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Many Protests, One Revolution

The massive rise of popular protests around the Middle East and North Africa coincided with the convening of the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal.  While the former were the subject of deserved and extensive media attention, the latter was virtually ignored by mainstream media. Yet all these gatherings of activists should be seen as part of a single, global movement that has been unfolding for over a decade.


While protesters in Egypt seek to topple corrupt and authoritarian rulers, activists at the World Social Forum have been doing the long-term and painstaking work of building a global movement to transform the basic structures of our world economy. It is those structures that enable the greed and brutality of individual leaders while maintaining the conditions against which Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenis as well as Ecuadorans, Indians, and Detroiters are all resisting.

A new regime in Egypt will not fundamentally reduce youth unemployment. New leadership in Jordan will not solve the global climate crisis. Changes in local and national governments, without larger structural changes, will not end the land speculation, corporate monopolies, and militarization that plague communities worldwide.


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While we must support the protests in the Middle East, it is vital that we see how they are connected to other struggles, including the massive protests last fall across Europe as well as the larger and more inclusive global justice movement that has created the World Social Forum process.

In a recent analysis of the Egyptian protests, Horace Campbell identifies the most important characteristics of these “21st century revolutions”:

  1. The revolutions are made by ordinary people independent of vanguard parties and self-proclaimed revolutionaries;
  2. They are network-based and are developing innovative tools and technologies to foster autonomous, horizontal, and cooperative networks;
  3. They are led by ordinary people who have taken initiative and stepped up to contribute to the movement’s self-mobilization and its effort at self-emancipation;
  4. They rely on and seek to build revolutionary non-violence for self-defense;
  5. Their ultimate revolutionary idea is for a world where human beings can live in dignity and freedom from dictatorship and violence

What is most amazing about these features of protests in the Middle East and North Africa is that they have been part of popular struggles around the world for quite some time. Indeed, these characteristics can be found in large quantities at the World Social Forum in Dakar, and they have helped shape and sustain countless local and national social forums over the past decade.

As governments and empires use force to maintain their preferred world order, another world is being created and nurtured “from below.” We must recognize the many forms the revolution of the 21st century takes and support it in all of its manifestations.

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is author or editor of numerous books and articles on global organizing and social change, including Social Movements and World-System Transformation, Social Movements in the World-System: the Politics of Crisis and Transformation, and Social Movements for Global Democracy. She helps coordinate Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance and is a member of the steering committee of the US Human Rights Network’s Human Rights Cities Alliance.

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