power between elites and people, but also the economic power. Reading the two books back-to-back, as I did, it becomes glaringly obvious why the revolution was missing from the decade of mass protest. 

The protesters were brilliant at Lakey’s ‘propaganda of the deed’ (Stage Three). But their success was not built on a foundation of widespread education and consciousness-raising (‘cultural preparation’, Lakey’s Stage One). 

Once past the spontaneous cells – what we might call ‘affinity groups’ – wider organisation (Stage Two) was weak. Non-co-operation with existing systems (Stage Four) was temporary, and as for developing new institutions (Stage Five) that can operate across a modern nation, let alone transnationally, that was not even started. 

Bevins shows no sign of knowing Lakey’s work. But he gets to a similar place when he wonders if, rather than trying to create maximum disruption as soon as this appears possible, it might be better to wait, to organise, analyse and strategise.

I don’t want to give the impression that If We Burn is critical of the movements it covers. Bevins’ personal contact with some of the lead actors leaves no doubt about their courage and their commitment. 

Looking back, they feel depression, sadness, and even guilt at encouraging other young people to go out and get killed. But they don’t regret seeing a life-changing glimpse of a better world, and the euphoric experience of sensing the collective power to bring it about. 

Their stories are undoubtedly salutary, but also inspiring.