A small but vocal group of Egyptian protesters marched on the United States embassy in Cairo Friday to express support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, after bloody clashes between police and protesters in Oakland earlier this week attracted international attention. Protesters held signs equating the Occupy protests rocking cities across the U.S. with the Egyptian revolution earlier this year. “Those in Oakland are our brothers and sisters, a class that was dispossessed like we were,” the protesters chanted, according to an Egyptian blogger.
The march in Cairo comes a day after a group of Egyptian revolutionaries published an open letter to the Occupy Wall Street protesters in the Guardian newspaper in Britain, expressing support for the demonstrators and christening the Occupy movement as an outgrowth of the popular upheaval sweeping cities across Europe and the Arab world.
“We are now in many ways involved in the same struggle,” the protesters, writing under the name Comrades in Cairo, declared. “What most pundits call ‘the Arab spring’ has its roots in the demonstrations, riots, strikes and occupations taking place all around the world, its foundations lie in years-long struggles by people and popular movements.”
Many observers have derided the comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring as outlandish and insulting to the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia who faced death in pursuit of a more democratic society. “Facile comparisons to Arab Spring insult the real revolutionaries who braved batons, bullets, and brutal despots to demand some semblance of democracy and political transparency,” a blogger for the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, wrote earlier this month.
Except now, as it turns out, American protesters have in fact faced shocking displays of police brutality just for marching peacefully in support of a few key principles, such as economic fairness and aid for college graduates struggling with debt from student loans. Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old protester and Iraq War veteran, suffered a fractured skull Tuesday after being struck by a projectile during a peaceful Occupy demonstration in Oakland.
Nonetheless, the tactics of police here in the U.S. pale in comparison to what protesters in Egypt and Tunisia have suffered. Thousands have died during those countries’ revolutions, coldly murdered by state security officials who sprayed bullets into funeral processions or state-sponsored thugs who roamed the streets beating protesters. Olsen’s injury is horrific, but it’s still more isolated than the mass brutality that awaited protesters marching on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
There’s something else, something deeper and more fundamental, that binds the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement together: How they’ve defied expectations and upended the calcified politics of their respective countries. In Egypt, mass protests over income inequality and economic unfairness were considered unthinkable before revolutionaries took over Tahrir Square in January. An official with Egypt’s ruling party told U.S. diplomats in 2009 that “Widespread politically motivated unrest … was not likely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality,’” according to a memo obtained by WikiLeaks.
Unrest over economic unfairness wasn’t thought to be part of the American mentality, either. The political class has consistently discounted the possibility of widespread protests over economic inequality — which is why Republicans consistently hurl the epithet of “class warfare” at Democrats who talk about the gap between the rich and the poor. The conventional wisdom is that Americans side with the rich because they want to be rich themselves. “Pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in prepared remarks for a speech he planned to give on economic inequality last week. (He canceled after it turned out the local Occupy movement would be there.)
Both the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring have been fueled by rampant economic inequality. The Tunisian revolution was sparked by an out-of-work 26-year-old who had been stripped of his license to sell fruits and vegetables on the street, all while Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amassed obscene riches. And, whatever the differences between the two movements, both Arab and American leaders seem threatened. When youthful protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria rose up to challenge their governments, their leaders derided them as “gangs.” Cantor, perhaps unaware of the symbolism, dismissed the Occupy Wall Street protesters in a speech earlier this month as “mobs.”