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What Occupy Can Learn from the Egyptian Presidential Elections

15 months after the revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian voters went to the polls last week for the first round of voting on a range of some 13 candidates. Now that the votes are counted, the result is a great disappointment to those who started the revolution in Tahrir Square: The two final candidates for the highest civilian job in the land are a radical Islamist and a member of the old regime. The majority of all votes did go to centrist candidates that the mostly secular revolutionaries could have supported, but split up between several candidates, rendering it impossible for any of them to come in at least second to make it into the run-off on June 16/17. Many revolutionaries had boycotted the first round of voting, because they felt none of the candidates represented their demands.

We will never know whether those boycott votes would have pushed the third-placed centrist candidate into the run-off vote, but it clearly leaves the question hanging. Democracy usually works for those who show up at the ballot box. Shouting in the streets beforehand, while important to shape peoples’ opinions, does not automatically translate into electoral votes.

So, what does that have to do with Occupy? A few things:

As was the case with the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, there are a variety of opinions on strategy that Occupy should use to broaden its reach. Some advocate diligent outreach work, while others prefer large protest marches that tend to attract large police and media presences, and then there are those who also support the application of black block tactics.

The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square faced similar divisions. There were those who felt they needed to join the political debate and either ran themselves or worked hard for one of the candidates. Others stayed in Tahrir Square and continued to battle the security forces in often deadly clashes. Some supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the democratic process, others didn’t for fear of losing women’s rights and the right for a secular lifestyle.

Why do they now feel that they wound up empty handed after doing all the hard work? Because the mainstream population, which had joined them in Tahrir Square and other cities for demonstrations leading up to the ouster of Mubarak went home afterwards, trying to find a way to reclaim a normal life. What stayed behind in Tahrir Square and the streets were the hardliners who, at great risk to their lives, continued to demand reforms in fear that the army would simply continue to run the country. The revolution continued in the urban areas of Cairo and Alexandria, while the countryside quieted down.

The protesters may have indeed managed to ensure that presidential elections were actually held and not merely indefinitely postponed and slowly forgotten. And, after all, regular Egyptians for the first time in the country’s illustrious history, had a say in the selection of their head of state and suffered through their first presidential debate and the usual media hubris in the run up and post-match analysis of the face-off between the two candidates leading in the polls.

Still, it is unclear what powers the newly elected president will actually hold, and whether he will be a secular or a religious ruler, irrespective of which candidate will win the run-off election. The constitution has still not been rewritten to ensure separation between president and army. The parliament, meanwhile, which runs the constitutional writing committee, is largely comprised of representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some have therefore concluded that while the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have brought down the system and the status quo, the fruits of their labors have gone to others; and power has yet to truly leave the hands of the army. But why couldn’t they substantiate their achievements beyond the initial ouster of their dictator?

After the fall of Mubarak they didn’t build a broad base with mainstream Egyptians. After the revolution, the economy stalled, as tourists stayed away over safety concerns. A clashes continued, people started to blame the revolutionaries for the continued economic decline. Meanwhile, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army used their long established networks to convince (some say forced) their followers to come out and vote for their candidate. The liberal candidates found good support in urban areas and with well educated voters, while rural areas remained the domain of the two consistent forces in Egyptian life: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army. So, as voters lined up at the ballot boxes, revolutionaries threw the bums out while average Egyptians chose the devil they knew.

Occupy also struggles to build a stronghold in the mainstream. Many of the issues the movement protests against touch most regular Americans (wage decline, lack of jobs, debt, foreclosures, substandard education, lack of healthcare etc), so the potential to reach and recruit a meaningful part of the population is clearly there. However, since much of the little we hear in the news about occupy these days involves bloodied protesters and violent arrests, many are scared to join or are turned away from the movement. This should be particularly concerning, since much valuable and productive outreach work is actually being done by occupy working groups. But to reach critical mass, the conversation needs to be dominated by the good these groups are doing, and not by the latest clashes with authorities.

OccupyOurHomes, a nation-wide alliance of groups working with home-owners to avoid foreclosures and evictions, is one of these productive efforts. A good number of home owners have been able to retain their homes and renegotiate their mortgages with a joint effort of eviction defense teams and negotiators with banks and government officials.

