Interviews compiled by Jon Jensen in Cairo, Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem and Hugh Macleod in Beirut.
It all began in Tunisia. The protests that toppled a dictator inspired a region, and they spread to Egypt, then Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Then they struck Israel.
Now, it seems, they have spread to the United States. As Occupy Wall Street gains momentum and fans out across the country, protesters have made no secret out of the fact that they are emulating in their own way the formula that worked for their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa.
The organizers of the Occupy protests have aggressively pursued social media strategies and worked to maintain its leaderless momentum. But as initial press reports begin to cool off, as does the weather, will the protests fizzle?
It is unlikely that the Occupy demonstrators will be meeting with the kind of violence doled out by Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bashar al-Assad, and the situation in each country is vastly different. But many protest leaders in the Middle East said that they feel a connection to not only their fellow protesters in the region, but also their fellow protesters in the United States and elsewhere.
“I do feel that we are part of a global moment,” said Stav Shaffir, 26, one of the lead organizers of the Israeli protest movement. “It is important to me that what we are doing gets out and that people will hear about it and understand the complexities of each country and each case, and support each other.”
On that note, some stalwarts of the Arab Spring have some ideas about how the U.S. protesters can keep up the pressure, and some tactics to share that worked for them, including the need to provide entertainment and snacks for long periods of time. Apparently, that’s really important.
Ramy Raouf, communication officer at Front to Defend Egypt Protesters
What advice do you have for protesters in the United States?
“All protesters take the same risks, from Tunisia to Egypt — police are cracking down using the same tactics. Every single person that goes out onto the street in America for a peaceful protest should know very well their rights under the U.S. law.
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"When police react with violence, the protesters also need to understand the official laws of the region to understand what they can and cannot do. If they ever get arrested, they should always have a lawyer ready. During peaceful assemblies, protesters who have been arrested should never answer any questions without a lawyer present.
"Protesters should always go to the streets carrying a bag. In that bag, they should carry a can of Pepsi, a bottle of water, and a bottle of vinegar. They should also carry plastic bags and extra clothes. If the police shoot tear gas during a protest and it gets in their eyes, they can immediately smell the vinegar. Then splash the water on their face. After that, add pepsi to wash out the eyes. It will reduce the effects of the gas.
"Alternatively, they could bring an onion and start smelling the onion when the tear gas starts. If the police officers use electric shocks or stun guns, protesters should wear the plastic bags on their legs. You won't get affected by the shocks if you're wearing the plastic. These are tips for any peaceful protest.
"If violence takes place, the protesters should document all the police abuses. Always take pictures, even with a small camera. And maintain accurate numbers of injured and arrested."
What kinds of things should the US protesters keep in mind if they want to meet with success?
“They need to do two things. The first is to mobilize people in big numbers. They should have as many people come to the protest with the same demands. If you are only 50 people, it's not useful. But with bigger numbers on the ground, you can really pressure the regime. The second thing is direction and purpose. The protesters should always keep in mind the direction they would like to go, and should always operate with carefully planned steps."
Gigi Ibrahim, Egyptian activist
What advice do you have for protesters in the United States?
“The best thing I can say is they need to find a way to keep the momentum going. And assemble a group of people that have the same ideas to connect everyone and keep the momentum going. They should know not to give up despite their relatively small numbers. It’s not actually about numbers at this point. I actually see this movement growing. And if these American activists continue their protests and keep doing basically what they're doing, they could actually succeed."
What was the most important thing for you to do once all the Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square?
“Whenever you occupy a place and are sitting in one spot for many hours, and not getting a response from the government, you have to keep yourself entertained. Before we reached Tahrir in late January, the activists had agreed that we would gather for a meeting, but we didn't know exactly what we would do or say. So when we got there, we called a meeting near a palm tree in the square. We discussed how to keep protesters there for as long as possible. We decided that if they're not fed or entertained, then people would start leaving. So we started collecting money for food. And we sent people throughout Tahrir who were singing, telling stories and walking around speaking to each other. You need something like that — even if it's yoga — you have to keep people entertained for long periods of waiting."
How can the Occupy Wall Street protesters succeed?
