It was pretty incredible to be in Egypt learning about one of the key uprisings of the Arab Spring and simultaneously watching from afar as the “American Autumn” got underway back here at home.
I was in Cairo meeting with revolutionaries and organizers all last week as part of an Organizers Forum, and kept being amazed by the passion and dedication of the Egyptian people we met with. I kept wondering how we can make a large-scale, nationwide peaceful uprising happen here in the USA. And then, it seems, it did.
Given that the organizers of Occupy Wall Street are explicitly taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, it’s probably no surprise that I see some interesting parallels between what I learned about the 18-day occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the occupation of Wall Street, now on its 18th day. The most important being that the organizers of Occupy Wall Street aren’t trying to lead a peaceful uprising, they’re trying to start one. That’s an important distinction. It’s a model that worked across the Middle East last Spring. Don’t tell the people how to stand up for their rights, show them how and then let their energies and passion flourish.
So allow me to humbly present to anyone who wants to help build momentum for the American Autumn my key observations from my meetings with the revolutionary youth of Egypt, and some of the lessons I think can be drawn from them:
The Occupy Wall Street website says it is a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions.” Being leaderless makes the movement more democratic and all-inclusive, which is great, as it supports the general message: “We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” But being leaderless can also become a liability.
Having no visible leaders was a deliberate tactic of the Egyptian revolutionary movement as well — it meant there was no clear target for the Mubarak regime to take out. While the regime desperately looked for a leader it could remove to hobble the movement, the revolution’s organizers were busy building the popular support that would force Mubarak from office. But it also meant that when Mubarak had stepped down and the military came to the revolutionaries to negotiate, there was no one to step up and become the revolution’s figurehead and present their demands. This was the catch 22 of the Egyptian revolution. It meant that the military was able to step in and take control pending parliamentary and presidential elections — elections that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appears to be doing everything it can to control and dominate.
Occupy Wall Street is not trying to topple quite the same type of dictatorship as what existed in Egypt, so it’s probably hard to draw any direct lessons from the Egyptian Revolution in this regard. Occupy Wall Street isn’t calling for regime change so much as system change: “we can no longer afford to let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation.” To be truly effective, the momentum Occupy Wall Street is gaining across the nation needs to be directed at some tangible demand set, so I’m stoked to see that one is already being established and tactics for making sure Congress votes on the demands are already being considered. Even better, you can go read about and vote on the Occupy Wall Street demand set right now.
Hopefully there are some spokespeople ready to step forward and sell these demands to the American populace as a whole once they’ve been placed before Congress. Otherwise… well, we all know what happens to good legislation when it gets to the American Congress. The American people are going to have to stay on our elected representatives’ asses.
After being kidnapped and murdered by the police, Khaled Said became a symbol of the oppression and brutality that the Egyptian people had suffered for three decades under former President/dictator Hosni Mubarak. There were labor and community organizers working across Egypt during those decades, of course, and without the base of support they built the occupation of Tahrir Square might not have been sustainable long enough to bring Mubarak down. But the murder of Khaled Said was the flashpoint, the final straw that made so many Egyptians say enough is enough and rise up against the repressive regime.
There is no central symbol that is driving opposition to Wall St.’s greed and undue influence over our democracy. That is probably okay. We all know someone who’s been put out of their home, or lost their entire savings, or been out of work for years now thanks to the entirely avoidable economic collapse manufactured by the unbridled greed and arrogance of Wall St. We’re all fed up with the way things are going in our country. But to really get the masses out, a good symbolic rallying cry — such as “We Are All Khaled Said”— can go a long way. It took 2 million protesters in Tahrir Square to force Mubarak out. I don’t know how many folks are occupying Wall St. right now, but we could always use more, I’m sure.
I’m not saying let’s try and manufacture a symbol to rally around — that would almost certainly fail. But since there’s no single symbol for this struggle, we should all be promoting the symbols we’ve found in our lives and those we find online as much as possible. Even if no central symbol emerges, the more we share stories iconic of our struggle, the more it will help drive the point home to as many folks as possible. The We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr is a good place to start.
The Tahrir Square occupation was incredibly well-structured. The revolutionary oranizers coordinated security, food, health care, and outreach teams to keep the occupation as safe and sustainable as possible. They basically operated as a small city within the city, ensuring the occupation could hold out until their demand that Mubarak step down was met.
I’m still catching up on what’s been happening on Wall St., so maybe this kind of organization has all been going on. But I thought the degree to which the occupation in Tahrir Square was organized and functional as a micro-society was pretty interesting. They had security checkpoints to even get into the square, complete with a secret knock you had to know to be let in. This kept out the troublemakers you’d expect to show up, like counterrevolutionaries, police informants, and hoodlums just looking to cause trouble. Given that black-masked, violent thugs like to show up at most protests in the States these days, I’m hoping the organizers of Occupy Wall Street are taking similar measures to ensure the security of the entire occupation for the long haul.
When you’re in Cairo talking with folks, you hear the phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same” quite a bit. That’s because all of the government ministers are still Mubarak appointees. There’s a lot of frustration with the pace of change. So I asked why the occupation of Tahrir Square didn’t continue until the entire regime was forced to step down. There were a lot of reasons, from people needing to get back to work to feed their families after 18 days in the square, to Mubarak shutting down transportation and other vital services to make life harder on everyone.
But another explanation I was given by one revolutionary youth leader was pretty interesting: He told me that theirs was a peaceful revolution, and there were limits to what they could actually accomplish. Had it been a violent revolution, they could have stormed the halls of power and dragged Mubarak along with all of his corrupt ministers off to jail (or worse), then replaced the corrupt regime with whatever government the revolutionaries wanted. But it was important to the organizers of the Egyptian revolution that they assert their rights and take back their country through peaceful means, and they are to be highly commended for sticking to this principle so assiduously.
What this means, though, is that the occupation of Tahrir Square may be over, but the Egyptian Revolution is still underway. In fact, the hard part may have just begun. They need to change the entire mindset of the country, from one of living under an oppressive dictatorship to one where everyone participates in the democratic process (Egyptians are acutely aware that in their country’s entire 7,000-year history, they’ve never had a democratic government). They need to beat back forces, like the military and the wealthy classes, that want to seize power for themselves and perhaps preserve some of the old structures that made them rich and powerful. And while doing all this, they need to organize the NGOs and build support for the political parties that are carrying the ideals of the revolution forward. No small task.
No matter what the outcome of the Wall Street occupation is, the hard work will have only just begun once the occupation ends. Even during the occupation of Tahrir Square, outreach teams were going cafe to cafe to talk with Egyptians about the fact that Mubarak was only a figurehead for the regime, that the corruption went all the way down to every level of the government, and that the real work would begin after he stepped down. We need to be similarly prepared, and similarly getting the message out: Once Occupy Wall Street has presented its demands to Congress, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure Congress actually acts on them and, more importantly, passes them into law to keep Wall Street from continuing to destroy our planet and our democracy in the name of profits.