Labor outreach groups have also shown successes, by helping small work places organize themselves in workers collectives and union-like structures to fight for better work conditions. The May 1st march in New York City was co-sponsored by over 100 labor unions, worker’s rights groups, and occupy working groups working on labor matters. Immigrant groups are also joining in, as they are most often the target of unfair labor practices.

Other working groups are working on health care issues or questions surrounding affordable housing. Several media outlets have formed to cover the stories not mentioned in mainstream media, and a handful of farming projects have started in an effort to secure food supplies for the movement. Students have marched in protest against rising tuition costs for substandard education programs, and OccuPrint is one of the first incorporated businesses, collectively owned by its workers, to spring from the encampment at Zuccotti Park. Teach-ins are held at a variety of events to help people understand their rights, learn more about the economy, and other aspects of globalization that affect their daily lives.

All these projects need more hands on deck and more resources to drive momentum in the movement. If people know about these efforts, understand that marching is not all that occupy does these days, and see how this work affects their personal economy, more of them will join. An example of how this worked can currently be observed in Montreal, where students have spent months protesting tuition hikes and reaching out to parents, friends, and relatives, and now have several 100,000 people marching in the streets, banging pots and pans to show their misgivings.

Another intriguing example is the one protester from Los Angeles who was arrested in Chicago during the anti-Nato protests, and had to spend a week in jail, while his friends raised the money for his bail bond. He felt his time was very well spent because he used it to talk to other inmates about the movement and teach them about the issues occupy is concerned with.

If Occupy should draw one lesson from the disappointment of their revolutionary comrades in Egypt, it is that they need to strike a balance in their messaging between outreach and protest and may ultimately have to engage in the political discourse by fielding candidates or forming a party. Big marches are important to rally the troops and make everybody see their growing numbers. But people do need to feel safe enough to come out, as not everybody has broken through their personal walls of fear to deal with  the effects of governmental confrontation. And most importantly, people need to be kept engaged and not sent back home after a large event. They will if they can see that joining in will benefit them more than staying home.

As the upcoming presidential election highlights, the current power structure will not  be dislodged by small protest groups, but needs to be approached and influenced both from without and within to obtain lasting results. In the age of Citizens United and the Super PAC it is easy to mistake the electoral process for a Dutch auction with two undesirable options wrapped into a three-ring circus for public entertainment. But ultimately, lasting change is achieved through pressure on the legislative process, as many in the anti-abortion movement can profess.

The government clearly perceives the occupy movement as a threat, as their concerted surveillance effort and scare tactics highlight. It’s going to be a long road and safety for occupiers will ultimately lie in numbers, both on the street and inside ballot boxes.

What in the World, Indeed – A Response to Fareed Zakaria

In this weekend’s edition of his show GPS – Global Public Square on CNN, the usually insightful Fareed Zakaria has delivered an over-simplified assessment of political mood swings in Europe and the United States in relation to the current economic crisis.

In his What in the World segment (video below) he notes in surprise that, rather than as one might expect moving sharply to the left in response to the most severe economic crisis to hit Western economies since the Great Depression, European and American electorates have moved to the right in elections following the onset of the economic collapse. As examples  in Europe he lists the election of conservative governments over their liberal predecessors under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, David Cameron in the UK, and Mariano Rajoy in Spain. For the US, he bases his argument on the rise of the Tea Party in 2008 and the – perceived – failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, and the transformation of voters’ perception of Mitt Romney as a moderate rather than conservative presidential candidate between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles.

While that, for the most part, might hold up chronologically it does not, however, provide a completely honest assessment of what happened.

For starters, the economic crisis hit in earnest with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated as France’s new President in May that same year, 4 months before Lehman’s spectacular bankruptcy. While the subprime mortgage crisis was indeed gaining strength, and economists were discussing potential consequences of that process already as Sarkozy was being elected, the looming difficulties had hardly penetrated the mind of the average French voter at the time. While Sarkozy overcame an “anyone but him” attitude from left-leaning voters to beat out Sénégolène Royale, the electoral campaign dealt in large part with issues of immigrant integration, fears of a political stalemate with another co-habitation between a conservative Prime Minister and a socialist President, high unemployment (a stalwarth in European elections in most of my lifetime), and law and order issues in response to violent rampages in minority dominated suburbs of Paris. Royale for her part was punished for an overall lack of organization in France’s political left following the election loss by socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the ensuing circular firing squad. The election of Sarkozy had therefore very little to do with a global economic crisis or any electoral reaction thereto.

