Occupy Wall Street through Egyptian eyes

One Egyptian food cart vendor in New York city typifies average American woes – deep in debt with no way out.

wall street protests
Many Americans are drowning in debt and unable to afford both daily costs and credit card payments [GALLO/GETTY]

Inspiration comes from far away places. The people of Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, demonstrated to the world that mass popular mobilisation is still a viable means of achieving political goals. As one protester said at Zuccotti Park – formerly named Liberty Plaza Park – the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement, “If Egypt can do it, so can we.”

Egyptians and others from around the world urge protesters on in New York City via Facebook and Twitter. Yet, the Egyptian presence at Occupy Wall Street is closer than some would imagine. Parked on the South East periphery of Zuccotti Park are the carts of several Egyptian food vendors. I decided to ask for their impressions of the ongoing protest.

Zeinab Belal-Elnadori from Staten Island has been selling coffee from her cart since she came to the United States from Egypt in 2000. Her experience in New York is in many ways emblematic of the current protest movement. Unlike many of the other food vendors who keep their opinions of the protests under their breaths, Zeinab vocally supports the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I work for 13 to 14 hours a day just for the clothes on my back and to feed myself and my child.

– Zeinab Belal-Elnadori, Egyptian food vendor in NYC

When I met Zeinab she was busy contacting a lawyer because the NYPD had been giving her trouble with her food-vending permit – a common problem amongst food vendors in New York City. Zeinab, like many Americans, is deeply in debt. She has paid off $40,000 but still has $45,000 outstanding. Today, the costs of day-to-day life are proving to be all she can handle.

“I work for 13 to 14 hours a day, just for the clothes on my back and to feed myself and my child,” said Zeinab. She has decided that she will not continue trying to pay off her debt.

Zeinab’s experience is reminiscent of that of many other single mothers. After 12 years of marriage her husband divorced her. “The courts allowed him to take everything and stay with his girlfriend and I can’t say a thing,” she said. “He gives his child $100 a month, do you think that that’s fair?” After work, Zeinab has to return home to take care of her child.

Drowning in debt

After living in New York for more than 10 years, Zeinab is worse off now than when she arrived. She has even had to sell her mother’s home, her jewellery, and car in Egypt just to stay afloat in New York. “Credit cards will destroy any family, they destroyed my family … I always say that America today is like a grave,” Zeinab explained, “You drop into debt and you can’t get out.”

Since Occupy Wall Street began Zeinab has been supporting the protesters in various ways. For one, she sells them coffee and baked goods for no profit, despite her overwhelming financial situation. “I’m proud to see no violence and no deaths at these protests, compared to the revolution in Egypt,” Zeinab said.

At the end of our interview, Zeinab said, “The American people are some of the nicest people in the world.”

Other food vendors independently said the same thing. Another consensus is that the American government and the banks have simply done nothing to benefit the people. One Moroccan gentleman who has worked in New York for seven years said, “They have never done anything for the rest of humanity.”

For him and others I spoke with, the concern is mostly with life back home. They see America’s foreign policy as the largest issue. One Egyptian man who had been in New York for only one month – and had been part of the protests Tahrir Square – explained that he supports the protesters at Zuccotti Park but the language barrier makes it difficult for him understand what has been happening. When I told him that the protesters had tried to march across the Brooklyn Bridge, he responded, “That’s terrific!”

He nonetheless explained that the situation in Egypt was much worse in comparison to New York. “I am an engineer but I couldn’t find any work. Same goes for my brothers and sisters.” In reference to Tahrir he said, “We did that for our children, not ourselves.” Zeinab similarly said that the protests in New York were for her child and the children of others.

Most of the food vendors were not interested in speaking for various reasons. The ones who were willing to speak rarely chose to give their names. Some did not see any connection between themselves and what was occurring in the vicinity of their workspace. One consensus amongst two of the men I interviewed was that they were turned off by scruffy appearances of some of the protesters. After speaking to them about some of the proposed demands that had to do with American foreign policy, they became more sympathetic.

How do we fix the deficit: End the wars, cancel the debt.

Although the presence at Zuccotti Park has been predominantly Anglo-American, the stereotypic white, dreadlocked anarchist demographic – that alienates the mainstream, if only inadvertently – does not dominate the movement.

Instead Occupy Wall Street is becoming more appealing to the wider New York City public. Yesterday, labour unions marched alongside students and others in support of Occupy Wall Street. One of the most common chants was “How do we fix the deficit: End the wars, cancel the debt”. The Occupy Wall Street movement is becoming increasingly more appealing to a general public that is sinking in debt and is fed up with a political and economic elite that do not address basic needs.

Whether or not Occupy Wall Street has the energy to shift any of the political and economic realities in the United States is unknown. The movement is still growing. The most tangible effect, however, has been a revival of grassroots politics in New York City.

Zeinab, for one, immediately connects with the protesters as a result of her experiences.

It seems that other food vendors would relate better to a clear message against American intervention in the Middle East and North Africa from the movement. This is also perhaps a reflection of the hopes people from around the world have for the movement. While Occupy Wall Street has mostly focused on the debt crises, it is very likely that the movement will at least articulate a position against the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zayd Sifri is an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.