The New York Times published a piece by Simon Romero and William Neuman about the protests in Brazil, in which they conclude, along with people they interviewed, that “we really don’t know” why the protests are happening now.

This assertion is either naïve or a damn lie designed to cover ulterior motives.Image

Why Brazil?

Brazil is a democracy and has had stable institutions for almost 30 years. The President is a woman (no glass ceiling there) enjoying the highest approval ratings on the planet. Unemployment is lower than most developed economies in Europe or North America. The country will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio, in 2016. Some might say that it is surprising to see the protests, since Brazil is quite different from Turkey, where there were violent protests a week before, or any of the Arab countries where there were also mass protesting and even revolutions for the past three years. There is no discussion around the role of religion in a secular State, no military as a political force, no authoritarian regime, no sectarian violence. President Dilma was elected by a clear majority, representing a left-wing coalition with great popular appeal. None of these aspects seemed to indicate trouble in the relationship between the people and its government.

However, Brazil has a very hierarchical culture and a very collectivistic one too. In practice, this means that power tends to be very concentrated at the top of hierarchies that are very exclusive: they benefit their friends/cronies and exclude the rest. There is high concentration of income, as well. Although income distribution has improved in the past ten years, it is still worse than most countries in the world.

There has been growing discontent with corruption in government at all levels. The dissatisfaction with politicians in general has grown in the past couple of years and is clearly visible to anyone surfing the internet. Thousands of posts express daily the insatisfaction with politicians, the fact that they have the second highest pay packages in the world (behind the US). There was a high profile court case against a few Congressmen accused of corruption lasting several months. Eventually they were convicted and sentenced at the end of 2012, but there were appeals and that was quite disappointing. None of these convicted politicians has gone to prison and a few still hold key positions in Congress, as if nothing had happened, and in spite of the fact that thousands have signed motions requesting them to step down from their posts.

This growing discontent was a revolution waiting to happen. Discussions in Brazil have been about how long it would take before something major would trigger protests. Most analysts, however, felt that the cauldron would only boil over next year, closer to the next presidential elections. The accusations of corruption would increase and so would popular discontent with the fact that even convicted felons were not in fact punished, let alone the many others who had not even been brought to justice. The opposition political parties would then have an interest in stoking dissatisfaction with the current government and capitalizing on that in the elections.Image

Why Now?

This is where it gets really interesting. A group of youngsters started a movement in 2005 (when they were 15 years old) called “Passe Livre” (Free Pass) advocating free public transportation for students. Eight years later, they were still lobbying for this, but had extended it to “free public transport for all” and sometimes staging demonstrations to promote their cause. They got very little attention from the press and the general public, and were never able to gather more than a thousand people at any given place.

A few weeks ago, this movement (MPL for the acronym in Portuguese) saw a good opportunity to demonstrate once again and promote their cause, perhaps getting a bit more of attention, this time. The local mayors of several state capitals announced a bus fare increase of 6% which would soon go into effect. This was approved in January, but in negotiations with MPL, some union leaders and politicians, it was agreed to delay its implementation until mid-year 2013. The increase, by the way, was smaller than inflation since the last hike, over two years ago.

As the date of implementing the increase approached, the MPL leaders realized that they had a good opportunity to demonstrate just before the beginning of the FIFA Confederations Cup, a prelude to the World Cup. There would be a lot of international press coverage for the tournament, which would start on June 16. MPL scheduled protests for the week before, thinking they might get some good press coverage and that local mayors would be more open to negotiate again, to avoid the embarrassment of protestors disrupting the football tournament.

Indeed, this time they got a bigger crowd than ever, over 2,000 or 3,000 people marching on the main avenues of São Paulo, Rio and a few other state capitals. The press was there, filming and taking pictures.Image

Police Pull The Trigger

What they did not expect, however, is that the mayors and state governors were quite upset about the scheduled demonstrations precisely because of the global football tournament about to begin. These political leaders felt that they had to show the FIFA officials and the world that they were totally in control of the security situation in their cities and that “zero tolerance” to such demonstrations was the best policy. They unleashed “Shock Troops” against the demonstrators to disperse them. These troops employed unprecedented brutality against the crowd: they used tear gas, “moral effect” bombs, pepper spray and rubber bullets. They advanced towards the demonstrators and assaulted them with bats, kicked them when they were down and arrested many.

This was all against peaceful demonstrators presenting no real threat besides shouting slogans… What is worse: as they did all this, the police also injured many of the news people who were covering the event, a couple of politicians and several innocent bystanders who just happened to be there when it happened.