The election of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, on the other hand, did happen as the nation was wrestling with the fall-out of the 2008 economic collapse. Still, his success is probably more attributed to the fact that his party was not in power  during the 10 years preceding the dark days of economic insecurity, than the fact that he was a conservative. Gordon Brown’s unpopular tenure as Labor Prime Minister trying to follow in the footsteps of the far more charismatic, and politically agile, but increasingly scrutinized Tony Blair, combined with a collection of ethics scandals did much to present Cameron as the fresh face British voters were yearning for. It should also be noted that, in contrast to his most recent conservative predecessors Thatcher and Major, Cameron did not win an outright majority, but needed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to gain power. Hardly a ringing endorsement of conservative policies by the British electorate in times of economic crisis.

As for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, it should be remembered that in March 2008 Rajoy as the candidate for the center-right People’s Party lost to the socialist party candidate José Luis Zapatero exactly BECAUSE he warned openly and bluntly of the coming economic crisis looming on Wall Street and its impact on the Spanish economy, while Zapatero claimed to have the policy tools required to safeguard the country from such harm. In November 2011 Rajoy was finally elected as disillusioned Zapatero voters grudgingly had to admit that he had been right in his warnings. Still, in recent regional elections in Andalusia, while winning the majority of votes, the People’s Party still does not hold the majority of seats, as voters grapple with tremendous unemployment, unpopular social service cuts and the worrying prospect of further austerity measures, to avert a situation comparable to the deep crisis in Greece.

In the U.S. meanwhile it is true that the Tea Party was an important factor in the 2008 presidential and 2010 congressional elections, reflective in the popularity of Sarah Palin following her vice-presidential candidacy, as she fully embraced the Tea Party platform and helped a wave of Tea Party candidates get elected to congress in 2010. The Republican 2010 congressional election victory came after two very hard years for Americans with significant job losses and little prospect of a prompt recovery. 29% of voters in an ABC exit poll conducted on November 2nd 2010 said that someone in their own household had lost their job in the two preceding years while only 14% of those polled said their own economic situation had improved from two years ago, and voters needed someone to blame. With the Democrats holding the Presidency and both congressional houses, and even a supermajority in the Senate, that really only left one logical target for an angry electorate.

As for Occupy Wall Street, to call it a failure at this conjuncture is premature. Yes, the movement has slipped out of the headlines over the winter, as it grappled under the weight of its own success and increasing push-back from local police departments. However, the explosive manner in which the movement gained national and global attention last fall points to several important factors:

– A growing number of Americans and Europeans are looking for alternative approaches as they fail to see how current leaders can bring about lasting relief from the ongoing stream of austerity measures and the lack of economic opportunity. Republicans themselves have added fuel to the fire with their disastrous strategy surrounding the debt-ceiling increase in 2011, which brought the United States to the brink of economic default and both Ryan budgets with their proposals for cuts in the social network while increasing military spending and cutting taxes on the rich. Prior to the debt ceiling negotiations, budget austerity was all Washington talked about. Since then, the national debate has moved to one of social inequality and Wall Street excesses. The upcoming general election seems to shape up to be fought along those very lines.

– The political left in America has been in serious disarray since the 1980’s and the rise of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and has, under the guise of Occupy Wall Street, only recently begun to recongregate and reorganize. Many say that in the case of Occupy the horse had left the barn before the barn had a chance to be built, as pent-up frustration of a new generation of college graduates inspired by the uprisings they had witnessed overseas joined forces with an array of seasoned leftwing campaigners suddenly recalled from the political wilderness and thrust back into the middle of an all-American conversation. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement has fomented slowly and over time during Ron Paul’s four presidential runs and conservative uproar over democratic presidents Clinton and Obama.

– Occupy Wall Street as a movement is a process and not a targeted protest, as it is a collection of people who meet in public places to figure out how to get a fair shake in a society in which, in their assessment, the political and the economic elite have joined forces for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Indeed, at this stage the movement has no singular message as its participants are still busy formulating the questions they want their message to answer. Occupy is a collective effort to find comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Try and fit those onto a bumper sticker.

