With Occupy Wall Street fighting for its life, Yahia Lababidi says that by supporting each other, Egyptian and US protesters can make the impossible possible.
Egyptians, as I’ve known them and grown up among them, have always been able to differentiate between governments and people – their own and others. This is true of Egyptians BR and PR (Before Revolution and After Revolution). They may be illiterate, but they are also shrewd. They may be uneducated, but they are not uninformed. Of course, the Revolution accelerated this and served as a crash course in political awareness because suddenly people discovered they could actually do something and participate in their own governance/destiny.
When last I was there, a few years ago, it was not uncommon to see a group of people gathered at a coffee shop to chat, or smoke or play backgammon while listening to the news on television. Instinctively, they filtered the truth from the propaganda as they sipped their teas, or took a drag on their water pipes. ‘Transparency’, a term much abused, elicited knowing smiles; ‘Freedom’ in any context – of the press, speech, and especially elections – was always considered a bad joke.
Recently, when I made the US my home, I was surprised to discover the extent to which most people here appeared confounded with their government and its policies. Despite Americans being generally better educated and enjoying comparative liberties, to question the powers that be seemed a kind of sacrilege. I suppose this is one of the paradoxes of Democracy – because you are represented, you don’t actually need to participate. In the end, despite the considerable differences in their circumstances, Egyptians and Americans came to share one similar response: apathy. Mercifully, this is no longer so.
Occupy Wall Street protest. Photo by WarmSleepy under a CC Licence
Even before the mass protest known as Occupy Wall Street began to spread from one state to another, Americans were looking to the Middle East revolutions for inspiration. In those first heady days when the Egyptian uprising was unfolding powerfully and peacefully, it was strangely heartening to see protesters, in Madison, Wisconsin, carrying signs referring to Governor Scott Walker as ‘Mubarak of the Midwest’ or ‘Hosni Walker’. Opponents of the Governor’s stance on unions viewed him as dictator, and ‘Mubarak’ had become shorthand for a bully who threatens violence.
Now, with Egyptians experiencing a form of Revolution fatigue, and unable to place their full trust in Military rule to secure the way ahead, it is equally touching to see protesters in Egypt returning the favour by holding up signs declaring “From: Tahrir Square To: New York Square Justice for all. We are the 99%.’ It’s at times like this that it becomes inescapably clear how people are people, everywhere, and that we take courage from one another. Injustice is antithetical to human nature and courage is catching. The way that the fire from a burning man in Tunisia seemed to set an entire region aflame.
With the world increasingly becoming a smaller place, the US protest movement and Middle East upheaval seem to be converging. Just days before the NYPD swept in and evicted them, Occupy Wall Street approved $29,000 to send 20 observers to monitor Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections. This, in response to an invitation sent to the New York occupation from a representative of a coalition of Egyptian civil society monitors requesting their assistance. Here’s the exchange, on Twitter:
@LibertySqGA: “Dear #OWS, we are very moved by the warm welcome we received from you when we visited New York svrl wks ago.” #nycga #ows
@ LibertySqGA: Egyptians are vry proud to have bn the inspiration for yr movement and wish you the best in achieving yr goals.” #nycga #ows
@LibertySqGA: In the spirit of international solidarity,” request we go visit&observe their parliamentary elections! Also tht we send invite to networks.
Granted, the significance of this gesture is a symbolic one, but the ‘OWS Ambassadors’ also suggest that their participation will ‘work to protect and support the civilian monitoring efforts of Egyptian activists on the ground and constitutes a concrete stand against the use of American weapons against peaceful demonstrators’. Who is to say what will actually come of this but, in my humble view, the effects of such acts of solidarity are incalculable. As we are seeing again and again in the Middle East and beyond, when people come together in this way to safeguard their collective values and hopes, anything is possible. Liberty Square is, after all, not only the name of a square in Egypt…