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The Zeitgeist of Tahrir and Occupy

Both the Tahrir Square Revolution and Occupy Wall Street movements manifested a zeitgeist, related to technology and a global information culture, of citizen intelligence and leaderless association.

Tahrir Square, Egypt, November 25, 2011. (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians shocked the world and themselves when tens of thousands besieged Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo until Hosni Mubarak astonishingly resigned his 30-year rule on February 11. Nonplused, the demonstrators did not know how to follow through.

After months of organizing motivated by the Cairenes, New Yorkers invaded Manhattan’s financial district to protest the rabid inequality they saw in America. They “occupied” Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, until evicted by police two months later. Despite knowing more about politics, perhaps because of it, they were stymied in attempts to find a new form of action that reproduced the impact of the Zuccotti occupation. These short-term failures, however, express a 21st Century spirit with long-lasting political effects. This spirit encompasses open communication, non-hierarchy, decentralization and direct participation.

“Our revolution is like Wikipedia…” Wael Ghonim

Out of respect for the sacrifices made by Egyptian protesters, it would be unfair to compare the January 25th Revolution with Occupy Wall Street. Tahrir Square is enormous, its events historic; Zuccotti Park is quite small, its events symbolic. Nevertheless, they share enough methods and goals that it is useful to see them together. Let’s also not forget that Tahrir not only inspired Occupy and a global movement, but Egyptian protesters actually came to Zuccotti Park to show their support and sent media messages of solidarity to the Wisconsin State Capitol’s “Walkerville” encampment in the summer of 2011.

One Cell Phone Picture

A single photograph ignited it all. Khaled Saeed was beaten to death by plainclothes police in broad daylight on June 6, 2010, outside a cafe in his Alexandria neighborhood, apparently for possessing evidence of a police crime. The snapshot of his disfigured face, taken by his brother at the morgue, went viral. Then, Wael Ghonim, a Google Mideast exec, started an instantly popular Facebook group “We Are All Khaled Saeed.” He, in turn, paid for it with 11 days in secret detention and a share of beatings. The night of his release, he gave a galvanizing, emotional television interview just days before Mubarak stepped down.

The unprecedented massive protest against “torture, corruption, injustice and unemployment” was enabled, then, by the sacrifices made on the streets and the confluence of technologies that made sharing information on government behavior – and citizen outrage – possible: the mobile phone, the internet, Facebook and satellite television.

The impressiveness of that democratic revolution and the ever-increasing economic-political inequality in America triggered the New York and global occupy movement.

“America needs its own Tahrir.” Adbusters Magazine

The idea behind Occupy Wall Street was to contest the alleged hijacking of social resources by a business (especially financial) oligarchy for private benefit. The occupiers shouted, “The market itself is a public space” and meant that it functions only with society’s approval and government’s support. Any market, like Wall Street, needs an authority to maintain a monetary system, a banking sector to operate it, a court system to enforce its contracts, and police power to protect property. Since all these are social-collective endeavors, the “99%” should have a say in how it runs. So they argued.

Rejection of Parties, Electoral Politics

“Bread, freedom and social justice,” (rhyming nicely in Arabic) rang throughout Cairo and echoed months later in New York. Both movements wanted meaningful freedom, substantive democracy, and social justice – to nudge their countries closer to these goals. But that was only a beginning. Both eventually wanted to model, to be, something more than a petition.

The January 25th Coalition refused to become a political party and later would not endorse any of the newly formed Egyptian parties. It hoped, instead, to affect political discourse by remaining outside of electoral politics, its leaders outside of office. Occupy Wall Street also decided not to become a “party,” unlike its right-of-center counterpart.

Democratic Party celebrities and union leaders visited and attempted to channel the protesters’ ardor for their own causes. New York Congressman Charles Rangel, a millionaire in office since 1970 who receives 98% of his funding from large corporations and political action committees (PACs), attempted to win over OWS for the Democrats. In his own column, Paul Krugman attempted to spin the movement into a tacit endorsement of Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign.

On the other hand, Michael Moore in the middle of Zuccotti Park remarked, “Those days are over,” referring to endorsing candidates. He exaggerated only slightly when he continued, “This movement is going to create a new democratic economic system.”

Occupy’s position was that systemic financial corruption immensely benefits both Republicans and Democrats. The “profiteers” at the other end of “corrupt transactions” were clients or patrons of both parties. If one party breaks rank, it would lose a substantial amount of contributions and effectively cede an election to the other. So to the chagrin of Democrats, Occupy remained outside electoral politics.

Beyond their rejection of electoral politics, in the conduct of their “occupation,” the movements were much alike. Employing consensus-based, non-hierarchical organization and volunteer services, they engaged in what some call performative politics or even “utopianism.” On the one hand, they sought to model an ideal democratic society for the benefit of the broader public.

On the other, they sought to experience what participatory democracy would be like. The “People’s Mic” for open, direct debate in general assemblies was mythologized. They wanted to see what they were never taught in civics class. What does it mean to deliberate? What does it “feel” like? In short, they wanted to “do it themselves.”

But technology extended the “utopianism” past the communal feeling during the encampments and even beyond each movement itself.

Citizen Knowledge, Power

The technologies noted above that enabled the Jan 25th Revolution have also forever changed four aspects of modern society – giving a new meaning to “citizen power.” Government is now the watched as much as it is the watcher. Information is now nearly free. Ideas are now liberated; e-books cannot be banned and blog-pamphlets cannot be confiscated. Citizen-citizen communication is now nearly instant and nearly free.