Several important outcomes however can already be seen from the emergence of the Occupy movement:

Occupy Your Homes: A nationwide alliance of grassroots organizations dedicated to help homeowners stand up to their banks to prevent foreclosures and renegotiate mortgages. The group also promotes affordable housing policies. In several states the movement has formed foreclosure defense teams, where entire neighborhoods work together to prevent evictions, legal teams assist home owners in negotiations with the banks, and protesters apply public pressure on politicians and bank managers by disrupting foreclosure auctions and demanding for them to be more responsive to home-owners’ needs. Detroit, a city where the devastation of job losses and foreclosure are extraordinarily evident, has been a hotspot for Occupy Your Home activities. Read more here.

– Recall elections in Wisconsin and Ohio. While not directly an output of the Occupy movement, voters in Wisconsin and Ohio have succeeded in forcing re-call elections of a number of government officials that tried to push through bans on collective bargaining rights. With the return of social inequality to the national conversation, these effort gained significant steam.

– Occupy Your Workplace: A working group helping non-unionized workers collaborate to collectively bargain with employers for better work conditions.

Healthcare for the 99%: A working group pursuing the creation of a universal publicly-funded system that guarantees affordable, comprehensive, high-quality healthcare for all  under the premise that healthcare is a human right and not a privilege.

– All in all, over 90 working groups are working on strategies to combat rising student debt, job creation, food safety, alternative banking options, labor outreach, prison reform,  and other important issues.

The presence of three conservative challengers in the Republican field did not only pull Mitt Romney to the right in his own policy proclamations, but also made him appear a moderate in comparison. Obama however, did not have to face a primary election process, so the re-emerging political left has had little opportunity to challenge his positions and voice their discontent at the ballot box. However, the base which elected Obama in 2008 has shifted, and may well require Obama 2012 to run to the left of Obama 2008 to motivate them to come out to vote in November, as many on the left are disillusioned with his perceived weakness in the face of Republican opposition on social security and medicare cuts and his signing of several controversial laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act and H.R. 372, which many argue undermine the Bill of Rights as well as the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, as Mother Jones wrote in March 2012 at in at least 10 congressional districts, incumbent democrats will find themselves challenged by opponents running on the Occupy platform in primary elections. The road to the 2012 November elections is still long, but promises to be an interesting one.

Across the pond meanwhile, as Zakaria rightly points out, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy is struggling mightily to secure his reelection, as left wing politician Francois Hollande has consistently lead in recent polls. UK’s David Cameron’s popularity has travelled a somewhat rocky road since his election, as his austerity measures and economic reforms have not found unanimous applause at home. Still, in January 2012 his poll numbers have reached a 22 month high despite a looming fight with the House of Lords over welfare reforms. Elsewhere in Europe the fear of austerity measures and social security cutbacks is currently battling for supremacy with fears of outright sovereign bankruptcy as the Eurozone is dealing with the fallout from economic instability in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. So, at this point it remains anyone’s guess whether electorates in those countries will choose the devil they know or throw the bums out next time they head to the ballot boxes.

I usually enjoy Fareed Zakaria’s program and look forward to his return to his habitual in-depth analysis of global matters and economic policy. In this particular case, however, I found the depth surprisingly lacking.

How to Look at the Pictures in More Detail

Just in case you didn’t figure: To see the pictures in full size, rather than those little thumbnails, double click on the picture you want to look at and it will load in its original size. Each image is about 50 – 100kB, so it should load relatively fast. If you need a high-res picture of any of these, let me know. The originals are about 2Mb each.

Mosquitos In Paradise

As I mentioned before, there is a little place on earth I consider paradise: The area around my mom’s summer house on the western coast of Sweden, near a little place called Fjallbacka – now the location for a series of fairly entertaining whodunnit stories by local author Camilla Lackberg.

To see why I love this place so much, the following pictures should do the talking more effectively:

Sweden

Physical beauty alone however hardly covers my affection for this place. It’s the memories accumulated over nearly two decades of using this place as my refuge from work and people, as my place to simply put up my feet and be. As with most beautiful things on earth, however there is a fly in the ointment: The local mosquito population appears to have taken a particular likening to me, flying their nightly attack raides on me as soon as I turn out the bedroom light. So, as I revel in the memories of yet another great Swedish summer (lovely weather not included), I also carry my physical reminders of my most recent trip to heaven.

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