Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

How Wall Street protesters followed the Egyptian path

First came the Arab Spring, then protests in Spain, Portugal, France, Israel – now even the US, where those who believed in Barack Obama are suffering buyers' remorse.

Before January of this year, most Americans had forgotten the oddball 1986 jingle-jangle pop hit by The Bangles, whose title and chorus urged listeners to "Walk like an Egyptian".

But the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak brought that idea back with a vengeance: "Walk Like an Egyptian" became a popular slogan on placards born at demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, in March, as that state's teachers and public sector workers fought to stop a Republican governor from banning trade unions for state employees.

And since then, references to Tahrir Square have become a leitmotif in social justice demonstrations across the western world. For the past two weeks, a growing number of young Americans have tried to turn Wall Street into their own Tahrir Square, drawing support from kindred spirits in at least 12 other American cities.

Their grievances are many, as are their (often vague) demands. But they reflect growing anger at a system perceived to have mortgaged the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of working people to prop up bankers and billionaires. The protesters are demanding accountability, and they're demanding a decent life in the face of the growing social inequality that has taken hold over the past three decades in the United States. The Wall Street movement is nothing like the Tea Party, funded by billionaires and run by upper-middle class people looking to protect their wealth from taxes; instead, they're the American chapter of a global challenge to the economic status quo over the past year that has spanned Madrid, Athens, Lisbon, Santiago, Tel Aviv, Paris - and, of course, Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.

But hang on a minute - Europeans, Israelis, Chileans and Americans all have the right to vote, why would they follow the example of disenfranchised Egyptians, who took to the street because they had no other way to change their government?

Don't try that argument with those down at Wall Street, where those that put their faith in President Barack Obama's promises of change are suffering a massive case of buyer's remorse - and believe that the entire political system is beholden to corporate power. Indeed, Mr Obama may have promised profound changes in Washington's priorities and practices, but once in the White House he operated in the same matrix of long-established corporate, political and security power centres as his predecessors, and with a remarkable degree of continuity. Having won office with a message of "change we can believe in," one Obama aide told journalists questioning his appointment of a cabinet full of longtime Washington insiders, "Obama is the change. Right now what America is looking for in a cabinet is competence, expertise and credibility." In other words, continuity.

That's why the street protests in American cities represent a mounting danger to Mr Obama. He's never going to be toppled like a Mubarak, but he was elected president on a promise of change and must now convince the same voters to re-elect him in the belief that his status quo is making things better despite the fact that their lives are actually getting worse.

And the peril, for Mr Obama, lies in the fact that the demonstrators demanding changes far more profound than any an Obama presidency could countenance are the very same people whose activist energies he'd have hoped to harness to power his reelection campaign.

Instead, the protesters on Wall Street and other parts of the US reflect a growing awareness - shared with young people throughout the West - that voting can change very little unless voters are also willing to take to the streets to hold their governments accountable.

Even if the "Occupy Wall Street" movement fizzles for lack of a clear focus and set of demands, the phenomenon is likely to recur. Children of the middle class throughout the western world are contemplating a slide into poverty amid austerity policies that cut spending on education and basic services but do little to stimulate growth in job markets.

The courage of the young Egyptians who drove out Mr Mubarak has inspired young Americans to take to the streets in search of hope and dignity amid growing economic despair and degradation. Conversely, the Americans' scepticism of a democratic system whose decision making is remote from the citizenry and structurally in thrall to powerful corporate and Wall Street interests may have something to teach their Egyptian peers.

Just as young Americans have learnt that they made a mistake by sitting back while Mr Obama went behind closed doors with his mandate for "change" rather than (at least until two weeks ago) keeping the pressure on by continuing to mobilise and press for specific policies, so have the Egyptians who drove out Mubarak been asked to put their trust in a council of generals who promise to complete the "revolution" and orchestrate a transition to democracy.

The shape of that transition is discussed behind closed doors, with chosen interlocutors. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appears to be imposing its own agenda, using the language of the revolution even as it continues to repress it through continuing detentions, kangaroo court-trials and reviving Mr Mubarak's hated emergency laws. The question of how democratic the outcome of Egypt's transition proves to be will depend, once again, on the extent of leverage the organised and active citizenry can muster to press the generals towards democracy.

The political situations in the US and Egypt are dramatically different, but in both places, young people seeking change are learning the importance of holding accountable those that they've helped into power, and making sure that the voices of the street are heard through the closed doors of executive decision making.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron