From the Arab Spring to the American Fall?

No political group gave birth to Occupy Wall Street and the movement is largely leaderless. But so was what happened at Tahrir Square in Egypt

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Protesters convene a meeting Oct. 11, 2011 at Zuccotti Park where hundreds of activists affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have been rallying against the influence of corporate money in politics and other issues.

Is Zuccotti Park the next Tahrir Square? For weeks, people have been asking me if the protests taking place in lower Manhattan and around the U.S. were similar to those I covered in Egypt that set off the Arab Spring. After a visit to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, I saw signs that they might have the makings of an American Fall.

The most striking similarity has to do with the spirit and demographic of the protests. At the core of both demonstrations were youth who feel they have been marginalized by an unfair system. In Egypt, that system was political — undemocratic and skewed in favor of a ruling elite. The Egyptian economy had enjoyed sustained growth for several years, giving outsiders the illusion that things were getting better; but the new wealth did not trickle down. In the U.S., the protesters are angrier at the economic system. It too, in their eyes, favors the elite. Protesters on Wall Street argue that the financially powerful are rarely held accountable for their mismanagement of the U.S. economy, while the masses must suffer the consequences of those failed policies. Both sets of protesters share a common goal that social justice must be at the core of reform.

There are other similarities. No political group gave birth to either movement, rather the people organized themselves. As a result, both movements are leaderless: no one group, much less an individual, can claim to speak for the entire body of the protests. (That said, the Tahrir Square crowd and the Occupiers both gained traction after they were joined by trade unions.)

In Cairo, I was struck by the festive atmosphere at the demonstrations. Men and women, young and old chanted, sang, danced and celebrated their calls for change. I saw some of that spirit in Zuccotti Park: the protests there are part carnival, part political rally. That’s not to say they are unstructured and chaotic. Just as in Tahrir Square, people were organizing themselves into committees, working hard to maintain a sense of civic responsibility by keeping there surroundings clean, collecting garbage and avoiding doing damage to nearby property.

(MORE: Top 10 American Protest Movements)

Both movements learned they could speak more efficiently to the world by setting up committees for public outreach and communication. They used social media instead of traditional media to gather momentum, setting up online pages, seeking donations, and issuing communiqués. They spoke to the world directly, appealing to the masses before the journalists: once ordinary people were listening, the media had no choice but to pay attention.

Now to the differences. In Egypt, the main challenge facing the protester was fear — the dread of reprisals by the brutal regime of President Hosni Mubarak. In the U.S., it’s apathy. In Egypt, the regime did eventually crack down on the protesters, not only using violence to try and disperse them but also cutting off the Internet and cellphone networks; that only spurred on more protests, which kept growing until they paralyzed the city and the country. The Occupiers have not brought lower Manhattan to a halt, never mind New York. If they tried, it’s far from clear it would be would be well received by other citizens: they may see the movement as a nuisance. At the same time, it’s unimaginable that the Obama administration would jam cellphone networks and cut of the Internet. Authorities will most likely allow the protests to continue so long as they don’t break the laws or disrupt daily life. The challenge for the protesters will be sustainability.

At first, the protests that began with dozens in Wall Street were largely ignored. By the third week, they had spread across the country. The Occupiers may not be seeking the toppling of a regime, but like the people of Egypt, they want to be heard—and now they have.