A Look Back at 2019: The Year of Global Disorder

Dec 29, 2019 | 360, AFP, China, GOV, Hong Kong, India, NEWS, Trending, US

Anti-Extraction Bill Protest ©Studio Incendo

The year 2019 saw an explosion of demonstrations across the world as people demanded an overhaul of entrenched political systems and action on climate change.

Here is a look back at these events that marked the tumultuous year.

Protests Sweep Latin America

On January 23, Venezuela‘s opposition chief Juan Guaido declares himself interim president, escalating a long-running political and economic crisis.

He is recognized by more than 50 countries, including the United States. But the army backs President Nicolas Maduro and he remains in his post.

In mid-September major demonstrations erupt in Haiti after fuel shortages, demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise. Violence claims more than 40 lives.

A metro ticket hike in Chile‘s capital mid-October is the trigger for protests that claim more than 20 lives before a referendum on reforms is agreed.

Protest in Chile ©CameraMemories

Bolivia is gripped by three weeks of demonstrations after President Evo Morales claims to win a fourth term on October 20. Dozens are killed. Morales resigns on November 10 and flees into exile as the government works on new elections.

Ecuador is paralyzed by nearly two weeks of protests in October and in Colombia strikes and demonstrations against the right-wing government begin mid-November.

North Africa/Mideast Fury

On February 22, unprecedented protests break out in Algeria against a fifth term for frail President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for 20 years.

He loses the army’s backing and resigns on April 2. But demonstrations continue, demanding an overhaul of the entire political establishment and rejecting new president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected on December 12 in polls marked by record abstention.

In Sudan, the military on April 11 ends Omar al-Bashir’s three decades in power, a key demand in four months of nationwide protests.

Demonstrations continue until a hard-won agreement in August sets up a joint governing council to oversee a transition to civilian rule. More than 250 people are killed, according to protesters.

In Iraq, mass demonstrations erupt on October 1 against unemployment, corruption and poor public services, degenerating into violence that claims more than 460 lives.

On December 1, parliament accepts the government’s resignation.

In Lebanon, rolling mass protests start on October 17, triggered by plans for a messaging app tax and turning against the political elite. They continue even after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigns on October 29, with protesters rejecting new premier-designate Hassan Diab, an engineering professor backed by Hezbollah chosen on December 19 to form a government.

Iran sees an explosion of riots on November 15 after a fuel price hike. Authorities crush the unrest but Amnesty International says more than 304 people were killed, most shot by security forces, a toll denied by the authorities.

Protester – Downtown Beirut, Lebanon ©Victor Choueiri

IS Leader Killed 

After a five-year offensive to seize vast Islamic State (IS) territory in Iraq and Syria, the jihadists were driven out of their last bastion in March by Kurdish-led forces.

On October 27, President Donald Trump announces that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US special forces raid in Syria, blowing himself up as he was pursued.

Boeing MAX Grounded

A March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash leads to the global grounding of Boeing 737 MAX planes. It follows a Lion Air crash involving the same model six months earlier, with 346 lives lost in the two incidents.

Boeing faces investigations and lawsuits, and is forced to upgrade its systems, in a crisis that costs it billions of dollars.

In mid-December production of the plane is suspended. On December 23, Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg resigns. 

Brexit Saga 

Britain‘s March 29, 2019, deadline for leaving the European Union following a 2016 referendum is postponed three times, with the British parliament unable to agree to the divorce terms negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May with Brussels, nor a second accord negotiated by her successor Boris Johnson.

After widely winning early elections on December 12, Johnson gets support at the first reading by the lower house for his accord. He seeks final adoption on January 9, and to leave the EU on January 31, 2020.

First Black Hole Photo 

On April 10, astronomers unveil the first photograph of a black hole, a phenomenon they were convinced existed even if it had never been seen before.

Drawn from mountains of data captured two years earlier by telescopes across the world, it shows a supermassive black hole 50 million lightyears away.

