What the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common
The most striking similarity to the Arab Spring has to do with the spirit and demographic of the protests. At the core of both demonstrations were youth who feel they have been marginalized by an unfair system. In Egypt, that system was political – undemocratic and skewed in favor of a ruling elite. The Egyptian economy had enjoyed sustained growth for several years, giving outsiders the illusion that things were getting better, but the new wealth did not trickle down. In the U.S., the protesters are angrier at the economic system. In their eyes, it too favors the elite. The demonstrators on Wall Street argue that the financially powerful are rarely held accountable for their mismanagement of the U.S. economy, while the masses must suffer the consequences of those failed policies. Both sets of protesters have the common goal that social justice must be at the core of reform.
There are other similarities. No political group gave birth to either movement; rather, the people organized themselves. As a result, both movements are leaderless: no group, much less an individual, can claim to speak for the entire body of the protests. (That said, the Tahrir Square crowd and the occupiers both gained traction after they were joined by trade unions).
In Cairo, I was struck by the festive atmosphere at the demonstrations. Men and women, young and old, chanted, sang, danced and celebrated their calls for change. I saw some of that spirit in Zuccotti Park: the protests there are part carnival, part political rally. That’s not to say they are unstructured and chaotic. Just as in Tahrir Square, people were organizing themselves into committees, working hard to maintain a sense of civic responsibility by keeping their surroundings clean, collecting garbage and avoiding doing damage to nearby property.
At first, the protests that began with dozens in Wall Street were largely ignored. By the third week, they had spread across the country. The Occupiers may not be seeking the toppling of a regime, but like the people of Egypt, they want to be heard – and now they have been.