From bringing down Ben Ali to fixing up Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protesters are now in their second month of camping out in New York City’s financial district to make a statement against corporate greed and economic inequality. They have inspired offshoots across the US and around the world. Along the way, these demonstrators have continuously drawn parallels between the Occupy movement and Egypt’s uprising that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak.

Tactically and philosophically, both movements represent a return to street politics that gives voice to those removed from power by claiming public space for political discussion. These commonalities create a sense of solidarity and mutual inspiration across borders and cultures. That may be just what the Occupy movement needs to give it strength, activists and analysts say.

In recent weeks, there have been more and more efforts to build links between protest movements around the world.

On Monday, Asmaa Mahfouz, an Egyptian activist who participated in the 25 January revolution, visited the encampment in New York to offer her words of encouragement. “Many US residents were in solidarity with us. So, we have to keep going all over the world, because another world is possible for all of us,” Mahfouz told the New York-based independent news program Democracy Now!

On Tuesday, a collective of Cairo-based activists released their own statement of solidarity with the Occupy movement: “We are now in many ways involved in the same struggle. What most pundits call 'The Arab Spring’ has its roots in the demonstrations, riots, strikes and occupations taking place all around the world; its foundations lie in years-long struggles by people and popular movements.”

Some Egyptian protesters are planning a march Friday from Cairo's Tahrir Square to the US Embassy in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, whose protesters were forcibly dispersed with tear gas earlier this week.

The protesters in New York echo the collective’s statement, seeing themselves as different, but part of a similar fight.

“We’re in the same struggle for something,” says Anup Desai, a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street. “It’s a movement of movements.” The movements all seem to have the same opposition to the established systems of political and economic power and decision-making processes.

That movement of movements is not only taking place in Egypt and New York’s financial district. Since January massive protests have erupted in Greece, Spain, Chile, India, Israel and across the Arab world. Each has its own local context – demonstrations are against corruption in India, austerity cuts in Greece, high living costs in Israel, for example – but it is no coincidence that they are occurring at the same time.

“Certainly the global recession is the trigger, but there is a broader structural shift,” says Michael D. Kennedy, a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University in the US. “There is more and more power concentrated in global financial sectors that are increasingly distant from democratic regulation.”

Kennedy adds: “These occurrences happen in sequence. Clearly what happened in Tunisia and Cairo inspire the world. It inspires the world when the world recognized that it’s not if you have free elections or not, but if you have control over those decisions that happen off the democratic table.”

Economy is key issue

While Occupy Wall Street and the Arab uprisings have distinctly different goals – financial reform and regime change, respectively – many believe that they are both rooted in opposition to exclusivist economic systems.

“If you ask me today if capitalism and neoliberalism work, my answer would be: look around you. The world is rising up against the problems of this system now,” says Egyptian Solidarity and Social Justice Minister Gouda Abdel Khaleq.

Sameh Naguib, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, agrees that a failure of the economic system is at the root of the uprisings around the world. “The Arab revolutions are by nature a part of the global upheaval against the mal-effects of neoliberalism,” Naguib says, referring to the extreme free-market doctrine that has come to dominate international economics since the 1980s. 

Naguib believes that the dominance of neoliberal policies eventually led to the economic crisis of 2008, alerting people to the need for a core change in economic policies. 

Egypt’s oligarchic regime accrued massive individual wealth under the guise of increased growth figures and an integration into the global marketplace. Wall Street executives were also able to divert attention from the eventually disastrous effects of the financial system in which they work, with high growth figures and return on revenue. Now, business executives continue to receive exorbitant salaries and bonuses, while the American middle class pays for their irresponsible policies.

“Activists in America are realizing that suffering and iniquity do not come about merely due to a lack of democracy, it has a direct relation to how the economies are run,” says Wael Khalil, a prominent anti-globalization activist who believes that each movement harnesses energy from the next. 

But the commonalities between the global protest movements from the Arab world to Wall Street and beyond are not just about economic change. They are also about a larger feeling of disenfranchisement. A concentration of political power has accompanied the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and these global protests have been an opportunity to make the average person's voice heard, protesters say.

“At the end of the day all of the protests [in 2011] represent a victory for the common man, who is excluded from main decisions that affect his well-being due to his distance from the economic and political centers of power,” Khalil says.

People power reborn

Activists around the world have not been coy in acknowledging the effect the Tahrir Square sit-in has had in helping them form their tactics. Desai says that the Occupy movement in the US has learned tactics and strategy from watching Egyptian and Arab protesters.

In addition to exchanging strategies, the global protest movements have also gathered inspirational strength from one another.

“The global movements revived activists’ faith in direct democracy,” says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an independent journalist who has reported on both the Arab uprisings and the Occupy movement.

However, one potential criticism the movements draw is their perceived lack of cohesion and common definition. Activists, though, believe that the underlying aspects are the same and cause for unity in the moment. “People realize that other people are going through similar issues,” says Desai. “They said, ‘Wait. This is something that is happening to a lot of people,' and they got together [to make a change].”

Activists believe that the move to direct democracy, rather than relying on strictly political systems, is an important one in a world where money and power are inextricably linked, raising questions about the efficacy of Western-style electoral systems.

“What you do in these spaces is neither as grandiose and abstract nor as quotidian as ‘real democracy;’ the nascent forms of praxis and social engagement being made in the occupations avoid the empty ideals and stale parliamentarianism that the term democracy has come to represent. And so the occupations must continue, because there is no one left to ask for reform,” the Egyptian activists wrote in their statement to the Occupy movement.

The Occupy movement has made it clear that it intends to transcend the United States’ partisan politics and engage in a new kind of citizenship that is less reliant on parties and campaigns. That may be the movement’s strength. And while many questions continue to linger about how successful Egypt’s transition to democracy will be, popular protests should continue to provide an outlet for civic engagement where elections fail.

“That’s where the impact of the uprisings is to be found: the continuing influence of popular assemblies, referenda and protests,” says Kennedy.

Protesters around the world can also gain strength from working together and engaging in solidarity, Kennedy says. “There’s an opportunity to think globally, not just locally,” he says, adding, for example, that members of the global movements could travel from protest to protest and help develop a coherent message about the concentration of power.

And activists themselves are already working on making connections. On 15 October, thousands of people around the world took part in coordinated protests. Another global day of action is planned for 29 October.

As protesters’ demands and goals become increasingly globalized, the onus will be on organizers and activists, like Mahfouz and the collective that wrote the statement, to remind themselves and each other of the worldwide connections between their movements.

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