Notre Dame Burns

On April 15, flames destroy the spire and roof of Paris’s beloved Notre-Dame cathedral, but firefighters manage to save the gothic building, while many of its arts, relics and other treasures are rescued.  

Amid a global outpouring of emotion, nearly one billion euros ($1.1 billion) is pledged for its reconstruction, which will take years. For the first time since 1803, Notre-Dame does not celebrate Christmas mass.

Devastating Notre Dame Fire ©Manhhai

Iran Escalation 

On May 8, Tehran announces its first step back from the 2015 nuclear accord – exactly a year after the United States quit the deal and reimposed sanctions.

Over the next months Iran re-engages components of its nuclear program that it had halted, including uranium enrichment.

Tensions mount when Washington blames Tehran for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf from mid-May.

On September 14, Iran is again blamed when major Saudi oil facilities are attacked by Yemen’s Huthi rebels, which it supports. It denies involvement.

In six months Tehran has surpassed the stock of enriched uranium, the level of enrichment and heavy water reserves fixed by the accord and modernized its centrifuges.

Hong Kong Erupts 

June 9 sees the start of the biggest crisis in the former British colony of Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with almost-daily pro-democracy protests.

Demonstrations are initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland but develop into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule.

On November 24, pro-democracy campaigners win a landslide victory in local elections.

Half Year Mark Hong Kong Protest on Dec 8, 2019 ©DoctorHo

Hottest Month Ever

July temperatures were the hottest ever recorded, US and European Union authorities announce in August.

Temperature records rise in Europe and the North Pole, and in August, Iceland loses its first glacier to climate change.

Fires ravage Brazil’s Amazon and Australia, while Venice is swamped by flooding not seen in decades.

The extreme weather raises climate concerns, and rallies for action, initiated by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, spread worldwide.

Greta Thunberg ‘A Girl Has Stood Up’ ©StephaneP

US Disengagement

On August 2, the US officially quits the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) with Russia. 

Trump’s “America First” regime also strikes out alone by pursuing trade wars with China and the EU. It also withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change and its troops from northeastern Syria.

Trump Impeachment Bid 

On September 24, the Democrats in Congress launch an impeachment enquiry into Trump after claims he pressured Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a rival in his 2020 reelection bid.

Trump is impeached in a historic rebuke by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on two counts of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress, but conviction is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate in a trial expected to begin in January.

Impeachment Rally Iowa State Capitol ©Phil Roeder

Turkey Moves Into Syria

On October 9, Turkey launches an offensive into northern Syria to push back from the border Kurdish fighters it considers “terrorists”.

Two days earlier Trump had announced the withdrawal of US troops in the area, leading to charges that Washington had abandoned Kurdish allies who were vital in the battle against Islamic State jihadists.

Turkey halts its operation on October 23 after the US and Russia agree in separate deals to ensure the fighters leave the border region.

Protest in Berlin against the Turkish military operations in Syria ©Hossam El-Hamalawy

Big Tech Tackled 

On July 24, US regulators fine Facebook a record $5 billion for data protection violations amid mounting concerns about the dominance of it and other internet giants Apple, Amazon and Google.

Criticised for failing to protect consumers as well as over tax and advertising issues, the tech titans come under pressure to reform, with threats of investigation, fines and even dismantlement.

Social Crisis in France 

France is confronted from December 5 by a three-week standoff between French transport workers and the government over pension reforms, which causes havoc to Christmas travel.

Workers at the national SNCF and Parisian RATP rail and public transport companies walk off the job to protest at the government’s plan to meld France’s 42 pension schemes into a single points-based one, which would see some public employees lose certain privileges, including early retirement.

Parisians brought the city to a standstill in a demonstration against pension overhauls/afp

From Algeria to Hong Kong, a Year of Anti-Establishment Rage 

Angry citizens have swelled the streets of cities across the globe this year, pushing back against a disparate range of policies but often expressing a common grievance — the establishment’s failure to heed their demands for a more equitable future.

While street protests are nothing new, experts say the intense 2019 flare-ups reflect a growing sentiment that the social contract between governments and citizens has broken down, with voters paying the price but unable to affect meaningful change.