The next day the web and the press were full of interviews and pictures of wounded people with some serious damage: ugly bruises on their faces, broken limbs, risking to lose their eyesight, still feeling the effects of tear gas.

Public opinion was outraged. Another protest was scheduled, this time to demonstrate against police brutality. President Dilma was shocked. She publicly condemned the brutality and called on local authorities to refrain from using rubber bullets. The new demonstration was now scheduled a couple of days after the Confederations Cup had already started. Now the whole country was discussing the police’s unwarranted violence and criticizing a left-wing democratic government that was more brutal than the military regime had been from 1964 to 1985.

On the streets there were at least 250,000 people between Rio, São Paulo and other cities. Most of them had never taken to the streets before. Many were not usually riding buses. This was no longer about a 20 cents increase in bus fare. It boiled over and became a protest against police brutality and against the authority figures who had unleashed it. It also targeted football and the World Cup, as government ploys to entertain the masses and distract them from the lack of schools, hospitals and proper security.

Police forces were in a quandary: they were not allowed to be brutal, but now they were the target of the demonstrations! When the crowds saw the police, they were angry and they felt justified in their anger. They threw sticks and stones. They burned cars. Violence increased, although the majority of the demonstrations were still peaceful.Image

Collectivism, Hierarchy and Revolution

Hierarchical cultures have more revolutions than egalitarian cultures. This has been researched and it has been going on for centuries. This time it was happening in Brazil.

The feeling of revolt that had been brewing for three years came to the surface, and the flames were stoked by collectivism. In such cultures, crowds grow very quickly as people are loyal to their groups and value solidarity when fighting other groups. When you know that “everybody is going to the streets” you want to go too, you don’t want to feel excluded.

President Dilma called the mayors and told them: “back down! Cancel the bus fare increase. We need to defuse this thing.”

It was already too late: when the cancellation was announced, the day after the big protests, the people decided to stage another demonstration, to “celebrate victory” and protest against other things. On Thursday, June 20, there were 1.2 million people demonstrating in about 100 cities throughout Brazil. The movement was growing.

Against what? Against everything. Against any form of authority, corruption, the World Cup, and the fact that a lot of money was being spent to organize it, while hospitals and schools were short of funding. Against specific bits of legislation that different groups didn’t like. People were just fed up. There were clashes between groups of protesters with conflicting agendas. It was like somebody had decreed this was “national protest day” so everybody just went out and ranted about something. There were also people protesting the protests, and incidents where people hit protesters with their cars, as they tried to drive through an avenue filled with demonstrators.

By now, even the MPL leaders were scared. They had lost control of the crowds already on “Day Two”. There was no leadership; just a million people going out and voicing their dissatisfaction, most of them simply because they felt this was exciting and they wanted to be part of it. Collectivism in its purest form.Image

Brazil and Egypt

By the way, the same thing happened in Egypt in 2011. It all started when a few thousand people started a kind of “occupy Tahrir Square” movement to protest increases in food prices and unemployment. Mubarak made the same mistake: he unleashed the police on the crowd with orders to “clear the square”. Until then, the demonstration had been peaceful. It was worse in Egypt: people got killed in the clashes. A few days later, like in Brazil, the crowd increased tenfold, protesting the unwarranted brutality. Police were violent again and the whole thing escalated and spiralled out of control. Dozens were killed. Because of collectivism, soon there were hundreds of thousands coming to the streets, many just to support their friends. It culminated with the military removing Mubarak from power. A real full scale revolution, triggered by police brutality.

In Brazil, we don’t know yet what will happen. The movement there is diffuse, unfocused. There is no unified leadership. Political leaders have said they will talk to the protest leaders and take their grievances on board; but there are no protest leaders and the list of grievances is a mile long. There is no common cause to bind the crowd together. Still, 99% of the demonstrators have been peaceful. The media is placing undue emphasis on the 1% who looted and vandalised a few shops. They haven’t showed that the crowds have jeered the vandals and have sat on the ground the minute something like that happens, to expose the perpetrators and show they do not support such actions.

The giant woke up, and in a bad mood. If the police are stupid again and clash with the crowds, the movement will gain new energy and might even turn into a revolution. If the police stay out of it, the demonstrations tend to gradually exhaust themselves. The outcome will be determined by politician’s mistakes in coping with this, rather than by anything else. Considering their track record, however, I would not bet on them sorting this out easily…