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Roundtable: Social Uprisings Sweep Middle East, Latin America


We're going to spend the next part of the program looking at social uprisings sweeping a slew of countries from the Middle East to Latin America. This week, Lebanon's prime minister stepped down as protests there continue. In Iraq, the prime minister is expected to resign in the face of mass demonstrations. Some 250 people have been killed. And in Latin America, Chile announced that it will no longer host two global conferences because of ongoing demonstrations there. Protesters in other countries are also demanding change from Ecuador to Bolivia.

And while these nations are governed differently, there do seem to be global threads of anger against the ruling elite that connect the protest movements. What are they? Well, we've called on two experts to help us understand these various protest movements and what's driving them. Patricio Navia is a professor of political science at New York University. He's with us from Santiago in Chile.

Welcome to the program.


FADEL: Maha Yahya is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. She's with us from Beirut in Lebanon.

Nice to have you with us.

MAHA YAHYA: Lovely to be here, Leila.

FADEL: So, Maha, let's start with you. Before we look at what connects all these protests, tell us a little bit about - or remind us what's going on in Lebanon. We know that the prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned earlier this week. But protests continue.

YAHYA: Yes, they do continue. The protest began ostensibly because of a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other voice or IP calls. But the reality is that the conditions or the triggers have been brewing for quite a while. We're looking at a situation where standards of living have been declining tremendously. There is an almost zero economic growth. We can see that the purchasing power of people is declining as well. There are many indications that the standards of living have really been going down. At the same time, perceptions of corruption have been increasing.

So essentially, you had a very volatile situation where there's the trust gap between Lebanese citizens and their political leadership is become huge. At the same time, you have a new generation of protesters - very young generation that, you know, is indifferent to the traditional way of thinking. They don't care about all the isms - the Islamism, nationalism, et cetera.

FADEL: Right.

YAHYA: What they care for is a civic street - one that will actually guarantee them a basic standard of living.

FADEL: You know, what I'm hearing from you is that young people are driving these protests, that people are tired of this widening gap between the rich and poor, a perception of corruption in the government. I wonder, Patricio, as you listen to Maha here in Chile, do you see or hear these same things among protesters there? Protests are growing. They've become deadly at times with some 19 people killed. What's driving the protests there?

NAVIA: Well, all of Latin America is a very unequal region, and it has always been. What is kind of ironic about Chile is that Chile's one of the most successful countries in Latin America, or it has been over the past 30 years. Poverty has declined considerably. Chile's now the most developed country in the region, and even inequality has declined. So we are now seeing discontent. But this discontent emerges at a time when things seem to be looking very good. So young people apparently are a bit more impatient than the older generation.

So unlike Bolivia, where there is a dispute over who won that last presidential election, or in Argentina, where there is an IMF-induced austerity package, and the same thing in Ecuador, Chile's growing. The country has a huge rainy-day fund. So their fiscal situation is very healthy. But people are still protesting because as they see it, they are at the gates of the promised land, but they still see an elite that will not let them in.

FADEL: And Maha, I hear that from you as well when we spoke about Lebanon - a young generation that's saying our governing elite is not serving us. We are not feeling - we - I mean, this incredible debt that Lebanon has. And we can also not ignore Iraq. The images coming out of Baghdad today with so - hundreds of thousands of people in the street after more than 250 people have been killed. What about there? Is that same sort of anger towards the ruling elite and economic differences driving people to the street?

YAHYA: Absolutely. I mean, Iraq and Lebanon are very similar in terms of the dynamics that are driving the protests. In Iraq, there, you have the additional element of this sense of Iranian influence in the country.

FADEL: Right.

YAHYA: So we've seen in some of the protests protesters screaming, Iran out, out.

FADEL: And this because Iran has influence on certain parties in both countries, right?

YAHYA: Absolutely. It has a lot of influence in Iraq. Again, it's the same story. It's the sense of corruption. Iraq is an incredibly resource-rich country. And yet, with all the oil revenue that they have, unbelievable levels of poverty, water scarcity. So it's pretty much similar triggers. It's a young population that sees no future.

FADEL: And in the very short time we have left, to both of you in your perspective regions, where do you see it going from here? We'll start with you, Patricio.

NAVIA: Well, I think for the case of Chile, there is a way out. But that requires for the elite to agree to share so much its privileges and to level the playing field for everyone. So 50 years ago, Venezuela was the most developed country in Latin America. But the leaders decided not to share the benefits of economic development, and Venezuela have a decline that has thrown it into a huge crisis. Chile faces the same challenge Venezuela faced 50 years ago. Hopefully, the elites this time we have learned the lesson and will make democracy and capitalism work for everyone.

FADEL: And Maha.

YAHYA: We have to look at it in terms of the long history. This is...

FADEL: Right.

YAHYA: ...A blip in a much longer history. It's going to take time. I mean, again, this generation understands that they're in there for the long haul. I think it really is a genuine moment of national awakening. People are coming together in ways that are unprecedented. I mean, I'm hopeful. And by the way, this isn't just Lebanon and Iraq. We saw in Sudan, we saw in Algeria. Algeria, demonstrations are still ongoing. People want something different, and they're fed up with this. They want a state that looks out for them and that allows them to have a dignified life.

FADEL: That's Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. She joined us by Skype from Beirut, Lebanon. And Patricio Navia, professor of political science at NYU - he joined us from Santiago in Chile.

Thank you both for joining me.

YAHYA: Thank you, Leila.

NAVIA: Thank you.

FADEL: Tomorrow on the program, we'll hear how the current protests in Iraq differ from those in the past. This time, they involve large numbers of young people demanding change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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