For Grassroots Protests, Big Gains In 2011

From New York to Syria to Cairo, protesters took to the streets and parks and squares in 2011. The demonstrations in Tunisia were right at the beginning of the year.

"You had a situation where people were just feeling disconnected from their leadership at the same time that poverty was increasing," says NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

It's a sentiment that fits for many protests, from Yemen to Wall Street. These stories will continue into 2012. There are still crackdowns in Syria and an uncertain political situation in Egypt.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, films about teens trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in are not that unusual, but how many tell the story of a gay black teen girl, told from her perspective? We'll have a conversation with the director and the star of the new film "Pariah." But first, as 2011 winds down, we're taking some time to offer a twist on the traditional end-of-year round up.

Here at TELL ME MORE and across NPR, we're highlighting people and movements and ideas that had a good year. And today, we decided to take a look at grassroots protests. Around the world this year, there have been uprisings by ordinary men and women who wanted a change.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Wall Street, occupy. Wall Street, occupy. Wall Street, occupy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking in foreign language)

(Unintelligible)

MARTIN: Those were the sounds of protests in New York, Egypt, Tunisia and Boston. Time Magazine put it this way after selecting the protestor for its person of the year: No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, or that the spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy.

But just how successful have these protests been? We wanted to talk about this, so we've called upon NPR's Cairo correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's covered the Arab Spring for NPR extensively. Also with us, Arun Venugopal. He's a reporter at member station WNYC in New York, where he's reported on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Welcome to you both. Happy holidays.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Soraya, let me just start with you, that I think most people know by now that Tunisia is credited, at least, for sparking the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Could you just remind us of, you know, what were the circumstances that made this kind of the tinder box that set this wave of protests off?

NELSON: Well, in Tunisia, just like pretty much everywhere else, you had a situation where people were just feeling disconnected from their leadership at the same time that poverty was increasing. And these autocratic rulers, they really saw themselves as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and the pressure was mounting on people, especially economically.

I mean, again, the guy who sparked the revolution, or this wave of revolution that spread across the region was a fruit vendor. He was not a revolutionary, and he just wanted to increase his income and just couldn't deal with the bribes, couldn't deal with the - with people telling him no all the time, for no good reason. And he set himself on fire, and then that created a situation that basically spread across the region, I mean, you know, a wave of discontent that people expressed by moving onto the streets.

MARTIN: And do these protestors see themselves as connected?

NELSON: Well, they do. I mean, it's interesting you say it started in Tunisia. The Egyptians hate when people talk about it that way, because they feel that they should be seen as the real revolution. But yes, they do feel connected to one another. Certainly, there were Tunisian flags being flown in Cairo's Tahrir Square at the same time that Egyptian flags were being flown. And then when Libya started going through its turmoil, we started seeing Libyan - free Libyan flags flying there, you know, the flag that was created in the eastern part of the country, and which has now become the national flag there.

MARTIN: And Arun, let's bring you into the conversation. There's really no dispute, is that the Occupy Wall Street movement started on Wall Street, right, in New York?

VENUGOPAL: That's right, just around the corner, actually. Yeah.

MARTIN: Uh-huh. And for people who don't remember the origins of it, how did that get started?

VENUGOPAL: Well, I think it was a surprise to most New Yorkers and definitely to most Americans. It was completely under the radar, but there was this call that was put out by Adbusters. They put the call out in July. It was circulated by other publications, other organizations. September 17th, when people actually appeared, they had called for like - something like 20,000 demonstrators to be out there. They only got a couple thousand people, I think.

So it fell far short of projections. But by the second day, when the first day that I actually was out there, you know, you had a few hundred people in this place, Zuccotti Park. They'd stay there overnight. It was the one place they found where they were not shooed off by the cops, because it was sort of privately owned.

You had a few hundred people staying there every day. By the end of the first week or two, when there were these, I guess, clashes between some demonstrators and the NYPD, that's what really seized the nation's attention, because suddenly it looked like the powers that be were cracking down in dissent, and it made it into a very sort of dramatic phenomenon that was happening. They held steady, and within a month or so, this phrase of theirs, we are the 99 percent, I think, had become sort of really a part of the national lexicon.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you - that was the same question I asked Soraya, which is it is known now that, you know, with different - with varying results, these movements or these occupations popped up in a number of cities across the country. A lot of these encampments have since been cleared, but do these protestors see themselves connected?

VENUGOPAL: They do. They were definitely in touch with each other. There was no real national sort of governing body that was coordinating any of this, but individuals were certainly in touch with each other. I - some people that I met in the early days of Occupy Wall Street were, within a couple weeks, heading back home or, say, back to their town where they were going to college, for instance, and trying to help set up new occupations there. Of course, each of these places had their own sort of collective ideologies, the things that they felt were important, which might have been different from other cities. Some cities were issuing demands. I think in Chicago, they did that, whereas in New York, that never really happened.

