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Mohamed A. El-Erian

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OWS: From Building Awareness to Maintaining Momentum

Posted: 11/19/11 11:28 PM ET

From disrupter to builder -- this is one of the most difficult transitions to make. It has tripped many promising popular movements in the past. And it is the critical challenge that faces the OWS Movement today (or, to be more exact, the Occupy Movement given that it has successfully spread to so many cities around the world).

This peaceful grassroots movement has succeeded in raising awareness about growing income and wealth inequality and, more generally, a system that seems better at serving the privileged few than enabling jobs and income growth for the many.

Indeed, whether you agree with the core messages or not, the fact is that the movement has triggered lots of important discussions about the balance between rich and poor, capital and labor, current and future generations, and the financial sector and the real economy.

By striking a chord with many people in America and across the world, it is a movement that cannot, and should not be dismissed. Indeed, it will resonate even more as western economies continue to struggle with sluggish growth and very high unemployment.

Yet it is way too early for the movement to declare victory. It is not enough for it to provide for a better understanding of the past. It can also pivot in order to contribute to a better tomorrow.

No one should underestimate the difficulties of this pivot. It is far from automatic, inherently complex, and organizationally demanding. It has undermined many social movements and, today, is an important reason why the Egyptian revolution risks stalling.

Yet it is also a transition that has been successfully navigated, most spectacularly in South Africa. And while the contexts are very different, this history does contain some insights nevertheless.

Led by the inspirational Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa quickly understood the need to pivot from complaining about an appalling past to building a better future. This critical transition was captured in a sentence that only Mr. Mandela, with unquestioned credibility and standing, could sell to his nation: "We should forgive but not forget."

This was at the root of Mr. Mandela's tireless emphasis on "truth and reconciliation" as the key to mending a bitterly divided society. It also enabled his successful evolution from being a freedom fighter to governing -- one that historically has eluded many, if not most.

The Occupy Movement does not have a leader like Mr. Mandela, either visible or waiting in the wings; and it is unlikely to get one. Yet, to be successful and to avoid fragmentation, it has no choice but to attempt the pivot from the past to the future. So instead of a person, it will need to use structure to do the heavy lifting.

This structure must enable agreement and the wide dissemination of a set of core principles. It must provide for implementation steps, monitoring mechanisms, and appropriate modalities for midcourse corrections as needed. There are many issues to resolve and difficult decisions to make; and, as there are no easy answers, tricky compromises will need to be made.

The Movement must seek a way to join the political process and to insert itself into legislative procedures. It must evolve its umbrella setup into a more manageable structure with legitimate executive powers. And it must decide whether to continue building from the ground up or link itself to an existing institution, as imperfect as this may be.

History will show that, to the surprise of many, OWS succeeded in raising public awareness about growing inequality and the importance of social justice. It got traction, both domestic and international, because it is fueled by issues that are critical to society's wellbeing. Using structure, it now needs to pivot to a forward-looking mode if it is to make a long-lasting difference in the lives of millions.