From Egypt to Wall Street

Wendell Hassan Marsh on the links between the Wisconsin protests, the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 26, 2013

For­mer Egypt­ian pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak had already stepped down, fol­low­ing a pop­u­lar move­ment that estab­lished a micro-republic, the Gumhuriyyah el-Tahrir (Repub­lic of Lib­erty), which con­tra­dicted the per­vad­ing logic of the inter­na­tional eco­nomic sys­tem. And now pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin were occu­py­ing the state house to pre­vent the pass­ing of leg­is­la­tion that would effec­tively sus­pend bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic work­ers. Sit­ting in a Wash­ing­ton news­room, we needed a head­line. I very quickly sug­gested some­thing along these lines: “Mid­dle East unrest spreads to the Mid­west.” I got a side eye. After all, how could a free and open soci­ety, the demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety, be tak­ing its cues from, of all places, Egypt, an antique land with back­ward ways, Islamic fun­da­men­tal­ists, and Arab dic­ta­tors? The edi­tors went with a more mod­est title.

How­ever, for many in the Arab world, the con­nec­tion was not lost for a minute. They saw in the occu­pa­tion of the Wis­con­sin State Capi­tol the same spirit that was present in Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation: the refusal to accept the finan­cial order’s demand to oblit­er­ate decades of pro­gres­sive strug­gle and negotiation.

Maybe my own time in Cairo made me see the easy con­nec­tion that my edi­tors missed. I lived there for a almost a year and a half on the largess of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. The con­di­tions of my pres­ence were a reminder of the struc­tural inequal­i­ties of the global sys­tem. Any old Amer­i­can can arrive to the air­port with­out a visa, lit­tle train­ing in any use­ful domain and quickly find gain­ful employ­ment and a life of com­fort. An Egypt­ian, how­ever, even with years of edu­ca­tion, has to strug­gle to make a living.

As many set out today to occupy every­thing, let us take a moment to remem­ber the real ori­gins of this global move­ment and allow it to guide our ongo­ing politics.

Deep in the land of Han­ni­bal the Carthagin­ian, who once chal­lenged the power of another global empire, Bouaz­izi was born to a con­struc­tion worker, liv­ing his entire life in Sidi Bouzid, an agrar­ian town. The 26-year-old scraped together an exis­tence for him­self and a large fam­ily by sell­ing fruit. Rel­a­tively speak­ing, he did well to have even that hus­tle, as the New York Times reported that unem­ploy­ment reaches as high as 30% in his area. There was a nearby fac­tory, but that only pays around $50 a month. Even the col­lege edu­cated were head­ing to the coast, where they too strug­gled with underemployment.

A vet­eran fruit ven­dor, Bouaz­izi was used to the author­i­ties that policed the fruit stands. Some­times he paid a fine, other times a bribe. But on the morn­ing of Decem­ber 17, Bouaz­izi refused to do either. He also refused an attempted con­fis­ca­tion of his fruit, com­modi­ties that are often bought on credit by the para-legal ven­dors. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the state even­tu­ally won the first bat­tle. Beaten and humil­i­ated, Bouaz­izi quickly tried redress­ing his griev­ances at the governor’s office, request­ing that, at the least, his scale be returned. Ignored at the governor’s, he was reported to ask, “how do you expect me to make a liv­ing?” He set him­self ablaze and ignited a global movement.

Protests started hours after the inci­dent. Bouazizi’s fam­ily and friends threw coins at the governor’s gate. “Here is your bribe,” they yelled. As the unrest grew, police started to beat pro­test­ers, fir­ing tear gas and even­tu­ally bul­lets. But the spirit wouldn’t be sti­fled. Orga­nized labor joined in the strug­gle, iden­ti­fy­ing the cen­tral prob­lem as eco­nomic. After all, it was global cap­i­tal that had denied Bouaz­izi and his sup­port­ers their dig­nity; it extracted sur­plus value from human objects down to the last drop of blood.

For­mer colo­nial power France offered to lend a hand with its secu­rity savoir-faire. Or maybe they would have just hired a pri­vate firm to han­dle the con­tract. Later acknowl­edg­ing the mis­step, Sarkozy tried to jus­tify his government’s sup­port of the author­i­tar­ian regime with reveal­ing, if trite, argu­ments. “Behind the eman­ci­pa­tion of women, the drive for edu­ca­tion and train­ing, the eco­nomic dynamism, the emer­gence of a mid­dle class, there was a despair, a suf­fer­ing, a sense of suf­fo­ca­tion. We have to recog­nise that we under­es­ti­mated it,” Sarkozy said in a press con­fer­ence.

Sarkozy under­es­ti­mated the effect that the “eco­nomic dynamism” of the rul­ing elite had on the major­ity of the coun­try. He under­es­ti­mated the dimin­ished eco­nomic prospects that resulted from Tunisia’s decreased agri­cul­tural and man­u­fac­tur­ing exports to Europe. He under­es­ti­mated the Tunisian people’s reac­tion in the face of poten­tial anni­hi­la­tion by eco­nomic violence.

The move­ment quickly spread to nearby Egypt, where con­di­tions have been even worse, the socio-economic divide between the top 1% and the rest even more dra­matic. Sev­eral self-immolations occurred through­out the coun­try, prompt­ing the Cheikh of al Azhar, the most respected insti­tu­tion in the Sunni Islamic world, to issue a fatwa against the prac­tice. Youth with degrees but with­out jobs started to occupy Tahrir Square, to call for the dig­nity that global neolib­eral poli­cies had denied them. They took the recent tac­tics of Egypt’s young but grow­ing labor move­ment and added others.

