The “Occupy Wall Street” protests in the United States raise a problem familiar to the contemporary Arab world: What happens to a political movement that is leaderless and unfocused?
The wave of discontent in the West is directly linked to the grave economic conditions facing the middle classes in these societies. The focus on Wall Street reflects a sense of deep resentment at the continued massive profits by the same financial companies that are rightly blamed for the meltdown of 2008 and the ongoing financial crisis.
When President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party used this discontent to sweep Republicans out of the White House and both houses of Congress in a crushing 2008 victory, the reaction on the right was, literally, hysterical. It gave rise to the “Tea Party” movement that purported to be as angry at Republicans and former President George W. Bush as with the Democrats.
However, unlike the all-inclusive Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party was exclusive. It repeated an essential demand outlined in Richard J. Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” to “take the country back” from a monstrous and alien conspiracy aiming to destroy it. This rage was best expressed more recently in the paranoid panic of sobbing talk-show host Glenn Beck.
Mainstream Republicans were able to mobilize the energy of the Tea Party to win back the House of Representatives in 2010, a classic example of how a spontaneous, grassroots movement can be cultivated, funded and directed by an organized political leadership. It became a movement that looked like a leaderless and spontaneous outburst of popular sentiment, but that was in effect put to work by a highly organized party in the focused service of a specific political goal.
The irony is that the intense passions released by the Tea Party have now become a liability in the next challenge facing the Republicans, namely unseating Obama and retaking the White House. For this, they will need to appeal to a broad-base of mainstream, independent and swing American voters, who are likely to regard Tea Party rhetoric as unhinged.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, shows no signs of being mobilized by a political party or organization to create real change in politics or policy. Any movement so broad-based, leaderless (though there are some organizers who can be identified) and, frankly, unfocused runs the risk of simply fizzling out without leaving any lasting legacy.
Disappointment with Obama and the Democrats runs so high that it is hard to imagine Occupy Wall Street developing into a potent base to aid his re-election. However, the most logical consequence would be an emboldened and more aggressively reformist Obama second term. The lack of convergence between the organized liberals in the Democratic Party and the protesting leftists thus far seems complete, in contrast to the way Republicans used the Tea Party for their own purposes.
Arabs should be very familiar with this conundrum. The Egyptian experience in particular has shown the limitations of a leaderless, spontaneous movement. It creates momentum but cannot harness it. That can only be done by organized political groupings.
The Tahrir protesters sought the departure of President Hosni Mubarak and his sons, and the military arranged for that and took over. This amounts to regime decapitation but not regime change. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is quietly and effectively preparing to become the main beneficiary of planned parliamentary elections, while professional politicians like the former Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, are campaigning for the presidency. For now the military rules, and it has become a criminal offense to mock these new collective pharaohs.
In other words, the ideals of the Tahrir protesters, apart from the absence of Mubarak, hardly seem to have been realized. Existing organizations, predictably, are using the momentum the protests created for their own ends. Power is in the streets, as Lenin said, just waiting to be picked up. Among those picking it up these days are Islamist mobs and army rioters attacking Coptic protesters.
There is movement toward a new system in Egypt, but what it will look like is anybody’s guess (although I did suggest a three-way power-sharing arrangement months ago, recognizing this is a highly optimistic scenario). All organized groups are jockeying to take advantage of the space and momentum created by the protesters, to the exclusion, and possibly at the expense, of most of the protesters themselves.
Another good example of a grassroots movement disconnected from organized political leadership is the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign that sometimes targets the Israeli occupation, and sometimes Israel itself. In neither case is it well coordinated with a Palestinian national leadership that can translate the momentum it produces into results. Until it is, the efforts of the so-called BDS campaign are unlikely to have a significant effect on the strategic equation. The endeavor might make people feel good, but it won’t make much of a difference.
Protest and grassroots movements, by being focused and connected to existing political institutions, can have a genuine impact. Otherwise they risk their efforts being co-opted or simply fizzling out with a whimper.