THOSE of a certain vintage might recall a song by the American musician Billy Joel. It’s calledWe Didn’t Start the Fire and the song’s lyrics run like a stream of consciousness, citing events Joel recalls as the major headlines from the year of his birth 1949 through to when the song was released in 1989.

The chorus itself from which the song takes it title concludes that: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

That chorus line could almost have been written about events today. For rarely in recent decades can there have been a moment as there is right now, when it feels like the whole world is alight with fiery protests and turbulent events that have been simmering for years.

Turn on the radio or television, open a newspaper and images of people on the streets challenging authority are everywhere. Chile, Iraq, Bolivia, Spain, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Haiti, not to mention here at home, the list goes on.

But why now? Is it just coincidence or are there common factors at play here?

While some observers caution against trying to pull on a single unifying global thread, there seems little doubt the protesters themselves feel a degree of camaraderie. It was Mao Zedong who in 1930, as he tried to convince his followers that revolution was possible in China, observed that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”

Mao’s observation comes to mind when one begins to drill down into the common themes of today’s global protests and the ways in which one appears to influence another.

Even at a tactical level on the streets themselves there now seems a shared experience. Video of students in Hong Kong, for example, neutralising tear-gas canisters have gone viral in Indonesia, where students are protesting against the curbing of powers within the country’s anti-corruption commission.

In turn those taking to the streets of Catalonia have also learned from their Hong Kong counterparts blockading airports and using encrypted messaging apps. Catalan activists have even organised a forum on what they could learn from Hong Kong’s experience.

In other places protesters have adopted the catch-phrase and tactics evoked by the Hong Kong protesters, taken from Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee’s slogan “Be water”, enabling them to stay fluid and on the move to outwit the authorities.

In the main, though, each of today’s global protests have their very specific individual triggers, even if there are also startling thematic similarities in terms of economic anger and political hopelessness.

This weekend the human cost of railing against authority is being most sharply felt in Iraq where scores have died over the last few days. In a country where many people are living under a crushing level of poverty, anti-government demonstrations, sparked by widespread anger at official corruption, mass unemployment and failing public services. have gripped the capital, Baghdad, and swept through several other cities in the country’s south. According to World Bank figures, nearly three-fifths of Iraq’s 40 million people live on less than six dollars a day, despite the country having the world’s fifth largest reserves of oil.

“The whole political elite needs to change because the current system has done nothing for us,” one demonstrator, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, was quoted on Friday as saying by al Jazeera.

Doubtless precisely the same sense of grievance and desire for political change can be heard among those hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets in neighbouring Lebanon. There a very specific trigger sparked what are now the biggest anti-government protests in more than a decade.

It was on October 17, after the government proposed a series of new taxes, including a fee on calls made via free messaging services like WhatsApp, that Lebanese flooded on to the streets. But beneath that WhatsApp trigger lay decades of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement that have brought the country to an economic breaking point.

On Lebanon’s streets, in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the Arab Spring, protesters say politicians have stolen tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars from the public coffers, aided by bank secrecy laws and also patronage networks.

In a country where electricity shortages are the norm the anger and frustration with ruling elites was only augmented by reports that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave $16 million to a South African model with whom he was romantically involved.

If the trigger in Lebanon for protests was a tax on WhatsApp messages, then in far-off Chile it was a rise in metro fares. In Ecuador it was when the government scrapped decades-old fuel subsidies, not unlike the gilets jaunes protests that began last year in France after a rise in petrol taxes.

The National: A protester in ChileA protester in Chile

In at least four countries hit by recent violent protests, the main reason for the uprising is economic.

But in almost every case, protests soon turned into something far broader. While political backtracking by political leaders stopped protests in some countries, in many they continue.

Often called “the forgotten continent,” Latin America has rarely been out of the headlines in recent weeks because of turmoil there.

In scenes eerily reminiscent of the bad old days of 1973 during the Chilean coup d’etat, tanks were once again visible on the streets of the capital Santiago.

“Chile was an economic pressure cooker that’s been building for decades, and it exploded,” Rodrigo Booth, a professor at the University of Chile, told the Washington Post last week.

“This had little to do with public transit. It became a situation about brutal inequality,” added Booth, summing up the underlying cause behind so many global protests right now.

In a huge and disparate region of 33 countries, more than 630 million people, and governments from authoritarian left to far right, there is no single explanation for the political and social tremors currently rattling Latin America.

Long-time observers, however, point to certain consistencies like economic discontent, corruption and the influence of protests elsewhere in the world.

Veteran Mexican journalist and Latin America watcher Alma Guillermoprieto told The Guardian newspaper she saw the unrest as a mutiny of overworked and underpaid citizens pushed over the edge.

