From Wall Street to Tahrir Square, a New Distrust of Leaders’ Promises

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Protesters from the Occupy Wall Street campaign march in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York September 28, 2011. (Photo: Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Outrage at a status quo that serves powerful elites at the expense of the majority has, over the past year, drawn millions of (mostly) young people onto the streets of Madrid, Athens, Santiago, New Delhi, Tripoli,  Cairo and now even New York City. But  their anger is not confined to the status quo; it is also directed at the failings of those who’ve been entrusted to fix things. Some degree of buyer’s remorse is almost inevitable in politics, when those who have voted, protested or fought for change entrust their fate to representatives who then retreat behind closed doors to run countries like CEOs run corporations.  The New York Times noted Wednesday  that throughout the Western world, young people angry at an economic system that offers them diminishing prospects of a decent life are increasingly scornful of voting in elections as a means of seeking change.

“No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in,” may be an old anarchist bumper-sticker, but it reveals a measure of truth learned by bitter experience, for example, by many of the young Americans who campaigned for President Barack Obama in the expectation that his election would bring a profound change in the priorities and practices of Washington. No such luck. Obama operates in the same matrix of long-established corporate, political and security power centers as his predecessors, and with a remarkable degree of continuity. Having won office with a message of “change we can believe in,” Obama the incumbent now seeks reelection by asking the same voters to believe in a status quo little changed from the final years of the Bush Administration.

And the fledgling protest movement on Wall Street and other parts of the United States reflects a growing awareness — shared with young people throughout the West — that voting will change very little unless voters are also willing to take to the streets to hold their governments accountable, and counter the influence of the corporate, political and security power centers most vested in the status quo.

Despite going strong after 12 days, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ phenomenon may fizzle if its objectives remain vague — the first rule of protest politics is that no matter how angry people are at the system, absent  clearly defined and attainable demands, a host will inevitably disperse after a while; setting clear, even limited goals and winning even small victories, by contrast, has an empowering effect on those who have taken part. And the law of diminishing returns also requires protest organizers to call off  their action at a high point, hoping to channel the energy of their supporters into more sustained organization for actions to come rather than letting it dissipate with a shrinking protest camp.

Still, whatever the outcome of the current Wall Street protest, the phenomenon is likely to recur. Children of the middle class throughout the Western world are contemplating a slide into poverty amid austerity policies that cut spending on education and basic services but do little to stimulate growth in job markets, and that threatens to make mass protest once again a way of life in Western cities on a scale not seen since the late 1960s.

(SEE: Photos of the protesters encamped by Wall Street.)

The inspiration for many of the young protestors in Western capitals this year was the actions of their peers on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who braved the thuggery of Mubarak’s enforcers on the streets to force the tyrant out. But what may have looked, last February, like a triumphant popular revolution may, in fact, have turned out to be a military coup prompted and enabled by the popular uprising in whose name the generals claimed power for themselves.

The military-based regime that has ruled Egypt for the past 69 years was compelled to get rid of Mubarak and his coterie, sacrificing them to the risen citizenry in order to preserve the core interests of the regime itself. Power in what was called Egypt’s “revolution” did not transfer from the Mubarak to any sort of democratic entity; it passed to a military junta — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — which  has steadily imposed its own agenda, suppressing the democratic impulse even as it adopted the branding language of the revolution.

In its effort to suppress and disperse the popular uprising that caused the crisis forcing Mubarak’s ouster, SCAF has even reimposed — and actually expanded — the former tyrant’s hated Emergency Law, which gives the junta a free hand to suppress political activity. It has arrogated to itself the right to decide the content and timetable of Egypt’s political transition, this week announcing a timetable for legislative elections to be held at the end of 2011 and into 2013, under an election law arbitrarily drawn up by the SCAF. One of its provisions reserves one third of seats in the 498-seat legislature for candidates who run independent of political parties — a measure opposition parties say makes it easy for elements of Mubarak’s old ruling party to reinsert themselves into a measure of power. The SCAF election law also requires that half of the legislators be either farmers or members of trade unions.

Most of the key opposition parties have threatened to boycott the election if that law isn’t changed. But the very fact that Egyptian political parties are once again having to threaten a boycott to demonstrate the lack of legitimacy of an election — as they did before the last sham election held by Mubarak late in 2010 — underscores how little may have changed despite the events of last February. The generals may have repaired behind closed doors to organize a transition to democracy in the name of “the revolution,” but what they did behind those closed doors is hardly democratic. Direct repression of political activity by the military has, if anything, actually intensified in the months since Mubarak’s ouster. And the question of how democratic the outcome of the transition away from his rule proves to be will depend, once again, on the extent of leverage the citizenry can muster to press the generals towards democracy.

(SEE: Exclusive photos of the drama of Tahrir Square.)

Tahrir Square may also have provided the inspiration for Libyans to stand up and fight to bring down the regime of Colonel Gaddafi (with the help of NATO air power), but in Tripoli, too, there are signs of disquiet over what’s happening behind closed doors — and more immediately, who gets to sit behind those closed doors to make the decisions that will shape Libya’s immediate future.

The identity and composition of the National Transitional Council created in Benghazi in the early days of the rebellion was always somewhat murky because of security concerns while the war raged. And even though it was quickly recognized by NATO countries as the only legitimate government of Libya, that legitimacy has not been incontrovertibly established among those who actually did the fighting to oust Gaddafi. Tensions within the rebel movement were already visible months ago when TNC military chief General Fattah Abdel Younis was assassinated by rival rebel fighters. And since the fall of Tripoli, tensions have escalated over the TNC’s composition, with Islamists and fighters from Misrata who shouldered much of the combat burden openly complaining that Western-backed technocrats and defectors from the old regime, well established now as interlocutors with the West, are trying to marginalize them.  Absent any structure to establish a representative government, this is a power struggle that could very quickly turn messy. The TNC is obliged to hold elections within eight months of declaring victory over Gaddafi, which seems imminent. But those who sacrificed most in the fight are likely to demand a more immediate hand in shaping the transition.

The political situations in the U.S., European cities and North Africa are dramatically different. But one common theme that appears to be emerging among those pressing for change, is an intention to hold accountable those that they’ve helped put in the corridors of power, making the voices of the street heard through the closed doors of executive decision making.

MORE: Libyan rebels converge on the remnants of the Gaddafi regime.