True dissent? Labor and left-wing groups meet in Washington to capitalize on Egyptian uprising

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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In the hours before Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt’s president, the Egyptian people were raging for freedom in the streets of Cairo. Back in Washington D.C., lefty organizations were plotting, too, wondering: “How can we capitalize on those protesters’ positive narrative?”

On Thursday night, the New Organizing Institute did what it does best: It set up a discussion. This one was titled, “Organizing lessons from the demonstrations in Egypt.” (Lesson 1: Have an oppressive dictator.)

Held in SEIU’s fortified compound — The Daily Caller had to flash ID and sign in, indicating that the group may have taken some organizing lessons from Mubarak rather than the protesters — the discussion and panelists were an abject demonstration of cognitive dissonance.

Arriving a little late, the first words TheDC could make out had something to do with “Barack Obama” and “campaigns.”

On a giant projector behind the panelists was a Facebook (made in America) page (hosted in England) designed to help the Egyptians share information and support with each other and the world.

Perhaps it was because TheDC was concentrating on the numerous posts written in Arabic, but when panelist Robert “Biko” Baker began speaking, something just didn’t click.

“First, I want to say, Egypt is not America,” said the executive director of the League of Young Voters. “But the more I look at it, the more it looks like …”

Was Biko saying that Americans are actually like those Egyptians with absolutely no rights under an oppressive regime?

“I’m really starting to think about [the similarities between Egypt and Biko’s own neighborhood] and think about the effects of fascism and the state to suppress people at the bottom,” said Biko.

Biko was speaking about the genuine struggles of minority communities: the rate of incarceration, the poverty, as well as the very real police brutality and abuse of civil rights.

In fighting these very serious issues, however, Biko and the League of Voters have a bit more financial and structural support than the Egyptian people, thanks to MoveOn.org, SEIU and — most importantly — the Drum Major Institute.

Biko had less to say when the discussion turned to how the people of Egypt were using technology and old-fashioned dissent to take the power back. Nadine Wahab, however, filled in the space.

SEIU and NOI may not have gotten exactly what they expected out of the discussion. The two panelists of Egyptian descent, who have been working tirelessly with protesters and supporters since the demonstrations began, focused most of their points on, well, the Egyptians’ struggle to overthrow Mubarak’s regime.

Adel Iskandar, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University spoke frequently of how the technology helped Egyptians voluntarily come together to create a fluid and organic group composed of individual efforts and “cells.”

Nadine Wahab, communications director at the civil liberties-esque Rights Working Group, was gearing her efforts toward publicity. So focused on attracting and sustaining international attention and support for the Egyptian people, she must have forgotten that the panel was supposed to be about how labor and left-wing organizations could themselves gain attention and support.

Thankfully, there was the audience Q&A. They were a few international freedom-focused questions, sure, but also logistical questions.

“Those of us who work in organizing in D.C. have a lot of contact with philanthropy and NGOs,” began one questioner. “What kind of infrastructure should we be building now and asking for money now to support these kinds of peoples’ movements …”

Of course! There must be structured, wealthy and powerful institutions in place to help those trying to topple structured, wealthy and powerful institutions. As Egyptians actually in Egypt did most of the heavy lifting and since the average Egyptian makes about $5 dollars a day, TheDC suggests asking for about $2,000. That should get more than a few protesters through the coming.

Iskandar did throw SEIU and NOI fans a bone when asked how Egyptian trade unions and labor organizations had been staying in contact and organizing themselves as the entire population revolted [Read: Take over the democratic uprising and turn Egypt into a communist oasis (kidding!)].

“I think to a great extent, the labor unions and the professional segments are part and parcel to all this,” said Iskandar, who noted that groups  from “every segment of the population” were involved in causing Mubarak headaches. This also happens to include striking workers.

Not long after Iskandar said, “[this] is a campaign very much rooted in labor rights,” Wahab interjected.

The point, she said, was being able to organize. It’s “about people taking control and being empowered to take action themselves.”

“One thing that’s sort of important to acknowledge,” said Wahab. “This is about what Egyptians can do without having to ask someone’s permission.”

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