Written by Mike G for Rainforest Action Network
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 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.
Photo from _PaulS_ via flickr
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