Did the Arab Spring spark the ‘Occupy’ movement?

Mitchell Hartman Jan 24, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: The first organized protests in Cairo, in Tahrir Square — what would eventually become Egypt’s Arab Spring — started a year ago tomorrow. Egyptians took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, inspired by the overthrow of the dictator in Tunisia right next door.

We’ll be starting a series of stories tomorrow about Egypt’s post-revolutionary economy called One Year On. But the protests didn’t end in Egypt. They spread to Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Israel, to Asia and Europe and eventually here with Occupy Wall Street. On the face of it a lot of the protests look the same: Take over a public square, set up tents, refuse to leave, demand change.

We asked Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman, who was in Cairo a year ago, to explore whether their Arab Spring became our Occupy.

Mitchell Hartman: Just after the Egyptians had their revolution, I made my way through Cairo, along streets that were still littered with paving stones. They were the stones that protesters had pried up from Tahrir Square, and thrown at police in the final battles before Mubarak fell. Marches and demos were popping up everywhere. Half a million people in the square demanding free elections. And small groups on street corners.

I met Maged Ghorab holding a picket sign outside a big Cairo newspaper. Thirty-two, with a university education, Ghorab had been at the paper for six years. But he was still considered a “temp” and was making less than $200 a month — not enough to get married or set up on his own. Ghorab complained that in Egypt, you can’t get ahead in life without connections.

Maged Ghorab (English translation): He said, the daughter of the editor-in-chief — his daughter — just got employed here after two months of when she graduated from her university. Why don’t they treat us like their own sons or daughters?

Ghorab had helped overthrow a dictator. Now he was demanding a real job, and a raise.

Fast-forward nine months — to an Occupy protest in downtown Portland, Ore. Max Miller and Brian Shaylor are in their early 20s. They’re trying to finish college and find jobs in media or the music industry. When Occupy set up tents and started marching, they joined right away.

Max Miller: I mean, it’s a matter of numbers. There are more of us that are impoverished, than there are people with all of the money.

Brian Shaylor: The problem is that all these college grads are getting out of school and realizing that they’ve been saddled with a hundred-thousand-plus dollars of debt, and they spend the next four decades of their lives paying off debt. Like, the disappearing middle class is a real thing.

Young people feeling squeezed, demanding better opportunities and a fair deal. The issues sound similar — from Maged in Cairo, to Max and Brian in Portland.

But in the end, these movements are worlds apart, says U.C. Irvine sociologist David Meyer.

David Meyer: Arab Spring was about regime change. The Occupy movement includes some people who want regime change and want to rebuild the world from the ground up. But it includes other people who have a concern about inequality, that believe that you could have substantial positive change without burning the Constitution. So there are big differences.

Still, Occupiers tell me it was watching the Arab rebellions on YouTube that got them off their couches and computers, and into the streets. Some Occupy organizers, meanwhile, were watching a rebellion closer to home.

ABC News anchor: The debate over state budget deficits has led to chaos in Wisconsin, with protesters hanging over balconies in the state house, and lawmakers going AWOL.

A few weeks after the Egyptian revolution, thousands of public employees and their supporters had massed in the Wisconsin capitol. They were trying to block Republican Gov. Scott Walker from taking away union benefits and collective bargaining rights. The governor got his bill in the end. But David Meyer says the occupation provided a powerful example.

Meyer: People camped out in the cold, marched through the streets. And I think that sparked the imagination of people on the left and younger people in the United States that we could do something besides conventional politics.

And by September, unconventional Occupy was everywhere. The colorful tent camps, the rowdy demonstrations and messy mic-check democracy.

The Occupiers took their lead from the Arab uprisings. They borrowed tactics from Tahrir and the labor organizers in Madison. And they managed to launch an unexpected uprising in America to demand economic justice and restore middle-class prosperity.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: There’s a timeline of the past year in global economic protests. And Mitchell’s Reporter’s Notebook about tent-camp protests in Israel that didn’t get a lot of press.

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