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Lessons We Can Learn From Egypt

Egyptians protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square, April 1, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Bruce / The New York Times) “Imagine waking up from a 30-year coma.” This is what an Egyptian activist told us on one of our first nights in Cairo earlier this month, about eight months to the day after the beginning of their successful revolution. I had just arrived, having joined a delegation of organizers on a week-long trip visiting fellow community and labor organizers. I shuddered at the thought – millions of people in a state of hibernation.

“Imagine waking up from a 30-year coma.”

This is what an Egyptian activist told us on one of our first nights in Cairo earlier this month, about eight months to the day after the beginning of their successful revolution. I had just arrived, having joined a delegation of organizers on a week-long trip visiting fellow community and labor organizers. I shuddered at the thought – millions of people in a state of hibernation.

But let's think about that for a second: imagine walking into a local café, having a political conversation with a stranger or someone you know, and afterward being visited by your local police for questioning or detention. Imagine having those nameless, faceless authorities tell you which mosque or church to attend or not attend, because its leaders are spreading “dangerous ideas.” Imagine turning on the television and never being able to hear a word that wasn't approved by a state censor. Imagine elections as a fixed farce where voters are paid for their actions. Imagine corruption as a basic operational norm from the lowest-ranking civil servant up to the Army general and of course, to your president.

So, what does the continuing story of the Egyptian Revolution have to teach us here about our organizing in the United States, especially in this moment of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement?

The images of Tahrir Square still glow in many people's memories: throngs gathered in and around tents at all hours; young and old marching across bridges over the Nile despite being shot or pelted with tear gas canisters; and of the jubilation of millions of people the night that President Mubarak agreed to step down.

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In the wake of such a massive, popular and nonviolent win like the Egyptian Revolution and with the seemingly similar phenomenon of Occupy movements sweeping the US, it is easy to want to sift for gold in the form of organizing lessons. But for a moment, let us also remember that Egypt is simply a different society, economy and country than our own. Just because some lessons look attractive does not mean they are transferable.

That said, the most valuable organizing nugget I carried back with me is the continual necessity for acting and thinking boldly. As an organizer here in the US, I was taught to be pragmatic and practical – go for what you can win in a specific time horizon. As an organizer, we ask leaders to dream, to name the things that hold them back from being happy, free and prosperous. And then, we set limits on those dreams, or cut them into bite-sized chunks that are so small, they sometimes bear little resemblance to the massive, audacious canvas that the leaders first painted for us. We negotiate ourselves down before we even get to the real negotiation table.

Before Egypt, I was taught that politics is the art of the possible. After Egypt, I question whether we should all be reaching for the impossible and ludicrous. Who knows who else might agree? A common call for the laughable and ridiculous widens the possibility for what can and should happen.

I picked up a number of additional lessons during our short time there, after listening to my colleagues:

  • Courage. This point has been made many times, but it bears repeating: the organizers, activists, and anyone else who demonstrated in Tahrir Square and other cities throughout Egypt showed incredible courage. By this I do not simply mean the courage to stand against authorities, but real courage with their own bodies. We quizzed the activists who were there in Cairo for the worst of it, and it was clear that in some cases their sitting before us was an artifact of sheer luck. Many of their friends, acquaintances and family members had been shot, beaten or trampled to death by the police. Over the weeks of the Revolution, the police and other pro-Mubarak parts of the regime killed over 800 activists. Those martyrs are now immortalized in thousands of pieces of street art, all over Cairo. Many, many people marched to the front line against a police squadron or armored car, knowing full well that they were in the last moments of their lives.

    How many of us have been in that kind of situation, or would make that same kind of decision – be it rational or irrational? In how many of our fights have the stakes been so high that we were willing to put our own bodies on the line – not just to get arrested, or our names defamed, but much more?

  • Persistence. Here, I am not alluding to a Nike ad or invoking an adage from my mother – but a simple truth of organizing is that persistence is king. The labor movement, which had to struggle in silence and darkness and misery for years in Egypt, helped sow the seeds of the Revolution. The government, through arrests, torture, and lack of reaction, gave labor organizers and workers little reason and true incentive to keep up their fight. But the organizers and workers stuck at it, knowing how poorly workers were paid and how rife corruption was at state-run and private corporations.
  • The lesson of persistence is true not only before and during the Revolution, but especially after it. For all of the international headlines and joy captured by the Revolution this winter and spring, the newborn civil society in Egypt has really stuck to it, continually agitating for more changes. They fought for and won the trial of their own ex-president; have pushed for and won Parliamentary elections this fall; and rallied for and won the right to form new, independent unions. So much remains undone, and some Egyptian newspapers fear that the country is getting tired of demonstrations. Yet, the continued agitation seems to be the primary reason that the old cobwebs, rot and operating systems of the Mubarak regime are being cleared out.
  • Reclaiming contested or symbolic space as people's space. I don't need to write as much about this, since the people at Occupy Wall Street have already brought this lesson home. Tahrir Square itself is not so much to look at – it is essentially a large traffic circle ringed with things like a KFC and Hardee's. Yet, it is a symbolic heart of Cairo and therefore Egypt: it sits just off the Nile River; some of the most important governmental and party buildings sit on it or overlook it; and the Egyptian Museum (housing the riches of Egypt's oldest civilizations) is right on it. So, the decision to not just demonstrate in, but to permanently demonstrate, occupy and therefore reclaim this symbolic heart of the country was an ingenious decision by the activists. They would occupy Tahrir (“Freedom”) Square and live out its true meaning, rather than the warped contradiction that Egypt had become under the Mubarak regime.
  • Understand where your base is, and embrace it whole-heartedly. I did not meet a single activist in Egypt who thought it was possible to topple Mubarak in our time. Some of them said they dreamed that their movement could build enough steam so that over years they could take out not President Hosni Mubarak, but his son, Gamal Mubarak, who was being groomed to take over the position! When did they hope they could do this? “Maybe after a generation,” the activists replied.
  • Yet, in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution, and the forceful call from prominent Egyptians that Mubarak needed to go, many Egyptian activists got their needed shot in the arm. And in the streets, the call went up: “Out with Mubarak.” And within weeks, that slogan became a legitimate demand, and the demand became a reality.

Despite the palpable sense of excitement, Egypt is clearly in a state of flux and the incoming elected leadership faces no end of challenges. During our visit, we picked up increasing frustration about how long the transition was taking, and the fact that the military council seemed to be settling in for a long and comfortable stay. These frustrations were brought into razor-sharp focus the week of October 16, as the military killed Coptic Christians demonstrating against the continued rule of the military council that was supposed to rule as only a transitional force. An Egyptian organizer told me after this violent crackdown: “We got rid of one Mubarak but we now find ourselves with twenty other Mubaraks [referring to the military council].”

Yet, I have a feeling the Egyptians will continue to awe us – partly since so many of the most involved people are new at this politics and organizing thing, having been shut out of the process for their entire lives. And they showed such courage over minutes, months and years – whether it was in Tahrir Square as the movement surged, or the first real attempts to break through in labor organizing years ago, or since February of this year, as people work to make their hard-won freedom really mean something in the lives of millions of Egyptians.

The Revolution has opened a new world of activity, imagination and possibility in Egypt. And despite the cultural, linguistic and societal differences and miles that separate Egypt and the United States, there is at least one truth in organizing: people know when they're being had. So, whether the rallying cry is, “Out with Mubarak” or “We are the 99 percent,” people don't need to read headlines or stare at bar graphs to know what is a commonly held truth and commonly understood enemy. So, let's walk and occupy like Egyptians and embrace their boldness, courage, persistence and get some real wins for our communities and our families.

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