Thursday 5 July 2012

The Social Protest Risks Self-Destruction

The social protest movement has been making a come-back over the past few weeks, after capturing the imagination of the citizens of Israel during their summer demonstrations in 2011.  Having decided that the progress made by the government over the past 12 months has not been sufficient to satisfy the demands made a year ago, the protest movement has taken to the streets once again.  But things are very different now than they were a year ago, and this summer’s protest can never be the same as the one that was held last year.  This creates a risk for the protestors that they will not be able to continue to carry the support of the general public with them.

The biggest difference this year when compared to last year, is that the government and the authorities are ready for the protest.  This means that they will not allow the establishment of the tent cities that sprang up in towns and cities across Israel in the summer of 2011.  These served as constant reminders to the general public of the ongoing protest.  This act, more than anything else, captured the hearts and minds of Israelis and succeeded in gaining the vital support of the press pack.  In order to keep the protest in the public eye this year, more ingenuity will be required to replace the constant reminder that the tent cities represented.  The protestors will also have to continuously outfox the authorities, who are determined to avoid having the constant irritation that the government was forced to endure last year.

The first clashes have already taken place, and have not necessarily helped the protest movement in the eye of the general public.  A small group of protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv on a busy Friday morning.  Police were quickly on the scene to force the demonstrators off the streets.  Some protestors who refused to cooperate were arrested, and the press was filled with pictures depicting aggressive police arresting peaceful demonstrators.   These scenes mobilised other protestors to take to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday evening.  This time, the demonstrations were not only focused against the government’s economic policies, they also vented anger against treatment received by the protestors at the hands of police and officials of the city of Tel Aviv.  Illegal demonstrations turned into sit-down protests in various locations in Tel Aviv, disrupting traffic and causing general chaos.  Once again, police and city officials removed protestors by force.  Some protestors also vented their rage at banks in the street near to the protest location, and rocks were hurled into bank windows causing damage to property.  The stand-off between the parties escalated further when sympathisers of the protest movement decided to disrupt activities in Tel Aviv’s “White Night” annual street party.  These attempts were only partially successful, with “White Night” proving to be a success albeit with a few less activities than were originally planned.  By this stage, however, the press started losing their positive spin on this story and the general public were displaying less sympathy for the cause.  It seems as though the protestors may have scored an own-goal through their actions, by losing the support of their greatest group of supporters.

Around the time that these events were taking place, the Minister of Finance announced that the government decided to increase the budget deficit in 2013 from the previous target of 1.5% of GDP to 3%.  This is in addition to tax increases that are anticipated next year.  The extra money is required to fund some of the concessions that have been granted in response to the social protests.  Bank of Israel Governor, Stanley Fisher, came out immediately in opposition to these steps.  It is predicted that the increase in the budget deficit will cause interest rates to rise and will weaken the Shekel even further.  The general public is not enthusiastic at all about these measures, and has realised that the social concessions do not come without cost.  These measures will hit the average person in the pocket in no uncertain terms.  Suddenly the social protest movement is having to bear responsibility for this cost, causing it to look increasingly isolated.

One of the greatest successes of the social protests in the summer of 2012, was the extent to which the general public supported their action.  Demands for cheaper housing, tax and welfare improvements and cheaper prices for consumer goods seemed to strike a chord with all members of the public.  This was true as long as the price of these concessions was not yet been factored into the public’s considerations.  Now that there is a realisation that there is a price to pay, the public is regarding the concessions with much less enthusiasm and the social protestors are carrying the responsibility for the costs involved.

The combination of the violent protests and the economic measures introduced by the government has certainly caused damage to the protest movement.  The press is not nearly as supportive of their efforts as they were last year, and the general public is scrutinising the protests with a much keener eye.  Further damage to the protest movement’s cause was done when it became obvious that many of the demonstrators were not quite sure what they were protesting against.  When asked for details of the cause and its objectives, some of the demonstrators seemed to be participating for reasons not remotely linked to the main social cause.  They were made to look more like rent-a-crowd than a unified group of people with a common objective.

Israel’s economy is sending out mixed messages.  Things seem to be very stable at a macro-economic level.  The banking system has held up well while the banks in countries all around have collapsed or required public funding to stay afloat.  Israel is the only country to have its credit rating raised (to A+) by S&P in the past year.  Germany is the only western country which has a lower budget deficit than Israel.  For individuals within the economy, however, things don’t look so rosy.  Approximately half of the citizens of Israel live on or below the bread line.  Despite the fact that employment is currently at one of its highest levels in recent years (meaning that whoever wishes to work has a job), families are still not managing to cover their ever-increasing costs.  This is almost worse than people not being able to make a living because they are out of work.  It is clear that attention is required to correct this situation.

The social protest movement has done a good job of bringing the issue of social justice to the top of the public agenda.  Now, the protest leaders will have a tough path to navigate in encouraging the government to implement the changes without losing the public’s support.  In addition, the protest movement will need to continue to take the moral high ground, and not allow its organisation to be hijacked by those with unrelated causes, and those intent on causing chaos, disruption and damage.  Indications are that they are not succeeding.

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