In effect, as outlined in Citizen Reviews and Brand Gov, there is a new “information market” on government behavior together with a new trust in collective intelligence. Markets work when open, large, fair and low transaction costs obtain.

Information once high cost and filtered through gatekeepers, like newspapers, became available instantly to almost everyone. Four such types are now readily accessible through Internet and social media: 1) information on the internal workings of government, especially through leaks 2) info about politicians, 3) info about other countries and their citizens’ satisfaction, and 4) info about alternative political systems.

Social media together with other technologies have created a type of market in “citizen reviews” of government. This moment is a time of newly revealed improper government behavior the world over. Furthermore, the new information market puts “experts” of all kinds under scrutiny and exposes their ignorance on many matters, especially economic and political questions.

Due to this new visibility of corruption, trust in government is at an all-time low. Congress’ approval rating hit near single digits in the fall of 2011, bottoming out at 5% in December 2013. Likewise, ruling parties in Europe and the Mideast are given little leeway, in terms of policy, by their opposition.

Citizens today are also more often comparing themselves to those in other countries. Migration remains extremely high despite poor economic outlooks. Through late 2013, there were 232 million migrants world-wide, according to the UN. Inside the US, a place that used to think itself beyond comparison, more and more people are looking to other countries for solutions to problems or models of reform, for example, health care or electoral systems.

One notices, for example, the new types of voting systems in place in localities as different as California, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Michigan and others. Such innovations favor changes not only within political parties themselves, but to the way they serve once elected.

Citizen Law

One of the principles of Occupy Wall Street was free access to information and culture. In January 2012 Congress attempted to authorize the FCC to shut down internet service providers not adequately protecting copyrighted materials, under two bills, SOPA and PIPA. The overwhelming response of “net-citizens” was a “No!” so loud that it immediately killed both bills. A similar measure was defeated in Europe the following summer.

In May 2013 Google’s Larry Page decided to change’s tagline from “Palestinian Territories” to “Palestine” – implicitly recognizing it as a state. Making the decision, he did not look at written international law or law decreed or enforced by states. He looked at what social institutions, like the UN and ICANN, had done regarding Palestine. Since they and other international actors, including states, had treated it as a state for all intents and purposes, Google would follow suit.

Both of these are examples of what is termed “sociological jurisprudence.” Lawmakers and judges look not to what state actors have promulgated to find law but to what society itself is willing to enforce and what people are actually willing to obey. They illustrate the potential “citizen power” that could come in the legal arena.

Citizen Political Organizations

What followed Tahrir and Occupy went well beyond modeling of consensus politics or horizontal hierarchies. It was a global change in political thought I previously dubbed A New French Revolution, but is more properly a neo-Athenian revival – of direct and semi-direct control of government by “the people.” Everything from participatory budgeting in Port Alegre and New York to citizen review panels in Oregon, to last year’s events in Belgium were manifestations of the spirit that fueled Tahrir-Occupy. The last three years saw unprecedented citizen-led events.

In 2011, the nonpartisan “Healthy Democracy” in Oregon began its Citizens’ Initiative Reviews, now supported by the Oregon Legislature. Juries of 24 randomly selected citizens spend five days deliberating the referenda on the ballot in time to report their findings in the Voters’ Handbook. That summer, another “Deliberative Opinion Poll” was conducted in California with a randomly selected 400 volunteers to deliberate, alternately in plenary and small groups, on proposed referenda over a weekend. Its top six proposals were put on the California ballot.

In October 2012 Icelanders overwhelmingly approved, by a 68% super-majority, a constitution drafted by randomly selected, ordinary citizens. These 25 non-politicians deliberated over several weeks with public input via social media. Despite the overwhelming approval, Iceland’s main political party blockaded it, preventing it from even coming to a vote in Parliament. But it remains an unprecedented example of direct democracy.

A year ago, during the political crisis between President Morsi and the opposition, similar citizen-centered ideas could have changed the tragic course of events. The impasse between the Brotherhood and National Salvation Front could have been avoided with a structural reform outlined in An Open Letter to the Brotherhood and the Opposition. It could have gratified Egyptians’ thirst to participate, established a government inclusive of minority voices, and avoided the bloody coup.

Also in 2013, Belgium saw three significant citizen-led events. The Wallonia-Brussels Youth Parliament adopted a mock decree to turn Parliament’s lower house into a “citizens’ parliament” selected by lot. That same month, Laurent Louis, leader of a populist party, made a startling video announcement: He called for the dissolution of all political parties (including his own) and likewise the institution of a citizens’ parliament. Best-selling Flemish author, David Van Reybrouck’s newest book, Against Elections (Tegen Verkiezingen), quickly became a big seller. It urges his country to go beyond representative government and to eliminate (some) elections in favor of “lotting.”

The 21st Century spirit that fueled Tahrir – that made these possibilities visible, palpable and global – appears not yet to have said all that it has to say.

January 25th’s and Occupy Wall Street’s political failure may in fact be their triumph. In demonstrating the inability of representative governments to meet the ambitions and ideals of the 21st Century mind, protestors in Cairo and in New York achieved a cultural coup. They educated the broader public about what is not possible within current political-economic structures and what alternative structures could be.

Moreover, their use of technology to democratize information and liberate ideas not only makes citizen outrage more recognized but also makes the alternatives generally available beyond geographical barriers. In effect, just as political innovation seems more urgent than ever (with the weak global economy, degrading environment, rapid change), it has also never been more likely.

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