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Occupy Wall Street's Egyptian Expedition Gets Messy

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OCCUPY WALL STREET EGYPT
Occupy Wall Street protestors march through lower Manhattan Nov. 17. | AP

NEW YORK -- When Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly approved a resolution on Nov. 10 to send election observers to Egypt, the idea seemed relatively uncontroversial. Twenty occupiers would be sent abroad at a cost of $29,000. One people's power movement was reaching out to help another.

Two weeks later, after an eviction, clashes in Cairo and accusations of a shadowy State Department role in the trip, it is clear that Occupy Wall Street will not be going to Cairo in time for the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections on Nov. 28, and probably not at all.

At the heart of the controversy is the original proposal's language, calling for members of the trip "to serve as International Observers in the November 28th Parliamentary elections."

The idea was to help Egyptian civil society groups in "crowd-sourcing" any "human rights abuses" that occurred during the elections, said Maria Dayton, a 32-year-old Occupy supporter based in Washington, D.C. They could use their livestreaming experience, for instance, to beam video images of the voting process to the world.

But the United States's record of propping up Hosni Mubarak and the sham elections held in Egypt under his dictatorship tripped alarm bells for the expedition's critics.

"We shouldn't participate in any elections held by this illegitimate council," said Shimaa Helmy, a Cairene who attended Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly on Tuesday night.

Dayton said Occupy Wall Street's delegation was supposed to hold Egypt's military government accountable, not participate in its elections. But Dayton's own background generated much of the heated debate over the intentions of the trip's organizers.

It all started with Dayton's now-deleted LinkedIn profile, where she mentioned that she was once "contracted by the [State Department] Office of Publications ... to write a 'how-to' book targeting international NGO practitioners and civil society advocates."

From there, critics surmised that she was a government plant. Jacob Levich, writing on the Monthly Review's website, said that the "government machinations behind the proposal" meant "the U.S. State Department and the Egyptian junta can be expected to seize upon OWS 'monitoring' as lending legitimacy to the upcoming elections."

Dayton, an employee of "online media brokerage" company Transterra, said that suggestions the State Department played a role in proposing the trip were "ridiculous."

"It was a subcontract, so I never signed anything with the State Department," she said. What's more, Dayton added, the manual was never finished and she was never paid. The State Department objected, she said, when she "added this information on nonviolent civil resistance."

"The moral of the story," she said, "is always update your LinkedIn page."

Still, even the whiff of State Department involvement in the trip was extremely damaging for the Egyptian trip's perception among supporters of Occupy Wall Street, and in Egypt itself.

On Tuesday night the General Assembly almost voted in favor of a proposal to scratch the trip altogether. That proposal, submitted by a hacker who goes by the name of White Hat, stated that "we've heard from many Egyptian activists both in Egypt and here in the U.S. and there is no unanimity on whether sending an observer delegation from New York is the best way we can help the movement in Egypt."

Even with 72 percent support, White Hat's proposal to kill the trip failed under Occupy Wall Street's rigid consensus rules. But still, the trip will almost certainly not happen.

"November 28 is logistically impossible. It would be irresponsible," said Greg Hurwitch. He would like to continue with the trip some other time, but members of the Movement Building working group, which has the actual power to spend the money on the trip, reached a consensus on Tuesday night that they wanted to give their trip money back to the General Assembly.

Without Movement Building's approval, Dayton acknowledged, the Egyptian trip will be impossible. She would still like to send an Occupy delegation to Egypt for the Jan. 25 anniversary of the revolution, but may have to raise the money on their own.

The trip's likely cancellation may save some Occupy supporters from a hairy situation. The Egyptian government has a long history of stoking anti-American sentiment to deflect dissent. Three American students were arrested in Cairo on Monday for taking part in anti-government protests there, which will only make that situation worse.

Helmy, the Egyptian activist, said she was concerned about Dayton's supposed links to the State Department. But the underlying problem, she said, was that "you should be aware of the cultural, political context of Egypt now after Mubarak resigned. And I'm not quite sure that the majority of the American people know this."

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