The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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The Xebbajtuna Protest

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 1 June 2023, 07:33 Last update: about 12 months ago

Last Saturday’s ‘Xebbajtuna’ protest, organised by 8 Environmental NGOs and supported by around 80 organisations across civil society, was characterised by a large crowd, a Moviment Graffitti-style festival of sound and banners, as well as speeches by some of the current protagonists of Malta’s environmental movement. Apart from ENGO and local activists, this also included 2 Labour mayors.

The protest ticked many important boxes regarding protest organisation and social movement activism. It presented a cause which has been topping the civil society activism agenda for decades. It involved a run-up campaign with other smaller protests and public statements; it comprised a core of social movement organisations as well as a myriad of on the ground networking and support from other organisations and individuals, representing a plurality of grieviances. It networked with different media/social media platforms, and thus had a strong digital element.  It featured a community among a good number of activists who are well-versed in the repertoire of protest. Incidentally, it was also held a few days before the court decision on the controversial DB project, perhaps to present a show of force, unless it was a coincidence.

This does not mean that this national protest, or others, for the matter, did not have its challenges. For example, some of the most effective environmental protest campaigns in Malta (and elsewhere) were focused on a specific localised issues, rather than on a broad call for environmental reform. Broad protest demands can sometimes act like double-edged swords: On the one hand, you can unite a coalition of different voices and interests. But on the other hand, there may be disagreements on policy and strategy, as well as lack of interest from people who do not perceive themselves to be directly impacted by one environmental grieviance or another.  

There may also be social interactions taking place in the backstage of protest, namely in the run-up and organisation on the event, which in itself usually represents a process. For example, without a good number of activists working and networking on matters such as mobilization, aesthetics, sound, logistics and public relations, it would be very difficult to have a protest such as last Saturday’s.

Another challenge often encountered in such activism would be how to manage internal disagreements, which can relate to various factors, such as organisational turf, different personalities, different ideological orientations, and different strategic goals. There could also be disagreement, for example, on the degree of involvement of political parties and/or elements within them. There is no magic formula to such challenges, but there are many campaigns which were won also due to the fact that coalitions with party exponents were carried out – thus possibly having a possible impact on electoral votes in particular constituencies.

From my own previous experience in activism and politics and my own sociological research on social movements and politics, I can conclude that the environment has been the most consistent protest issue in the recent years, together with the call for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia. In both instances, you find social networked activism and commitment which enables relative longevity of these campaigns, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The success of such campaigns depends on various factors and interpretations. These range from raising public awareness (including within silent majorities) to having policy changes (from specific laws to change in government). But they may also include less ‘direct’ changes which are also socially significant – such as the building of personal biographies and communities who pursue journeys with ups and downs, obstacles, opportunities, intended and unintended consequences. The activism of these communities is vital for protests, and so is their engagement with society and politics at-large.


Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

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