MARTIN: You know, Soraya, the world is getting smaller, and I'm wondering if, just as the courage of the people on the Arab Spring was very inspiring to many people in the United States - I think that's a reasonable thing to say - I'm wondering if the news of the Occupy movement was of interest to people in Egypt?

NELSON: Initially, certainly, it was. It was - for many here, it demonstrated - I don't think it was necessarily the message that the Occupy movement was trying to portray, but they saw this as proof that the American government didn't really understand democracy and certainly wasn't promoting it. In other countries, and then not - and basically, they were saying, what the people here were saying was, well, look. They can't even deliver at home. I mean, it took off, but it didn't really go anywhere.

I mean, it didn't like grow with the momentum that we saw, certainly, in Egypt or in Tunisia, or it didn't result in overthrows and that sort of thing. And so it sort of faded away, because as you point out, there certainly are a lot of obstacles to people here at the moment as they move on this path toward a freer, you know, more-inclusive society or government. And so it's not something that I hear much about anymore.

MARTIN: We're speaking with NPR Cairo correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Arun Venugopal, a reporter for member station WNYC in New York, and we're talking about what made this a good year for grassroots protests. Let's switch gears now in the time we have left and talk about what's next. I mean, I think it's fair to say that in both the Arab Spring and in the Occupy movements, the protestors are finding, you know, that sometimes that either in one case that the change that they hope for isn't as full as they would like and that there are obstacles to getting kind of the implementing the vision that they would hope for. And in the Occupy movement, there's, of course, that whole other question of what exactly did they want.

So, Soraya, I'm going to start with you. What is your sense of how the people who participated - in Egypt, particular - in the Arab Spring now feel about what they accomplished?

NELSON: Well, there certainly has been a lot of disillusionment. The feeling was once Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside, that there would be a real move toward democracy. Except the problem here in Egypt is that the military remains in charge here, that the very rulers who are now sort of guiding the country through this interim period were all very close with Hosni Mubarak. In fact, he was one of their cadre, and so people feel that the military rulers here are going to prevent Egypt from really becoming a democracy, from achieving the goals that were set forth in the January revolution.

MARTIN: And I do have to ask about, you know, Syria and Bahrain. You know, in Syria, you know, the brutality continues. You know, observers from the area have apparently just now arrived where there has been a tremendous death toll. I'm not sure we even really know the full extent of the death toll there because it's so difficult to report, you know, from Syria and of course in Bahrain.

Protesters have also taken to the streets, but haven't been able to change their government. Are those events giving pause to even to the people who were successful in changing their governments? Has that changed the mood in any way? Or the sense of what's next?

NELSON: Well, I think that, certainly, it has made people aware that this is a process that's far from over. I think, here again, in Egypt people are motivated. I mean, they're very much sympathetic towards what's happening in Syria, although it's a much more violent, bloody - just civilly, I mean, the country's very divided between different groups there and so it's not quite the unified thing that we saw here in Egypt.

And then also Bahrain, I think, less so and I think part of the problem with Bahrain is that you're looking at a Shiite majority there, Shiite Muslim majority. And they don't necessarily resonate with the largely Sunni populations in many Arab countries. And so I don't hear as much about Bahrain here as I do about Syria.

MARTIN: OK. Arun, what about you now? As we've discussed, many of the Occupy encampments have been closed or driven out by the authorities, certainly in New York, also in Atlanta. There was, of course, a very sort of a bloody situation in Oakland, California that turned violent.

And so what is your sense of the people who are involved, to the degree that you're still in with them, of where this movement goes next as far as they're concerned?

VENUGOPAL: Well, I think for some of them, there is definitely a lot of - there is some disappointment that the occupations around the country have been driven away and they feel like that really points to, I guess, police abuses or policies in parts of cities that are sort of, I guess, contrary to their First Amendment rights.

But, overall, from the people I have been in touch in recent days, they're actually very happy. They think that they've accomplished a lot more than what they imagined was possible. I think some of them are still not comfortable going into the political system and trying to align themselves with say, the Democrats or some third party.

They're hoping that this will continue, but that perhaps the politicians will come to them and seek, I guess, their advice or counsel.

MARTIN: Arun Venugopal is a reporter at member station WNYC in New York. We caught up with him in Houston actually, and we found him at member station KUHF in Houston.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is NPR's Cairo correspondent. She joined us from her office in Cairo. Thank you both so much for speaking with us and happy holidays to you both.

VENUGOPAL: Same to you. Thanks, Michel.

NELSON: You're welcome and thank you. Same to you.

MARTIN: We continue our end of year series, It Was a Good Year, with the focus on Turkey. That country is seen as a model in the Muslim world for successfully combining the principles of democracy and Islam. We'll talk more about that tomorrow.

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