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.

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