An Egyptian Spring and a Wisconsin Winter

This essay appears originally in We Are Wisconsin, a collected volume of writings about the Wisconsin protests in Winter 2011, edited by Erica Sangras.

The Cairo evening seeped with optimism and joy, with dancing punctuated by shouts of Egyptian pride, and people waving the red, white, and black flag with the eagle emblazoned in the center. I was nearly breathless when I reached the Qasr al-Nil bridge that led to Tahrir Square after running from my hotel wearing oversized khakis and uncomfortable shoes with no socks, equipped with only my two cell phones (American and Egyptian), which I had assembled hastily minutes after Egypt’s vice president had announced that President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and subsequently bolted out the door.

I had flown to Cairo five days earlier, after nearly two weeks of staying up late at night, eyes glued to my computer, focusing on Twitter and Al Jazeera. As a sociology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, my research is on activists who use social media in Egypt; now bloggers and citizen journalists I had tracked for months had abandoned their computers and were fighting against Mubarak’s regime in the streets, although still tweeting and blogging from smartphones.

Two days later, on my way back to Wisconsin, I rested on an airport floor in Istanbul, using my backpack as a pillow after sleeping little on the plane. I posted on Facebook, “Egyptians faced and won against the notorious Central Security Forces. State employees can do the same against measly Wisconsin National Guard troops” in response to Governor Scott Walker’s threat of calling in the National Guard if corrections employees went on strike.

And on Sunday, February 13, I was back in Madison, in the office of my union, the Teaching Assistants’ Association. I chuckled at a website that photoshopped Mubarak’s face onto that of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, and Scott Walker’s face onto that of Mini Me’s. I joked that someone should create an image of the two shaking hands. But stationed in the overflow room of the Wisconsin State Capitol during the first day of mass protests in Madison, I puzzled over the waving of Egyptian flags and signs that read “Walk Like an Egyptian” hoisted by a few in the thousands of pro-labor protesters stationed in front of the state house.

I’m somewhat less Pollyannaish than many others when it comes to making the connection between Cairo and Madison, a comparison that was in vogue during the early days of the Wisconsin protests. The “From Cairo to Madison” meme became a common part of the protest discourse, used by many, including Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor and activist Medea Benjamin, the only other person I know of that was at the heart of both events.

I initially smirked at the comparisons of Cairo to Madison, of Mubarak to Walker. It may have merited a tweet or a Facebook status update. I did, after all, just come from Egypt, so the connection seemed to be a funny coincidence, like a red string I had threaded from Cairo to Madison. It certainly was coincidental that large protests in Madison had come shortly after those in Cairo brought to an end Mubarak’s regime, but did the two really have anything to do with each other? Yes, there were occupations in both. Yes, many people participated. Yes, youth and social media did help catalyze action. But my latter and much more long-held sentiment was that of distaste and annoyance with the continued comparison. How can you compare the struggle in Egypt, wherein a popular movement forced the hand of a dictator who had held onto the reins for 30 years—to a struggle against a fairly elected governor who had only been in office for three months? Could you actually compare the over 800 deaths of Egypt martyrs to a situation in which your greatest threat was either, as labor journalist Micah Uetricht noted, being assaulted with homemade cookies, or as Jon Stewart opined, being caught in the drum circle?

I don’t want to belabor the obvious differences or similarities here. But making the comparison has some serious implications for how we do politics in the United States.

First off, it belittles and trivializes the efforts and struggles of Egyptians. Against enormous odds, Egyptians emerged en masse on January 25 and eventually held Tahrir Square, braving attacks by Central Security Forces, State Security Investigations (the infamous mukhabarrat, an organization that brutally abducted political dissenters in the middle of the night), plain-clothes thugs, and Mubarak supporters riding on horses and camels. Compare this to Wisconsin-based police forces that were broadly in favor of protest action. Off-duty police officers frequently participated in the protests, holding “Cops for Labor” signs, even though they had been exempted from the effects of Walker’s collective bargaining law. Capitol police had daily meetings with protest organizers and the Capitol occupants to ensure clear lines of communication and so cleaning operations could take place each evening. Madison protesters, in participating, at most risked their jobs—especially in the case of Madison teachers “sicking out” —but did not risk life nor limb in their involvement. The flip side of this is self-aggrandizement by the Wisconsin protesters. Between the two, which event will be remembered as world-changing event decades from now?

Furthermore, although on the surface we may be seeing a new opening for political possibility, we see each movement heading in radically different directions. While the Egyptian movement seems new, it is emerging from a vibrant history of human rights work and labor struggles. This movement is finally bearing political fruit, breaking down a stagnant political regime and culture of fear. In Wisconsin, the labor movement is decades old but is almost at its nadir. Public sector unionism has been on the decline for the past 30 years, marred now by aged, creaky institutions, an ugly public image of union thugs, Cadillac healthcare and pension plans, and, possibly most damning, a service model of unionism in which members see their own union as merely “insurance” against abuse by The Boss. Gone seem to be the days of social movement unionism in which the “haves” feared the collective power and solidarity of the “have-nots.” Now we’re fighting with our backs against the wall.

Finally, the comparison itself signals a lack of political imagination, one that must resort to farfetched comparisons to justify its relevancy. Egyptian Mohammed Saladin Nusair now-infamous sign, reading “Egypt Supports Wisconsin”, and below it, “One World, One Pain.” While it’s good to see solidarity alive and well, and that it is true that “the whole world is watching”, hope is a thin thread on which to connect movements. It seems more apt for Wisconsinites to look towards inspiration from American labor’s heyday, when there were few guarantees of rights and the ability to organize, when unions weren’t insurance and, to quote the singer Travis Morrison, “being union got you dead.” That’s more like what the situation looks like now for an increasing number of states, of which Wisconsin is the opening salvo in a full-frontal attack by the Right. As unionists, our own vision of American labor should place it in proper historical context, and rebuild and reorganize our unions from there.

And so Egypt has seen a spring, while in Wisconsin it’s become winter. The buds of the Egyptian spring are trying to survive against whipping winds and torrential downpours. But the reprieve between the storms may allow time for development, for the creation of a more democratic political regime. On the other side of the world, in Middle America, we huddle together against ice and snow, against the northern wind that cuts to the bone, that chatters the teeth and freezes the hair in our nostrils. It will take organizing and self-criticism of what in our unions and political organizations is awry. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy to actively stoke the stove fire and remodel the log cabin, maybe more than we may be willing to admit.

But if there’s one thing that Wisconsinites have done well for years, it’s weathering winters.

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