From Tahrir Square to Wall Street

What can "Occupy Wall Street" learn from the activists who took down Hosni Mubarak?


After three weeks of camping out in Lower Manhattan, and with protests now breaking out in other cities throughout the United States, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement has proved it has staying power. It also has an image problem. The movement has been widely portrayed in the U.S. media as a disorganized group of dreadlocked, privileged college students without coherent goals.

But as we’ve seen throughout the Middle East this year, a movement of fed-up, tech-savvy young people can quickly snowball into something more significant. So I spoke with a veteran of the Tahrir Square uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to get his thoughts on what lessons Occupy Wall Street can take from the Arab Spring.

1. You don’t need a leader, but you do need a platform.

Like Occupy Wall Street, there was no one leader of the anti-Mubarak movement. Mosa’ab Elshamy, a medical student and freelance photographer whose Twitter feed became a must-read for those trying to follow the demonstrations, says that a lack of central authority isn’t an issue as long as everyone knows what they’re there for.

"There was strong agreement because there was a common target, which was toppling Hosni Mubarak," Elshamy says. "Nobody thought about whether we are going to have parliamentary elections after, or how we were going to write a constitution or all these fiascoes we have now. These divisions emerged after toppling. But during those days, no one brought these issues up."

Elshamy recalls that the protesters’ list of demands was written on a building-size banner so that "everyone inside and outside the square knew what we wanted."

Watching the protests in New York, Elshamy says it "took me a while to figure out what their demands are." Although there have been a number of proposed manifestos circling online and a declaration of grievances, addressing topics ranging from tax and trade policy to the funding of elections to animal cruelty, it’s still difficult to pinpoint what exactly would constitute a victory for the activists camped out in Zuccotti Park.

Elshamy says the agreed-upon demands need not address the grievances of everyone present, but that in Egypt it was critical that there were "three or four or five that everyone agreed upon."

2. Widen the base.

On the other hand, the goals of the movement also need to be broad enough to attract as wide a base of support as possible, Elshamy says. In Egypt, this meant bringing together groups that would normally be on opposite sides of the country’s cultural divide. "The leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood both equally hated Hosni Mubarak and believed that toppling him was the place to start," he says.

Elshamy acknowledges that finding common ground might be more difficult for Occupy Wall Street, whose aims are not to bring down a widely despised dictator, but bring about reform reform of the political and financial system. He says the two movements, however, share the challenge of proving that their struggle "is not exclusive to the media class."

"You have to appeal to the poor, the middle class, the student, the trade unions, even the police officer who might arrest you later," he says. "That’s why it’s so important to keep the message simple."

A coalition of labor unions joined the occupiers for a march on Oct. 5, so perhaps the message is beginning to spread.

3. Keep it friendly with the police.

Relations between the New York Police Department and the protesters have been highly contentious so far. Over 700 demonstrators were arrested after attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct 2. Protesters have accused the police of using excessive force and have launched name-and-shame campaigns against individual officers accused of abuses.

Although the relationship between demonstrators and police is inherently tense, Elshamy says a bit of kindness can go a long way. "Even when we were being attacked by water hoses, we cheered for the police. This was both ridiculing the attack and making the environment less hostile," he recalls. "We would wave to the police, talk to them, tell them we’re not how the media is portraying us."

All the same, Elshamy dismissed the idea of "some sort of monk revolution where you get attacked and you never reply. In my experience, this never works anymore." He remembers that "when it got really brutal, there was no way the revolution was going to carry on but to self-defend," at which point demonstrators started responding to attacks by pro-regime forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

As for what’s going on in New York, Elshamy says "getting confrontational right now would just generate more negative media attention against them. I would advise them to keep it peaceful."

4. Don’t blame the media; change the narrative.

Occupy Wall Street’s supporters have continually criticized both the dearth of media coverage of their movement and its dismissive tone. "The media has begun dismissing the protesters, calling them delusional, childish hippies," Elshamy says. "This is actually very similar to here in Egypt when the media portrayed protesters as thugs or foreign agents who were getting paid and had other agendas." At one point, Egypt’s state media even suggested that the demonstrators were being brought out to the square by the promise of free buckets of KFC.

The crowd took the charges in stride. Vendors began selling T-shirts reading "I am a thug" and fake pamphlets featuring "foreign agendas." The square’s makeshift medical tent was renamed "KFC hospital."

Most importantly, Elshamy says, is to be as "neutral and friendly as possible with whatever journalist, no matter where he is from."

"There was a stage in Tahrir, about two months ago [during a sit-in against Egypt’s post-Mubarak transitional military government], when protesters started getting really overprotective and would push media away from the square — especially channels they didn’t agree with. Gradually they lost steam and the sit-in in August was dispersed because people were really fed up with it."

5. Keep the energy up.

Revolution is hard work. It took nearly a month of continuous occupation of central Cairo in the dead of winter to force the downfall of Mubarak and many protesters are still demonstrating against the country’s military government. "Whenever there was a possibility that the movement was slowing down, protesters would come up with new ideas to inject more blood into the movement," Elshamy recalls. These included public marches every Friday and sometimes midweek, during which the hard-core demonstrators in Tahrir would be joined by people throughout the city, as well as day-to-day diversions like "concerts, competitions, discussions, speeches from major media figures."

The Wall Street occupiers have had visits from everyone from Roseanne Barr to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, though a rumored concert from Radiohead didn’t pan out. In a movement without a central leader, Elshamy says it’s particularly important for the most active participants to keep everyone else motivated.

Most importantly, he says, "You have to celebrate every gain you make. The fact that the media started paying attention to them is a very positive thing. They have to cherish all of these gains, no matter how small."

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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