Tuesday, October 4, 2011

America's Kefaya Moment

I just published this op ed in Bikya Masr about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I argue that the analogy to the Egyptian revolution - one that has been cultivated by the protesters and supported by Egyptians - doesn't make much sense. Rather, the real analogy is to the Kefaya movement's rise in Egypt in 2004. The movement failed to achieve its immediate goals but served as a warning to the regime to reform or face real upheaval in the future. Similarly, these Occupy protests should serve as a warning to American leaders - reform now or there could be major upheaval within the decade.

This morning I decided to take a trip to the Occupy DC sit-in. After flying halfway across the world to visit protests in Tahrir Square, I thought I could manage a 10-minute bus ride downtown. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn't only six guys standing around looking bored.

I was told that "90 percent" of the protesters have day jobs, so I should come back at night when the numbers swell. In addition, "hundreds" of curious people have dropped by expressing their support and even donating food. They are currently trying to reach out to the local community, especially religious groups, to gain support. However, they also expressed their concern that major organizations would swoop in and co-opt their movement.

I explained to them Egyptian protesters have faced similar difficulties. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Egyptian revolution is that it spawned out of nowhere. In fact, Egypt had witnessed ten years of protests, most of them labor driven, before January 25th. Few of them reached large numbers, the notable exception being the Kefaya movement as I discuss in my op ed. It is not uncommon, even after the revolution, to see micro-protests of 10 people hit the streets to demand change.

The guys (and they were all guys) at Occupy DC told me they were optimistic their numbers would begin to increase as awareness grew. They explained they have deliberately avoided formulating demands because "we have to first identify the problem before we talk solutions." I'm not sure that complaining about grievances will swell their ranks though. The Egyptian revolution succeeded due to the simplicity its demands: "The people want the fall of the regime." If the Occupy movement wants bigger numbers, they'll need to find a similarly unifying slogan.

But even if the movement fails - and I do think it'll peter out - it constitutes one more example of Americans saying "Kefaya!" or "Enough!" If our economy and politics don't improve, this won't be the last time Americans descend into the streets to shout kefaya!.

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