“What unites the protests is that all are responding to a sense of exclusion, pessimism about the future, and a feeling of having lost control to unaccountable elites,” said Jake Werner, a historian at the University of Chicago.

The financial crisis of 2007-08 in particular, he said, exposed systemic failings and induced years of austerity and insecurity for millions of people.

It also produced an acute sense of unfairness, in particular among young people who see their prospects of earning a decent living slipping away with every price hike or benefit cut. 

“What was previously experienced as proper or natural is now increasingly experienced as a form of domination and injustice,” Werner stated. 

As a result, it often takes only a small move to spark a protest — in Chile it was a metro ticket increase, in Iran and France it was higher fuel costs, in Lebanon a “WhatsApp tax” — that balloons into a wider revolt demanding better living standards.

Elsewhere, as in Hong Kong, Algeria and India, calls for greater political freedom have become a potent rallying force.

In Iraq, fury over corruption and unemployment boiled over into fiery clashes which have left hundreds of people dead and forced the prime minister to resign.

“The belief in democracy’s capacity to change people’s lives is undoubtedly eroding,” said Erik Neveu, a sociologist at the Sciences Po political science university in Rennes, western France.

Algerians have also been protesting for greater political freedoms/ afp

Rejection of Neo-Liberalism

For Olivier Fillieule, a specialist in social movements at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, this year’s protests built on the same dynamics which produced movements as diverse as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, or the Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

“Don’t forget that Time magazine named ‘the Protester’ its person of the year in 2011,” Fillieule said.

“The rejection of neo-liberalism is the main driver of most of these movements,” he said, noting that “the state’s abdication of some of its responsibilities leaves people alone against the market”.

The impression that big companies and the wealthy seem to get a free pass — despite calls to force multinationals to pay more taxes — only further inflames the sense that the game is rigged.

France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement eventually forced the government to pledge billions of euros in tax cuts and wage boosts/afp

“Society is fed up with paying and paying. They’ve squeezed us like a lemon,” Marcela Paz, a 51-year-old teacher, said during a protest in Santiago, Chile in October.

And if the traditional rungs for climbing the social ladder are out of reach, experts say more people will feel that protests, and potentially violence, are the only recourse.

In France, for example, the “yellow vest” anger over high costs of living quickly spiraled into rioting and clashes with police – and eventually forced the government to pledge billions of euros in tax cuts and wage boosts.

Then in December French unions backed by the “yellow vests” called a nationwide strike to protest against pension reforms, which brought the country to a virtual standstill for several weeks.


Experts say the multitude of long-running protests, some of which have carried on for weeks or even months at a time, could provide mutual energy while also inspiring new movements.

“It is clear that protests and other forms of movement activity have been very much on the rise in recent years, and perhaps this year in particular,” said Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University in California.

And reflecting the distrust of top-down democracy, most movements have rejected leadership, embracing instead a “horizontal” organization facilitated by social media or as in Hong Kong by secure message apps.

In some countries like Iran and Egypt, authorities have tried to curtail the social movements by cutting off the internet – India this month cut mobile access in parts of Delhi amid protests against a citizenship law deemed anti-Muslim – but without much success in the long term.

Youth in India Protest – Online Shutdown /afp

These are not only “Facebook revolutions”, says Geoffrey Pleyers, a sociology professor in Belgium and France. These are profound movements where young people often take the lead, but then become intergenerational, he adds.

The “horizontal” organisation makes it harder for authorities to single out someone to negotiate with, or to arrest, in a bid to quell protesters’ anger.

“This demand of dignity is central in the movement since 2011,” Fillieule said.

“The question of structuring a movement, and how it will be represented, comes second.”

Even if governments give in to certain demands, they risk facing more protests unless they address the anger that sent people to the streets in the first place.

“It’s not that the nature of authority changed — elites are just as unaccountable today as they were ten years ago,” Werner said.

“What changed is that elite unaccountability has been exposed, because popular forces are no longer aligned with elites as they once were.

via Loic Vennin + afp