Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is “Occupy Wall Street” America’s Arab Spring?

By William Fisher

A cursory look might suggest that Occupy Wall Street has little in common with the Arab Spring. After all, in the US, even the poorest Americans have a good deal more “things” and resources than those we saw in Tahrir Square and the other revolutionary launch sites.

But a longer look would reveal a surprising commonality of circumstances and demands. Egypt, for example, has practically no middle class and what there is appears to be vanishing. The US once had a robust middle class, which gave birth to many of the past reforms in education, health and social policy. Now, the numbers of Americans who self-identify as middle class is shrinking.

In both countries, shameful numbers of people are living are living below the poverty line. Millions are unemployed in each country. In Egypt, students with PhD. degrees are driving taxis; in the US, they’re turned away from these jobs as “overqualified.”

The Egyptian economy is in even worse shape than America’s. Foreign investment has come to a virtual standstill while the people mount full-throated attacks on their new military rulers and the Army retaliates by muzzling freedom or speech, press, assembly, etc. – i.e. the precise freedoms for which so many were killed and injured in Tahrir Square. The bottom has dropped out of Egypt’s tourism industry, a major source of employment and a major earner of foreign exchange that Egypt needs to buy the products its people want.

Egyptian bankers have a lot in common with American banks these days. In Egypt, business loans have never been granted on the basis of a good idea. Credit is traditionally available to people who are well connected politically, whether they have good ideas or not. The situation in the US today may not be quite that bad, but it’s getting close. Despite the incessant GOP references to small business as “the job creators,” credit for small business is a virtual trickle.

Like their Arab cousins, American participants in Occupy Wall Street have had to deal with the police. While US cops don’t (usually) torture and abuse their prisoners, they arrested hundreds. And, as in Tahrir Square, the harder the police cracked down, the more determined the protesters became.

Finally, there is the issue of transparency and accountability. In Egypt, public officials majored in stealing funds from the public purse to enrich themselves. The theft and fraud was carried out behind a steel curtain, with both the banks and the government being complicit. It’s been that way in Egypt for decades, and it hasn’t changed one iota since the revolution. But at least in Egypt, the major miscreants are being put on trial by the interim government.

In the US, the culprits were the banks, mortgage brokers, and rating agencies. But, unlike in Egypt, there are no American trials. In the US, not a single major figure in the collapse of 2008 has been indicted, much less tried.

So the Tahrir Square protesters – and their counterparts in many other countries in North Africa and the Middle East – are at many levels railing against many of the same kinds of abuses as their American cousins. A major difference between the US and Arab protesters is that the Arabs have been forced to endure the curse of crony capitalism and authoritarian government for a very long time.

But cut through all the opposition rhetoric and the messages seem clear and unified. In both the Middle East and in the US, demonstrators are railing against the well-off – not for having become well-off, but for HOW they became well-off. And in both countries, protestors are decrying the way the government-corporate “partnership” has inundated every corner of society in vast sums of money to buy the silence of the masses.

I don’t know how much the big-ticket capitalists in either country have spent for this silence, but so far they got a bum deal.

Far from keeping silent, Occupy Wall Street is likely to grow into more and more US cities, picking up thousands more angry Americans in the process.

Look for the same dynamic to take root in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, perhaps even Saudi Arabia in time.

Get used to it. The Arab uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement are not likely to be going away any time soon.