Sunday, October 9, 2011

Some advice to OWS from Tahrir Square

Some people are comparing Occupy Wall Street to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. I'm not sure the analogy is very strong. And so I was fascinated by this advice to OWS from Mosa'ab Elshamy, an Egyptian "medical student and freelance photographer whose Twitter feed became a must-read for those trying to follow the demonstrations."

1. You don't need a leader, but you do need a platform.

Watching the protests in New York, Elshamy says it "took me a while to figure out what their demands are." Although there have been a number of proposed manifestos circling online and a declaration of grievances, addressing topics ranging from tax and trade policy to the funding of elections to animal cruelty, it's still difficult to pinpoint what exactly would constitute a victory for the activists camped out in Zuccotti Park.

Elshamy says the agreed-upon demands need not address the grievances of everyone present, but that in Egypt it was critical that there were "three or four or five that everyone agreed upon."

2. Widen the base.

"You have to appeal to the poor, the middle class, the student, the trade unions, even the police officer who might arrest you later," he says. "That's why it's so important to keep the message simple."

3. Keep it friendly with the police.

Although the relationship between demonstrators and police is inherently tense, Elshamy says a bit of kindness can go a long way. "Even when we were being attacked by water hoses, we cheered for the police. This was both ridiculing the attack and making the environment less hostile," he recalls. "We would wave to the police, talk to them, tell them we're not how the media is portraying us."

4. Don't blame the media; change the narrative.

"The media has begun dismissing the protesters, calling them delusional, childish hippies," Elshamy says. "This is actually very similar to here in Egypt when the media portrayed protesters as thugs or foreign agents who were getting paid and had other agendas." At one point, Egypt's state media even suggested that the demonstrators were being brought out to the square by the promise of free buckets of KFC.

The crowd took the charges in stride. Vendors began selling T-shirts reading "I am a thug" and fake pamphlets featuring "foreign agendas." The square's makeshift medical tent was renamed "KFC hospital."

Most importantly, Elshamy says, is to be as "neutral and friendly as possible with whatever journalist, no matter where he is from."

5. Keep the energy up.

"Whenever there was a possibility that the movement was slowing down, protesters would come up with new ideas to inject more blood into the movement," Elshamy recalls...

Most importantly, he says, "You have to celebrate every gain you make. The fact that the media started paying attention to them is a very positive thing. They have to cherish all of these gains, no matter how small."
(Edited for brevity)

Numbers 1 and 2 seem to be critical and where OWS is still very different than what happened in Egypt.

The question remains about whether OWS is a movement to reform or destroy. The people of Tahrir Square were clear about that - they wanted to topple the Mubarak government. And I suspect it is the reason they were eventually successful with their initial goals. In a sense, that was the easy part. Destruction always is - even when, as was the case in Egypt - its necessary. The reform part is where it gets more challenging.

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