Occupy Wall Street has been good business for Ehab Sami, who dishes up crisp falafel topped with tender fried eggplant from his cart outside Zuccotti Park.
But he’s grown a little weary of his unsolicited rock-star status. Mr. Sami is from Egypt, where an 18-day occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir — or Liberation — Square toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and inspired revolts and protests on several continents.
When the Wall Street protesters find out, they invariably congratulate Mr. Sami on Egypt’s revolution. And then they want to know what he thinks of theirs.
He’s taken to fluttering his hand — the international sign for “so-so” — and pretending not to speak English.
At the risk of being obvious, let us list the ways that Occupy Wall Street is not like Tahrir Square: no protesters have been killed, there have been no demands for the president to step down and no crowds swelling above six figures. The protesters are in far less danger, and seem to pose far less danger to the powerful, than in Egypt.
But it’s worth pausing for a moment on this point: Here in Lower Manhattan, and around the country, protesters have embraced a movement springing from the Arab world as a model of freedom, democracy and nonviolence.
“Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” an initial call to action demanded. Now, newcomers to Zuccotti Park are given leaflets explicitly connecting the movements: “We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring occupation tactics to achieve our ends and we encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”
Other public statements have cited Egypt and Tunisia as models — though not Libya, where revolution turned to civil war.
And Monday afternoon, some of Egypt’s leading young revolutionaries were planning to hold a “teach-in” at Zuccotti Park.
Two blocks from ground zero — the same distance, though in a different direction, as the proposed Muslim community center and mosque that raised a ruckus last year — a subtle change in the Arab world’s image, wrought by the events of recent months, is on display.
In a place so sensitized, the big news, perhaps, is that the Tahrir references are taken almost for granted. A movement born in a Muslim country is seen neither as threatening nor as exotic but simply as universal.
“I think Tahrir is an Arabic word, but that doesn’t make it a particularly Arab or Muslim thing,” said Daniel Kurfirst, a musician, after Muslims held Friday prayers in the park for the first time last week.
Another protester, Lin Wefel, carried a sign reading “We are all Khaled Said,” referring to the Egyptian activist whose death at the hands of the police helped sparked the Egyptian revolt.
“This is a continuation of all the revolutions in human history,” she said, “from the French to the Russian to the hippies, whatever.”
To be sure, the Zuccotti Park protesters are largely of a different political bent than the right-wing activists who shaped protests against the mosque. Pamela Geller, one of the leaders of the anti-mosque movement, has already tried to connect last week’s Muslim prayers to the anti-Semitic signs carried by a few protesters and disavowed by others, and called the sermon, by Imam Ayub Abdul Baki, anti-American.
Mr. Abdul-Baqi criticized American foreign policy in his sermon. But he focused more on Muslims’ centrality to America from the time Muslims were brought here as slaves, Muslims’ religious obligation to fight for social justice, and the Constitution’s protection of freedom of religion even at a time when he said Muslims were facing discrimination.
“We need affordable housing. We need affordable education and free health care,” he said afterward, as Muslim volunteers handed out lunch to all comers.
The economy is the main problem for all Americans, he said. “Islam bashing is trying to use Muslims as a scapegoat,” he added, “but hating me is not going to solve the problem.”
The prayers drew about 75 people – dwarfed by the other activities in the park and by the much larger crowds who recently observed Jewish holidays – including African-Americans, immigrants from South Asian and Arab countries, first-generation Americans and converts.
Afterward, Ayman el-Sawa, an Egyptian American who has been a fixture in the park, wearing a scarf striped with the red, black and white of the Egyptian flag, led a chant, “Free, Free U.S.A.!”
Progressive Muslim activists, many of them born in New York, have been coming to the park from the beginning. They said they hoped the prayers, organized by the Muslim Leadership Council of New York, would get more Muslims interested in the movement.
But they face ambivalence from their parents’ generation, from immigrants like Mr. Sami, the falafel chef.
It’s good to see Americans recognize that poverty is a problem, he said. But while Tahrir could be summed up in a few words — “Mubarak, leave!” — he found Occupy’s diffuse causes “confusing.” His coworker, who did not want to give his name, said the protesters were “not serious.”
“Dancing, singing,” he said, shaking his head.
To be fair, there was a good amount of singing and dancing in Tahrir Square, too.
But for Mr. Sami the problems here just aren’t as dire.
“This is America,” he says. “People will do anything to come here.”
Even for the most committed Occupy Wall Street protesters, it’s hard to forget that, as Ms. Wefel put it, “It sure is a lot safer to speak our minds here than in Tahrir Square.”