What Occupy Wall Street Should Learn From the Arab Spring


Following the Egyptian revolution is reminiscent of watching Lebron James: Majestically beautiful and supremely powerful in the first half, yet frustratingly passive and spectacularly disappointing in the second. 

Of all the movements that have sprung up across the globe, the revolution in Egypt is the most revealing about the triumphs and pitfalls of sustaining a movement. The Egyptian people have displayed moments of profound dexterity but have seemingly faltered at key moments down the line. 

Occupy Wall Street would be wise to learn from Egypt's successes and failures by quickly moving to tighten and condense their overall message. 

In its nascent days, the Occupy Wall Street movement was prudent in sticking with the early blueprint laid out by the Egyptian revolutionaries. Like in Egypt, the protesters shrewdly chose an iconic setting for their encampments and a much-maligned establishment at which to vent their frustrations. Like in Egypt, the protesters promised inclusivity, offering both an open forum for dialogue and vehicle for people to voice their grievances. The movement was not organized by one single leader, but by the galvanized masses of people who were upset with the status quo and desired to impact change. 

These were their flashes of brilliance that we could excitedly get behind. Regrettably, this is where Occupy Wall Street diverged from Egypt's model and where the similarities end and perils arise. 

The Egyptian uprising didn't have one de facto head in large part because no one exceptional voice was needed. The people had one goal: depose Mubarak. Of course the reasons why different factions believed Mubarak needed to be ousted varied, yet people of all religious and socioeconomic backgrounds were willing to work together for the singular cause of defeating Mubarak. One unified message trumped any differences during the battle for Tahrir.

The Occupy movement doesn't have such a unifying luxury and has failed so far to develop one. 

The banks have borne the brunt of the blame, but demonstrators are angry over a variety of societal ills. College loans and the increasing student debt, a failing health care system, a desire to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and legalizing pot have all drawn the ire of protestors and been featured prominently on signs and in chants during the month-long movement. 

Until such objections are condensed into one core message, the effectiveness of the protests will be insufficient to the tens of thousands who are motivated by and supportive of the movement. 

Organizers contend that limiting the breadth of the topics covered excludes many groups and opinions. Such a sentiment is indeed noble and all views should be in some form accounted for, however a cacophony of voices may inadvertently drown and dilute the larger anger towards Wall Street. 

As the protests against Wall Street enter their second month, new ideas unrelated to financial regulation or money in politics continue to be tossed around and added to the list injustices. The movement needs to find a delicate equilibrium between wanting to be inclusive and losing control of the message. 

Egypt’s protesters weren’t able to strike such a balance and have lost their supremacy after fracturing over religious and socio-economic lines. As tensions mount and outsiders attempt to further divide the revolutionaries, finding common ground has become more and more difficult. If Occupy Wall Street isn’t quick to organize they may face a similar fate before they can ever have their Feb 11th impact.

As is evidenced by the now-stalled protests in Egypt, opportunities can appear and disappear in an instant. In a 24-hour capricious news cycle, momentum can vanish or even turn critical at any moment. 

Protests have one chance to capitalize and extend their 15 minutes of fame and make the most of the occasion. If too many independent and disparate topics are thrown at the American people all at once, the public will reject and dismiss the protests as bitter and unorganized, incapable of affecting real change. Look no further than the protests in Bahrain and Yemen as examples of the public's losing interest and the media's moving on.

Egyptians were victorious in ousting Mubarak because the people were relentless and the message concentrated and clear. For the Occupy Wall Street protesters, using their clout to bring about an end to unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns or strict regulations on derivatives trading would not be singular end results, but a legislative success on which to build a platform to sustain their mission.   

Demonstrators must realize that unlike the banks, their movement is not too big to fail but rather may fail because it is too big. As the protests enter a key stage, they must look to Egypt as both an ideal model and a warning of what could go wrong.

Photo Credit: Magharebia