Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Arab Spring Running American Autumn
Egypt’s Top ‘Facebook Revolutionary’ Now Advising Occupy Wall Street
By Spencer Ackerman
October 18, 2011
One of the key activists behind Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” is now giving advice to a new group of protesters: the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park — and their offshoots around the country — often cite the mass demonstrations earlier this year in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as their inspiration. So maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Ahmed Maher, one of the leading figures in those Egyptian protests, has been corresponding for weeks with the Occupy Wall Streeters, whom he calls “our brothers.”
Maher is one of the founders of the April 6 Youth, which used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to galvanize Egyptians against President Hosni Mubarak. Recently, however, his attention has turned toward America, where he’s been chatting online with Occupy activists. Those conversations center around practical advice from a successful Egyptian revolutionary. Usually, they occur through Facebook. On Tuesday, for the first time, they happened face to face.
“We talk on the internet about what happened in Egypt, about our structure, about our organization, how to organize a flash mob, how to organize a sit-in,” Maher tells Danger Room, and “how to be non-violent with police.”
That’s the message he brings to D.C.’s McPherson Square, home of the local Occupy offshoot, for an impromptu Tuesday afternoon visit. The denizens of the downtown park flock to an excited Maher when they learn an Egyptian revolutionary is there to support them. “We kept peaceful, because we wanted to attract people to us,” Maher explains. “If we used nonviolence, without killing any soldiers, then the people would help us.”
The Egyptian revolution hasn’t exactly panned out in the way that young democrats like Maher hoped: Cairo’s military has been brutally cracking down on what it sees as enemies of the state. And the Occupy movement is still maddeningly vague about its goals. Nevertheless, to Maher, helping the U.S. protesters is only natural. For one thing, April 6 Youth took its own inspiration from “many revolutions in Eastern Europe and non-violence strategy, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” says Maher, who’s in Washington D.C. for a few days thanks to an American University professor.
For another, Egypt’s democracy movement is also a movement for economic justice — one with personal resonance for Maher. “We want to improve the labor laws, the relationship between the owner and employees, because I was fired from my job several times and they were calling for security,” he says. You could almost imagine Maher, a civil engineer, on the We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr.
Maher is a controversial figure within the Egyptian democracy movement, as some consider him dictatorial and polarizing. But he was a pioneer in showing Egyptians that social networks could be powerful political organization tools. For that, Mubarak’s goons jailed him for three months before this year’s #Jan25 Revolution, and targeted his comrades in April 6 during it.
Now the Occupy activists are essentially paying Maher and his allies forward. On Sunday, the Occupy Wall Street website cheered the movement’s expansion to 1,500 cities around the world with an article headlined, “From Tahrir Square to Times Square.” The movement says it is “inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, Italy and the U.K.”
D.C. is no different. When Marc Smith, a 20something manning Occupy D.C.’s tech tent — mostly Dell and Toshiba for Tweeting, Facebooking and running the live feed from the park — learns that Maher is on his way to McPherson Square, his eyes go wide and asks if Maher was the “dude from Google.” Actually, that was Wael Ghonim, the Google exec whom Mubarak detained.
“They’ve got paintings up here of Gandhi and MLK,” Smith says. “Someone should paint [Ghonim]. He did a lot over there.”
One of the biggest pieces of advice Maher says he tells the Occupy groups: Don’t sweat the details. “Stay focused on the main issues,” he says. “For 18 days in Tahrir Square, we were united to take Mubarak down.” For a movement often criticized for incoherent messaging, it may be a resonant piece of advice.
So when Maher arrives in McPherson Square — occupied by about 75 people and nearly as many tents — he asks Metcalf: what’s the “one big idea” that the Occupy movement can rally around? Metcalf says they’re “still searching” for it.
Maher, who started snapping pictures on his phone as soon as he got to the park, has more questions. “Are you guys on Facebook, on Twitter? How are you attracting people?”
That’s more in Metcalf’s comfort zone. “We are tweeting, we are Facebooking,” he tells Maher. “There’s a tech tent over there, and there are reporters everywhere. We’re gonna be here as long as it takes.”
Maher ultimately gives Occupy D.C. the thumbs-up. “It’s very good,” he says, “I feel very happy here.”
Maher is only in Washington until the end of the week. After that, he’s headed for New York — where, he says, he’ll go to Occupy Wall Street, the movement he helped inspire, to show his support.