Protests in Rabin Square – the Tel Aviv plaza that doubles as the biggest venue for street politics in Israel – have always been crowded and noisy affairs. Until now.
On each of the past three weekends, several thousand Israelis have gathered in Rabin Square to show their opposition to a coalition deal that will keep Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in office after a trio of inconclusive elections. But in the age of COVID-19, protests there don’t look or sound much like they used to.
Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with their political allies, those who attend the weekly demonstrations stand alone or with their families inside little boxes that have been drawn on the ground with chalk, guaranteeing exactly two metres of physical distance from the next protester. The repeated chants of “Democracy!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame!” are muffled by face masks.
Street demonstrations were a common sight in 2019, with protest movements rocking governments across Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Pro-democracy movements in Moscow and Hong Kong challenged two of the most powerful regimes on the planet.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and an unprecedented stillness that sees more than half the world’s population living under some form of lockdown. The once-raucous streets of Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Beirut, Baghdad and Santiago fell silent as everyone – governments and their critics alike – focused on trying to stop the deadly spread of the novel coronavirus.
But even as economies came to near-complete stops, politics carried on. Authoritarian governments have used the threat of COVID-19 to curb freedoms and accumulate new powers. And now – with anger swelling over the economic pain inflicted by the lockdowns – activists around the world are fumbling for safety-conscious ways to push back.
The lockdowns provided respite to wobbling regimes in places such as Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon that months ago looked in danger of collapsing amid waves of anti-government unrest.
“Without the pandemic, the protests would still have been going on. The regimes used COVID to take a break,” said Georges Fahmy, associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
But while authoritarian governments may have been happy to see their opponents forced to withdraw from the streets, the lockdowns imposed in response to the pandemic have meant economic pain for millions of people around the world – suffering that could quickly transform into anger.
“All protest movements are faced with this opportunity and risk,” Mr. Fahmy said. “Either you use this moment to strengthen your movement and develop a discourse [that attracts more support], or you lose this momentum and enter chaos and violence.”
The physically distanced demonstrations in Rabin Square are perhaps the most successful example yet of safe dissent in the age of coronavirus. Using chalk lines to make it safe for protesters to gather was the result of a brainstorming session between Shikma Schwartzman, a 39-year-old physicist from northern Israel, and her three brothers.
A very new and careful type of civil disobedience was born. “We followed instructions. We stayed apart from each other. The last thing we wanted was for people to get sick,” said Ms. Schwartzman, who sees Israeli democracy eroding the longer Mr. Netanyahu, who has been Prime Minister since 2009, remains in office. “We just went out there with chalk and said, ‘We have to do this.’ ”
Another tactic adopted by the anti-Netanyahu protesters has seen long lines of cars honking their horns and flying black flags as they wound their way along the country’s main highway, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “We thought if we could be 20 cars, it would be nice,” Ms. Schwartzman said. “But we ended up with 1,000 cars going up to Jerusalem.”
Hong Kong, where months of protests against mainland China’s influence came to a halt in February, has also seen a resurgence of dissent in recent days. Some 100 protesters flouted a ban on gatherings of more than four people to chant “Glory to Hong Kong” in a reopened shopping mall on May 1, until police eventually dispersed them with pepper spray.
Larger protests are expected to resume ahead of the June 4 commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Not all opposition movements have found their stride as quickly. In Russia, opponents of President Vladimir Putin held an “online protest” on April 28, an effort that drew only a few thousand viewers, who watched as a succession of opposition politicians criticized the Kremlin’s refusal to provide an economic bailout to those Russians forced out of work by the coronavirus lockdown. The YouTube feed was glitchy, and at times inaudible – and easy for the authorities to ignore.
“It’s not a very efficient way [to protest], but it’s better than doing nothing,” said Dmitry Gudkov, one of the anti-Kremlin speakers at the online event. Nonetheless, Mr. Gudkov said, frustration with Mr. Putin’s handling of the pandemic is growing and economic hardships mount. Russia’s coronavirus cases continue to spike and the country now has the fastest-growing outbreak in the world, with 10,000 new cases a day this week.
There are hints in Russia and elsewhere of anger bubbling over. In the southern city of Vladikavkaz, protesters angry at the lack of government assistance threw stones at a line of police outside the governor’s office last month. Texas, Michigan and several other U.S. states have seen groups of protesters, some of them heavily armed, demand ends to local coronavirus lockdowns.
In Lebanon, months of peaceful protests driven by government corruption and a broken economy came to a halt in March, when the country’s Hezbollah-backed government took advantage of the health crisis to force the opposition to dismantle a tent city that had occupied Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square for the previous five months.
Unable to take to the streets, Lebanese activists redirected their efforts to distributing food aid to those hit hardest by the country’s economic collapse. They also tried some of the same tactics used in other countries – including drive-by demonstrations and social-media gatherings – to let the government know, as opposition organizer Lina Hamdan said, that “the revolution is still on.”
But an April 27 clash in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has raised concerns that some who were peacefully demonstrating before the pandemic may increasingly turn to violence when it’s over. Protesters attacked banks and hurled Molotov cocktails at police, with one demonstrator being killed when security forces responded with tear gas and live ammunition.
Ms. Hamdan condemned the violence, though she was unsurprised by it. “The anger is not just in Tripoli. It’s everywhere.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.