“One important thing is to have a clear set of demands. And have those demands, which can be in a list, have to be made very public. Over 18 days, Egyptian protesters eventually put up large posters with our demands for the entire square to see. They should also start thinking about how to expand their movement. I think it's going already in the right direction, with the labor unions agreeing to join. But they need more labor unions to get involved."
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What about social media?
“I recommend that protesters use Twitter so that people can follow what's happening. And they should create a unified hashtag, because I've noticed that's there are several hashtags in New York. It's very important to have a unified hashtag because one spelling mistake can make a difference. I think #OccupyWallStreet is too long. We used #Jan25, which was short and to the point. We came up with hashtags for all protests. We even had a safety hashtag for activists to tweet once they got home from a protest so that other activists could know that they were okay."
What should protesters do if the police crackdown?
"If the police resort to violence, it's up to the individual protester to decide whether or not they want to run away or fight back. I personally fought back in Egypt. But either way, you have to defend yourself. I recommend that protesters have a mask or scarf just in case the police start with tear gas. In Tahrir, I put an onion dipped in vinegar inside my scarf, and wrapped it around another scarf. And I only breathed through my mouth. But maybe the tear gas in America isn't expired like it was in Egypt. If protesters get arrested, they should know that they have more rights than we had. They can get a phone call. If they're arrested, the protesters shouldn't say anything until there's a lawyer present. They should also find out exactly what charges they face. There's a legal system in America, and that means more legal room to defend themselves."
How do you see it going in New York so far?
"Well, it's already spreading to another cities. That's the key. It was different in Egypt, but they will need to figure out what will keep the momentum going for protesters in American communities. Still, they're doing a good job. This could be a revolution — I already see it as a revolution."
Stav Shaffir, 26, a lead organizer of the Israeli social protest movement.
What advice do you have for the U.S. protesters?
“First thing is, don’t over organize. I think it is one of the most important things. We are all, all of us, protesting against much greater forces than our own. I have to say that I didn’t understand the magnitude of this before we started our own protest. I had no idea how big these interests are.
"We are all standing up against governments, conglomerates, and you have to begin to understand just how powerful they are.
"So the only power we have is not to be an organization. Safeguard your own chaos. The establishment has no idea what to do with a chaotic style of leadership. If you have many leaders, they don’t know what to do with it. You have to make sure to keep up constant activity under different leadership, so that they never know where the next thing is coming from. They are clueless how to respond.”
What should the U.S. protesters keep in mind if they want to meet with success?
“The other thing is honesty and authenticity. You have to be absolutely sure of yourself, to keep being kids, to work from the heart. We do not have to be experts in order to see the problems that surround us, so it is important to remain true to yourself, to respond from the heart, honestly.
"When you are facing a large evil and such injustice, what we have on our side is that we still feel, that we feel mercy, solidarity, friendship; these basic things are what keep us strong.”
Do you have tactical advice?
“In terms of tactics, you have to allow as much liberty as you possibly can. People come up with amazing solutions to problems if you just let them. We never even thought about building a community kitchen, for example. One day someone said ‘we need a kitchen here’ and within the hour, we had a kitchen.
"You have to be prepared to improvise and laugh at problems, not take things too hard or too seriously. Also, its colder there… You probably need some sunshine."
Sameh al-Hamwi, from the Syrian Revolution General Commission
What advice do you have for the U.S. protesters?
“The Wall Street protesters must stay away from violence, especially with the police. They must allow an open space so that people and cars can pass through because by doing so they will gain the support of the public. They must keep cleaning the street and organize their sit in, creating activities, new ideas every day, new banners and logos.
"They could put big speakers to play music or broadcast speeches so people in other neighborhoods can hear. This is how we did it in Hama, to communicate the protest to other people from other neighbourhoods.
"They should be communicating with the media a lot and putting down new ideas and innovative targets. They should issue a list of goals and write them on canvas banners for the protesters to sign, either by hand or by their fingerprints in paint.
"It should not be a leadership campaign. Activists should be distributed between groups so that if one is arrested it does not affect the outcome.
"My heart is with the American people and the youth.”
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