The One Thing Egypt, Turkey, and Occupy Wall Street Protests Have in Common

Throughout the streets of Egypt, the pro and anti-Morsi factions have drawn their lines in the street, each side using a massive presence to bolster their claim to political legitimacy. In one sense, this represents a significant political awakening in which the people of Egypt feel that they have a stake in their country’s political system. In the more immediate term, however, it demonstrates the failure of mass sentiment to translate into novel political institutions capable of effecting change. By falling back on old political organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, the protesters have re-established the old ideological map and squandered a chance to forge a new path. 

The ideological fault lines in Egypt are a side effect of a common problem facing mass movements throughout the world. Incited by long-standing grievances and mobilized by efficient and rapid means of communication, like Twitter, Facebook and instant news coverage, people around the world are able to quickly assemble for protest. However, these mass-movements are seldom able to translate their momentum into a lasting change that survive the emotional current behind the mass movements.

Some of the best examples of this are Occupy Wall Street and the current Taksim Square protests in Turkey. Similar to Egypt, these movements demonstrate the failure of mas mobilization to translate to political organization. Despite their ability to mobilize quickly, they were unable to make the transition from grievance to institution building that is essential for shifting the status quo.

With the now famous slogan “We are the 99%,” the Occupy Wall Street movement attempted to correct the socioeconomic inequalities that were palpable to many Americans. The movement seemed to spring from nowhere to become a prominent political voice. As soon became apparent, however, the the protesters had almost no organizational hierarchy. Dedicated to principles of direct democracy, almost to the point of absurdity, it had a diffuse leadership that could agree on almost nothing. As the steam of the movement gradually flagged, it left behind no significant organization or platform to further advance the cause of the 99%.

Similarly in Turkey, the Taksim square protests have led to little more than symbolic victories. Beginning over the seemingly trivial issue of a park in Istanbul, the protesters quickly assembled massive crowds that decried the autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Erdogan. Nevertheless, the movement has yet to bolster Turkey’s ailing opposition parties, which remain weak and disorganized. With a failure to mobilize anything more than protests, the movement will most likely also lose its energy.

From an organizational perspective, current mass moments could learn much from the Tea Party. Though its uncompromising ideology irresponsibly contributed to the impotence of the American government and ultimately sowed the seeds of its own decline, the Tea Party’s organizational capabilities remain impressive. It mobilized a grassroots movement into a well-funded political machine that effectively countered many of its opponents’ initiatives.  Such organizational skill has not been seen in Cairo, Istanbul or Zuccotti Park.

In the digital age, mass mobilization has become much easier, but this has not changed the fact that political organizations are crucial to sustaining political momentum. Without them, like in Egypt, mass movements will remain sidelined by more established parties that wish to maintain the status quo.