When Mubarak, whose 30-year reign had been marked by the open­ing of the coun­try to West­ern busi­ness inter­ests, started to crack down on the pro­test­ers as the empire’s strong man, the peo­ple said he had to go. The pub­lic began to protest against dic­ta­tor­ship, but only inso­far as they were protest­ing the global eco­nomic empire.

Some­how a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive has emerged in our media that the Arab spring protested against dic­ta­tor­ship, against mur­der­ous regimes. These pop­u­lar strug­gles have been reduced to rebel­lions against the vil­lainies of a Qaddafi, an Assad, a Saleh.

But the Arab Spring started as a protest against global finance and its hench­men. Almost across the board, pro­test­ers claim­ing pub­lic space were demand­ing mostly eco­nomic reforms. It was only after Arab dic­ta­tors, whose decen­nial rules offered up their coun­tries to the jaws of the global mar­ket, started to repress this pop­u­lar strug­gle with vio­lence, that dic­ta­tor­ship became the tar­get of regime change.

Occupy Wall Street and the sub­se­quent Occupy move­ment were ini­ti­ated in the same spirit of eco­nomic jus­tice. Zuc­cotti Park, iron­i­cally taken and renamed Lib­erty Plaza by its occu­piers, is a micro-republic where the logic of empire doesn’t work. Peo­ple take pride in dis­com­fort, in being arrested and work­ing for free. Altru­ism has become nor­ma­tive and hier­ar­chy repug­nant. To be sure, there is inner dis­sent and strug­gle within the body politic of the micro-republic. Nev­er­the­less, the audac­ity to live a utopian prac­tice has become lib­er­at­ing in itself.

Yet this move­ment can’t con­tent itself with grant­ing young peo­ple the right to take on more debt to live the lives the world can’t sus­tain, or reform­ing the way can­di­dates fund their cam­paigns. The despo­tism that west­ern pow­ers decry in the name of human rights is a symp­tom of a wider sys­tem of eco­nomic exploita­tion, which at home man­i­fests itself in the attack on the Amer­i­can work­ing and mid­dle class. They are connected.

The repres­sive mea­sures states use against their own pop­u­la­tions has also been imported from the Mid­dle East. A recent post by Max Blu­men­thal con­nects the dots behind recent alarm­ing exam­ples of social con­trol and police militarization:

The police repres­sion on dis­play in Oak­land reminded me of tac­tics I wit­nessed the Israeli army employ against Pales­tin­ian pop­u­lar strug­gle demon­stra­tions in occu­pied West Bank vil­lages like Nabi Saleh, Ni’lin and Bilin. So I was not sur­prised when I learned that the same com­pany that sup­plies the Israeli army with tear­gas rounds and other weapons of mass sup­pres­sion is sell­ing its dan­ger­ous wares to the Oak­land police. The com­pany is Defense Tech­nol­ogy, a Casper, Wyoming based arms firm that claims to “spe­cial­ize in less lethal tech­nol­ogy” and other “crowd man­age­ment prod­ucts.” Defense Tech sells every­thing from rub­ber coated tear­gas rounds that bounce in order to max­i­mize gas dis­per­sal to 40 mil­lime­ter “direct impact” sponge rounds to “spe­cialty impact” 12 gauge rub­ber bullets.

One vet­eran of the war in Iraq knows the effects of the police-sponsored vio­lence first­hand. After being hit by a tear gas can­is­ter launched by the Oak­land Police Depart­ment, Scott Olsen suf­fered a frac­tured skull and a swollen brain. As though that were not enough, video footage shows a police offi­cer throw­ing a flash bang grenade next to the blood­ied man to dis­perse the crowd of peo­ple com­ing to his aid. But such police bru­tal­ity is noth­ing new in Oak­land, home of a rad­i­cal black pol­i­tics that has strug­gled against struc­tural eco­nomic and phys­i­cal vio­lence against the work­ing class, the poor, and minorities.

We should remem­ber that the pol­i­tics forged by the Black Pan­ther Party in the late 1960s and 1970s made deep ties with the anti-imperial projects of North Africa, the hotbed of today’s van­guard move­ment. Alge­ria made the Pan­ther head­quar­ters in Oak­land their embassy, pro­vid­ing a sort of diplo­matic shield against police sur­veil­lance. When Eldridge Cleaver went into exile, Alge­ria hosted him and the inter­na­tional sec­tion of the party. A chap­ter was also cre­ated in Cairo, then, a nerve cen­ter for the world wide free­dom struggle.

Much is rid­ing on the direc­tion of the Occupy move­ment in Amer­ica. While vis­it­ing the Wall Street occu­piers, two of Tahrir’s lead­ing activists empha­sized the impor­tance of the Occupy move­ment for the renewal of the Arab Spring. To Amer­i­cans who asked how they could help the ongo­ing Egypt­ian strug­gle, Asmaa Mah­fouz replied, “get your rev­o­lu­tion done. That’s the biggest help you can give us.” What Mah­fouz was count­ing on was the pos­si­bil­ity that strug­gles in the United States could pres­sure the gov­ern­ment to cut off the $1.3 bil­lion yearly pay­ments that sus­tain Egypt’s military.

Long-time activist Ahmad Maher reminded the crowd of the immense task the Arab Spring con­fronted, and which activists around the world still con­front. An Amer­i­can asked him the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: “how do you over­throw a sys­tem?” Speak­ing as a grass­roots polit­i­cal orga­nizer who has been on the Egypt­ian street for years, Maher replied, “It’s eas­ier to over­throw a dic­ta­tor than an entire system.”

There is a rea­son that the Occupy move­ment does not have a sin­gu­lar mes­sage, tied to one polit­i­cal body; its suc­cess or fail­ure will lie in the degree to which it changes everything.