Egyptian elections: Occupy squared

Bel Trew, Wednesday 16 Nov 2011

The offer by Occupy Wall Street protesters to 'monitor' elections in Egypt could have rocked the bonds that tie the two protest movements, but a discussion has emerged over political action outside old frameworks

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street protesters gather during a general assembly after re-entering New York's Zuccotti Park (Photo: Reuters)

Yesterday the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters were forcibly removed from Zuccotti Park by the New York Police Department. In scenes that were reminiscent of when the last Tahrir Square sit-in was cleared by the Egyptian military on 1 August, tents were ripped down, journalists barred from entering and protesters who resisted were, reportedly, tear gassed and arrested in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

This happened just days after the OWS’s General Assembly (GA) controversially approved a proposal to send 20 delegates to Cairo to, in the words of the assembly’s minutes, “monitor the Egyptian elections” at a cost of $29,000 (the largest single sum the GA has authorised). A group of OWS protesters are also due to arrive in Cairo this Friday to join the protests in Tahrir. “People are inspired by Egypt,” explains Cari Machet, a member of the GA working group who put forward the proposal. “We’re really in awe of what they have accomplished.”

The experiences of the Occupy movements are becoming increasingly similar to that of Egypt’s revolutionaries, galvanising the desire for grand gestures of international solidarity. However, how these gestures are currently manifested is becoming increasingly problematic, as an exchange of communiqués between OWS and a group of Egyptian activists shows.

“The news rather shocked us,” wrote Comrades from Cairo a group of anonymous Egyptian revolutionaries who initially wrote a letter offering advice to OWS four weeks ago, “who could have asked for such assistance on our behalf?”

The Occupy Wall Street movement was reportedly invited to observe the elections by “Egyptian civil society groups” and a founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement, Asmaa Mahfouz. However, aside from one signed letter from Mahmoud El-Sawy at the Horeyya Coalition, there appears to be no direct and confirmed communication from Egypt to the General Assembly.

“Monitoring the elections is, at worst, legitimising the military junta’s grasp over the Egyptian process, at best it’s naïve,” says Ranya (not her real name), one of the authors of the Egyptian letter to OWS. “I think people were swept up with eagerness.”

Unbeknown to the OWS movement, this comes at a time when activists are considering boycotting the Egyptian elections because, as Comrades in Cairo explained in their letter, these elections can only produce a “puppet parliament.”

There are major issues with the electoral system; many fear Egypt is increasingly becoming a military regime.

Without a constitution, the mandate for parliament has to be deciphered from a vague Constitutional Declaration written by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). According to the documents, only the SCAF-appointed Cabinet and the SCAF itself (as acting president) are able to author new laws. The ruling military council has the power to override decisions made by parliament.

A recent development has been the military’s controversial supra-constitutional proposal, which caused uproar across Egypt’s political spectrum when parties were presented with an amended version last week. If passed, the supra-constitutional proposals would give the Egyptian military political power that could outweigh that of a future president. 

On Sunday, the Muslim Brotherhood, together with other parties, publically rejected the document, issuing an ultimatum that it had to be re-written by today (Wednesday). The April 6 Movement was among the 18 political parties that joined the Brotherhood in signing a statement to the SCAF demanding the changes.

The political parties vowed to organise a Million Man March this Friday if the SCAF does not scrap the document: the very protest that OWS protesters will be attending in an act of solidarity.

For many revolutionaries, a group of American protesters, who are not qualified observers, coming to Cairo to participate in the elections is perceived as well meaning but imperialistic. The OWS protesters were intending to monitor for one day, 28 November, indicating those who penned the proposal are unaware that the elections take place over three stages. The task of the delegates is also vague.

“It’s a little disheartening – particularly when we’re starting to see new types of political activism taking root across the globe that are completely dissatisfied with the kind of framework of representative governments, instead moving towards direct democracy,” explains Mina, another author of the Comrades to Cairo letter who also wishes to remain anonymous.

Logistically there could be problems. They will not be allowed to enter the polling stations. Government-fuelled xenophobia is still one of the most damaging problems foreigners and Egyptian protesters face at political events in Egypt. Their presence may be cited as confirmation of foreign intervention and collaboration or worse: the presence of a spy network.

“It’s possibly a bit patronising,” adds Ranya, who explains that one of the biggest international battles the revolutionaries have faced is having their story told correctly. “It’s frequently in the media that we’re protesting for material needs while Occupy are working for philosophical ideology.”

Although this is not indicative of OWS’s opinion (as their forums are open), one of the comments posted under their first letter to OWS was that it couldn’t possibly be written by Egyptians.

Arguably as belittling is the written response that Comrades in Cairo received from the person who allegedly initiated the proposal. Not an OWS protester, she flew in to New York to present it to the assembly. A LinkedIn search shows this person works for the US State Department – a fact that OWS may not be aware of and would certainly contradict the very narrative of the Occupy movements. She also liaises with a number of civil society groups in Egypt who were not present in the Egyptian revolution. The other GA working group organisers, copied into the message, quickly distanced themselves from her email.

“We have never said that we would ‘monitor’ the elections,” she writes, contradicting what she herself told the General Assembly on 10 November. “In English, we tend to use the word ‘observe’ and ‘monitor’ interchangeably.”

“What we are doing is new,” she continues, “because it puts the power of the international community behind the PEOPLE… not the GOVERNMENT… and because it is such a new idea, it is normal to have confusion because I understand very well that Egyptians are only familiar with the old style.” She finishes the email off by suggesting that the Egyptian activists would be “taken more seriously” if they revealed their names.

Both Comrades from Cairo and OWS believe that something positive has come out of the exchange: “Criticism is very helpful for us,” explains Cari, as the General Assembly is only in its baby stages. “That GA wasn’t vetted as much as it should have been. We need more data,” she admits, “we need to work on our processes.People, sort of, fell in love. They just really want to help Egypt in any way they can.”

“It’s a unified struggle,” concurs Mina.

The GA had scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to discuss the Egypt trip, but this has since been postponed after Tuesday’s eviction of the square, according to Cari who added that the police “have really locked down and militarised the area.” Despite all this, OWS remains undeterred.

There are more positive ways the OWS protesters could show solidarity from the US. “It became very clear when we picked up tear gas canisters stamped 'Made in the USA' that the Americans could help us by exerting pressure in the US,” says Mina. “For instance, what about the over one billion dollars annually in US government aid to the Egyptian Army, or the companies that sell arms to the Egyptian police and military that kill and maim demonstrators?"

“There is also the issue of substantial American debt that was accrued by an unjust dictatorial regime without the consent of the people, that still hangs over our head,” Ranya adds. “Working to help us get this debt dropped would be a powerful show of solidarity.”

International solidarity is a new but increasingly important tool that Egyptian protesters are leveraging for change. This can be seen by last Saturday’s international Free Alaa protest, where 23 cities across the globe, including New York, called for the release of detained activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah and the end to military trials for civilians. Two weeks ago there were marches for Occupy Oakland in Tahrir and as of today Egyptian protesters are planning a solidarity march for Occupy Wall Street.

In the meantime both sides plan to meet face-to-face but in a less official capacity. As Comrades from Cairo put it in their letter: “Any time you do want to come over, we’ve got plenty of comfy couches... It won’t be fancy, but it will be fun.”

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