Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Egypt: Compare and Contrast

Aug 15, 2013

Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Egypt: Compare and Contrast

Police preparing to attack pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo. Credit: Flickr.

The professor inside my head just handed out an essay assignment:

Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Egypt: Compare and Contrast.

The big difference leaps to my mind first: The crackdowns on Occupy Egypt (the movement in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi) have been far more violent than the ones that dispersed the Occupy Wall Street encampments across the U.S. in 2011. In both cases definite numbers are almost impossible to come up with. But there seems to be not a single death clearly due to police action against an OWS site, though surely hundreds suffered injuries. In Egypt, of course, hundreds have been killed by uniformed agents as well as civilian supporters of the military government. Injuries run into the thousands.

On the other hand, since the Egyptian authorities seem more intent on doing violence than arresting people, their arrest totals at the encampments may not equal the 7,762 arrests of OWS protesters in the U.S. recorded so far.

The victims of violent suppression in the U.S. might be the first to say that their hearts go out to the victims in Egypt, who suffered on such a larger scale. But the Americans might also want to tell us what it feels like to be pepper-sprayed in the face or run over by a police scooter or slammed to the ground and smacked with a police baton.

I couldn’t find any tally of the effects of lasting injuries from concussions or broken bones or dislocations among U.S. Occupiers. But anyone who has suffered such an injury for any reason will tell you it doesn’t go away quickly. And when you are in pain, it’s hard to be consoled very much by knowing that half-way around the world a lot more people are in pain, and some are dead. After all, pain is pain.

If this were a philosophy class, I might add the argument that state violence is state violence. The difference in scale doesn’t change the central fact: In both cases the state was inflicting violence on protesters simply because they expressed political views the state didn’t like.

Another important similarity is the generally peaceful demeanor of the victims of violence. “The protest camps at the heart of Egypt's political crisis feel more like a village fair than a bastion of resistance,” Reuters reported just hours before the vicious crackdown of August 14. The most violent protesters the reporter could find in the sweltering heat were the boys who “ran around with water dispensers strapped to their backs, spraying people and laughing.”

Video and photos from Occupy encampments broken up around the U.S. told a very similar story.

Yet media headlines back then told quite a different tale. ABC News was typical: “Occupy Deaths Make Oakland, Salt Lake City, Burlington Order Camps Closed.” Officials had no choice, the headlines implied. The camps were a clear and present danger to public safety -- though the deaths, in each case, were wholly unrelated to the protesters’ activities.

In Oakland the city’s eviction notice to protesters spelled out more detail: "Your activities are injurious to health, obstruct the free use of property, ... and unlawfully obstruct the free passage or use of a public park or square." The Oakland Police Officers’ Association went further: "This Occupy Oakland has created an environment that is conducive to crime."

The chief of police in Burlington, VT, was shocked -- shocked -- to discover that “there has been extensive consumption of alcohol and some use of drugs” in the encampment there, as if that made it different from any other neighborhood in Burlington. 

What’s the word from Egypt? Al-Jazeera reports the official explanation for a month-long state of emergency: "The security and order of the nation face danger due to deliberate sabotage ... and the loss of life [inflicted] by extremist groups. ... The armed forces, in cooperation with the police, [will] take all necessary measures to maintain security and order and to protect public and private property and the lives of citizens."

That’s rather more exaggerated than the words of American officials breaking up OWS, but the gist of the message is strikingly similar. And when an Egyptian government spokesman assures us that security forces exercise “self-control and high-level professionalism in dispersing the sit-ins," while the Muslim Brotherhood protesters alone are responsible for "escalation and violence," it sounds all-too-familiar to anyone who followed the news in the heyday of the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

Yet there’s another fundamental difference. When OWS was broken up, the official explanations were widely quoted in U.S. news sources. And editorial comments were usually sympathetic: It’s a darn shame that force has to be used, but what choice did the authorities have? After all, you can’t let a bunch of rag-tag protesters disrupt the good order of the community and obstruct the freedom of decent, law-abiding citizens.

But when it comes to Egypt, the U.S. media don’t seem at all interested in quoting the official words of justification (which is why one must turn to Al-Jazeera). Reporters seem to think the words irrelevant, since the immorality of the violence and the hypocrisy of the military leaders is so obvious.

The same editorial pages that once sympathized with police action against OWS now offer unsparing criticism of the Egyptian attacks on protesters. “It is difficult to understand,” says the New York Times, “why the army ... would think that crushing the [Muslim] Brotherhood could benefit the country.” The editors at the Washington Post agree that what they called a “massive violation of human rights” cannot possibly help Egypt toward democracy.

