Inspired by recent events in France, yellow reflective vests have become the symbol of an international social movement that has seen activists in several nations in the Middle East and North Africa take to the streets to demand economic reforms.
Despite its growing popularity, however, experts believe it is unlikely to maintain the momentum necessary to have a long-term impact in the region.
For weeks, tens of thousands of people wearing yellow vests have demonstrated across France, blocking highways and clashing with security forces. The high-visibility security jackets that have become emblematic of the movement stem from the ones French motorists must carry at all times in their vehicles. Though sparked by the French government’s decision to increase fuel taxes, the drive has snowballed into wide scale protests against the rising cost of living.
The grassroots campaign pushed French President Emmanuel Macron last week into making a number of concessions, notably increasing the minimum wage and scrapping the planned fuel tax hike.
It has also prompted copycat demonstrations in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, most notably Israel, Tunisia and Jordan.
“The tactic behind the ‘yellow vest protests’ reminds me a bit of the 2011 Occupy movement,” Prof. Tali Hatuka, a professor at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the study of public protests, conveyed to The Media Line. “It is based on similar principles and aims to enhance people’s feelings of empathy by telling a simple or even generic story that is popular and easy to digest.”
The initiative has potential as a social campaign because it relies on a widely available object as its unifying symbol, she explained, adding that social media could be the determining factor propelling the protests forward.
“Rather than generating organizational networks, this tactic primarily creates interpersonal connections, as seen in 2011, when outraged masses were shouting, ‘We are the 99%,’ and demonstrating against the inequalities engendered by global capitalism,” she stated.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds wearing yellow vests protested price increases last weekend, blocking one of the city’s main intersections. Ten were arrested for disorderly conduct.
In neighboring Egypt, authorities have attempted to quash similar rallies by restricting the sale of the vests, amid fears of social unrest ahead of the January 25 anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. According to media reports, representatives of companies that manufacture and distribute the industrial garments were summoned to Cairo for a meeting with senior officials that informed them of the new rules.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, a group billing itself the “red vest” movement declared it would hold rallies to protest poor economic conditions and government corruption. Finally, Jordanian demonstrators have begun wearing the trademark vests in protest over high unemployment.
Prof. Tamar Hermann, Director of Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, is also skeptical the regional movement will manage to get off the ground.
“There is no public rage against the government [in Israel],” Prof. Hermann asserted to The Media Line. “We don’t have this legacy of revolt like in France or Egypt.”
Even in Egypt, she added, the movement is unlikely to take off.
“[Egyptians] are much more concerned with social and public order rather than about these minor issues,” she contended. “They have gone through some very difficult times in recent years because of upheaval and regime change. As long as they can afford to buy food, they will probably not take part in massive protests.”
Prof. Hermann also pointed to the 2011 social justice protests in Israel which saw hundreds of thousands fill the streets in opposition to rising living costs, which she says many in the country perceived as having had little to no tangible effect in the long run.
“Those protests had much more momentum in the beginning and then they faded away.
This is another legacy of failure and people no longer see street protests as the means to affect public policy,” she added.
The current demonstrations in Israel are centered on a slew of recently announced price increases. The Israel Electric Corporation – the country’s national energy provider – stated it plans to hike rates from 6.9 percent to 8.1 percent starting in January. Israel’s Water Authority likewise said it would raise prices by 4.5%. Meanwhile, some of the country’s leading food manufacturers have made similar declarations.
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