“Life is tough, and you put up with it, you put up with it, you put up with it, you put up with it – and all of a sudden this one small thing comes and you say: ‘F*** this!’” the paper quoted her as saying.

Currently Chile’s original protest has morphed into mass action, tapping into resentment over high costs, low wages and pensions, and substandard public education and health.

In Bolivia these past few days there has also been bloodshed among the barricades as people took to the streets claiming that president Evo Morales had tried to rig a recent election. Meanwhile, on the Caribbean island of Haiti, months of unrest that have rarely made the headlines have pushed the country to the brink.

The National: Bolivia has also seen massive demonstrationsBolivia has also seen massive demonstrations

Exploited by corporate predators, squeezed by the IMF, patronised by international elites, and bled dry by a corrupt government, Haitians have taken to the streets time and again, barely noticed by the international media and long before many of the more recent well-covered protests in Hong Kong and Catalonia.

“The situation that has been unfolding over the past year is the long, drawn-out, tortuous result of a concerted attack on popular democracy, and of the Haitian elite’s reluctance to allow any political or economic space for the masses entrenched in generations of poverty, “ observed Amy Willentz, contributing editor at US magazine Nation and a specialist on Haiti.

And therein perhaps lies the one overarching theme of the protests currently engulfing the globe: anger towards the ruling elite. From Iraq to Chile, Hong Kong to Haiti, demonstrators say political and economic institutions aren’t working for the masses or representing their interests.

And in all this turmoil people want their voices to be valued – and not heard only in relation to violence.

IT’S ironic, then, that so many of these rebellions appear by-and-large leaderless.

Few are set out in manifestos or thrashed out in party meetings, but instead emerge on social media.

These are uprisings that are convened by smartphone and inspired by hashtags, rather than guided by party leaders and slogans drafted by central committees.

In some cases, individuals have risen to the forefront of protest movements, using social media to get their message across.

Social media also allows a movement in one place to take inspiration from news of revolts in another

In Catalonia in late September, the grassroots group Assemblea Nacional Catalana even held a public forum titled, “Experiences of the use of new technologies in the nonviolent struggle: the case of Hong Kong.”

The protests in Catalonia have been in part co-ordinated by an anonymous online platform known as Tsunami Democratic and the expertise and influence of the Hong Kong protesters is widely acknowledged.

“The Hong Kong people have done a very good job in letting everybody else know about their fight through social networks,” admitted a representative of Picnic X Republica, a digital platform to mobilise Catalans for political action.

“These are the first lessons we have learned from them: the use of these tools to mobilise the people and keep them informed,” the representative added.

Across the world, demonstrators are using similar technologies to organise and spread their messages.

Messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption – such as Telegram – are hard to spy on and are very popular and useful for movements often without discernible leaders.

In Egypt, where demonstrations last month were relatively small yet significant in their rarity, the catalyst of dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was an Egyptian posting videos from Spain.

So what do all these protests tell us? Is the world at some kind of pivotal moment where civil society is reshaping the establishment, as it did to some extent in the late 1960s?

There’s no doubt that inequality, corruption, and political freedoms seem to lie at their core and this before the issue of climate change is factored in to the numbers of protests right now.

There is of course historical precedence. About 50 years ago a massive wave of protests swept across Europe and the United States, and 50 years before then, immediately following World War I, there was a similar period of international upheaval.

But for a spark to turn into something bigger, there needs to be “a much wider lack of trust in the political elite, a feeling of crisis of authority, and a wide variety of grievances and feelings of discontent,” says John Chalcraft, professor of Middle East history and politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

That’s the case in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong, Chalcraft added, speaking recently. These are now “sustained protest movements, continuing even after their initial grievance has been met.”

In many places too especially in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong, one common factor is that the people protesting are more often than not young, educated and frustrated.

To date these myriad protests raging across the world haven’t brought down a government, though in some places they are coming close.

The costs too, not only in economic loss but also in blood, could still rise exponentially

“The common theme is one of timing and circumstance,” says American academic Jeremi Suri, author of Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente.

He believes that this is a time of tempering and testing mature democracies that will not go smoothly, and even less so in places where democracy is not yet fully embedded.

“It’s a shift in power from the old to young. Mature democracies can handle the shock, but in regimes where there is less space for diverse points of view these protests are met with an authoritarian response,” Suri told the Financial Review newspaper recently.

With big demographic shifts, significant changes in communications technology, and a distinct lack of inspiring leadership, things seem set to become even more volatile and fiery.

The world might indeed have always been burning since it started turning, as the lyrics of Billy Joel’s song suggests.

But right now there’s no shortage of those willing to fan the flames and throw petrol on the fire if it helps bring about change.