But the WaPo editors have a more urgent concern on their minds: “The Obama administration is complicit in the new and horrifyingly bloody crackdown.” Though the administration has warned the Egyptian leaders to cut it out, “the military’s disregard for these appeals was logical and predictable: Washington had already demonstrated that its warnings were not credible.” And indeed, as I write this, the Times website carries the headline: “U.S. Condemns Crackdown, but Doesn’t Alter Policy.” (The cancelling of one joint military exercise is a nice symbol, but it hardly counts as a change in policy.)

Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, gave the green light for the coup launched by the leaders who have now unleashed such violence. Would those leaders risk the $1.5 billion or more they get from Washington without getting some kind of OK for their crackdown from the hand that feeds them?  We may never know.

Yet we do know that here at home many of the officials who broke up Occupy encampments in their cities got direct guidance and perhaps coordination from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.  That never seemed too newsworthy to the American mass media -- perhaps because breaking up the American protests was generally seen as fully justified, even necessary. It’s hard to report “government does the right thing” as front-page news.

Barack Obama may decide that he underestimated the American public’s reaction to the horrific scenes from Egypt. He may tell the generals there to back off, and they’ll have little choice but to obey.

Yet no mayor of an American city who sent the police into Occupy Wall Street camps felt compelled to apologize (though a few may have “regretted an occasional excess”).

And therein lies one more crucial difference between the two movements. The U.S. public heard, and generally affirmed, two very different stories. One is about violence ordered by good, democratically elected, American governments. The other is about violence unleashed by a bad, unelected, Egyptian government.

Since stories with good guys always have to have bad guys, and vice versa, the implication is unavoidable: The Occupy Wall Street protesters must be bad guys, and the Egyptian occupiers have surprisingly become good guys.

How to explain the different perceptions of two sets of events that are, though so different in scale, so similar in their basic structure? (Remember, this is all about how events are seen through an American lens.)

Here in the U.S. we have a long history of state violence inflicted on people protesting peacefully for more economic equity. From the North Carolina Regulators in the 1760s to the steel strikes of 1937, the pattern was rather predictable: Newspapers owned by wealthy publishers cast the protesters and strikers as villains, but public opinion was broadly divided. When the state called out its troops, their targets could count on plenty of sympathy. And a major public debate ensued.

That didn’t happen during Occupy Wall Street. According to the experts at Gallup, only about a quarter of the public supported OWS. Most Americans didn’t care enough to have any opinion at all. The more state violence was unleashed, the more the public turned against the methods (though not the goals) of the protests. So state violence evoked little public debate -- certainly nothing like the furor set off by the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the shootings at Kent State in 1970. But those were antiwar protests being suppressed, not protests over economic issues. 

Perhaps it’s an effect of the long period from roughly 1940 to 2007 when most white Americans generally assumed that they’d have an endlessly increasing prospect of economic growth and freedom to enjoy the good life. They didn’t want that prospect clouded by crowds in the streets disturbing their comfortable way of life. So they were happy enough to see the authorities break up those crowds, with little concern about the methods used.

Perhaps antipathy, or at best apathy, toward visible protest became such an entrenched habit that it endures, despite the dramatic change in the economic prospects of most white Americans. 

Whatever the reason, it would have been absurd to think the suppression of Occupy Wall Street would spark a civil war in the U.S. -- just as it’s absurd to dismiss the possibility of civil war in Egypt.

But public opinion is a slippery, unpredictable creature. Who would have thought that Americans’ hearts would go out to a movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood? There is, to be sure, a long American tradition of sympathizing with people whose democratically elected government is overthrown by a military coup. But it’s a selective sympathy. To take just one example that remains painfully relevant: There was little lament or debate in the U.S. when the Iranian military, under CIA tutelage, overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.

No doubt there are voices whispering in Obama’s ear: Give the Egyptian conflict the right spin and the American public will soon enough turn today’s good guys into tomorrow’s bad guys, returning to its habit of choosing order over the specter of chaos. It shouldn’t be too hard when that specter wears a Muslim veil. Those voices may prove to be right.

On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement may revive as unexpectedly as it appeared the first time, with even more strength. Given the unending Great Recession, the media and the public may respond quite differently next time.

The only thing history teaches us for sure is that we should not try to predict the future. 

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