Occupying Wall Street and Tahrir Square: Feathers of the Same Bird

As images rolled in this week of the Egyptian authorities' assault on protesters in Tahrir Square, observers in the United States could not escape thoughts of the official violence that had very recently been wrought on Wall Street occupiers in New York City and around the country. Civilians beaten with clubs, dragged by their hair, subject to tear gas, watching their tents demolished, returning to the square they were occupying only to be beaten back again – all that spoke well of and distinguished American police was their death toll of zero.

Then came Sultan Al Qassemi's report that an Egyptian State TV anchor had confessed the inspiration Egyptian military and security forces drew from “the firm stance the US took” against occupiers, and it all made perfect sense. The Egyptian authorities, even in the post-Mubarak period, look to America for leadership.

Recall that, in the run-up to Mubarak's downfall, the dictator's strategy at every turn followed American advice. First, the Obama-Clinton foreign policy statements urged Mubarak to “seek dialogue,” which he dutifully offered to do. That did not appease the protesters, so the US instructed him not to run again. His obedient announcement that he would not was insufficient to quell the unrest. The US then advised Mubarak to make a load of “concessions,” and Mubarak's included appointing a vice president and insisting that his son Gamal would not seek the presidency. The Egyptians, however were intent on meaningful democratic revolution, and the State Department's puppeteering was all for naught.

As Egyptian authorities continue to take cues from American authorities, American protesters continue to take cues from Egyptian protesters. In the spring, I reported on an evening meeting between Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed, of Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement and a group of American activists that included a number of people instrumental in getting Occupy Wall Street off the ground, activists intent, like their Egyptian brothers and sisters, on wresting democracy from the grip of a corrupt ownership class intent on accumulating wealth and power no matter the human cost. “Don't worry if the revolution doesn't come tomorrow,” the Egyptian comrades told us on that occasion. “It will come. It is only a matter of time. Just keep working.”

If one mark of the revolution is brutal official reprisal, the revolution appears to have come. And whither Obama? During the first leg of the Egyptian revolution, President Obama said, “I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protest. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” No such defense of those rights, however universal, has passed the president's lips now that the offending authorities are enacting violent repression against his own constituents. Offered the chance by protesters in New Hampshire who interrupted his speech and handed him a note dealing with police brutality, he said, “I'll listen to you, and you listen to me,” and declined to remark further.

Moreover, the Egyptian revolutionaries aren't counting on Obama to come to their defense anymore, asking instead for help from Occupy Wall Street. An urgent communiqué from Egypt, echoing many of the sentiments expressed by Maher and Rashed half a year ago, asked Americans to take action: “Occupy/shut down Egyptian embassies worldwide. Now they represent the junta; reclaim them for the Egyptian people. Shut down the arms dealers. Do not let them make it, ship it. Shut down the part of your government dealing with the Egyptian junta.” The State Department's web site indicates that, as part of a security agreement, the United States gave Egypt's military $458,090 in 2010 for tear gas and riot control agents, not to mention associated equipment.

Marisa Holmes, one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street (and of the spring meeting with Maher and Rashed), is a filmmaker who spent time in Egypt after Mubarak's departure, documenting the revolution's next steps. She sees the movements as birds of a feather, or perhaps even feathers of the same bird. “The tear gas used on protestors in Tahrir Square was manufactured by Combined Systems Inc., a US based company. The same company provided the pepper spray used in UC Davis demonstrations,” she tells me, adding, “This is a period of global unrest. It cannot be stopped. We will occupy everywhere.”

Egyptian activists have rallied in support of Occupy Wall Street during its moments of need. The question before Occupy Wall Street is whether it intends to return the favor. What I wrote months before the occupations began remains true today: “The year 2011 can still go to the plutocrats. If it doesn't, it will have been partly because Americans chose to see the globe with new eyes: an entire world – not just an Arab one – engaged in individual revolutionary acts – connected by the thread of solidarity.”