We’ve heard this before. The copycat screech of tyrants across the world shouting down opposition movements as “looters!” and “terrorists!” We’ve seen this before as well. Militarized police and security forces deployed to brutally quell demonstrators and arrest journalists.
We’ve seen an out of touch leader invoking religion to “dominate” his rebellious subjects and restore “law and order.”
President Donald Trump’s reaction to the demands of American demonstrators in the wake of the killing of George Floyd is straight out of the playbook of Middle Eastern autocrats. And his actions over the last week have given a carte blanche to oppressive regimes around the world by setting a bad example.
Trump employs the divisive rhetoric often condemned in State Department statements about other governments. He describes some far-right activists as fine people, whose grievances are worthy of understanding. He dismisses the rage of millions protesting injustice as far-left, terrorists and looters, as if these words were synonymous. He even threatens to deploy the military to quell protests and use lengthy prison sentences against protesters — these are the tactics of his “favorite dictator” Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.
For millions watching around the world, Trump’s actions, coupled with the unfolding scenes of violence, have triggered traumatic memories and elicited solidarity.
In Syria, many could relate to Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe,” reminiscent of hundreds gasping for air following chlorine and suspected chemical weapon attacks.
During the first half of the last decade in Cairo, journalists and protesters suffocated from the thick smoke of teargas. Police shot and killed hundreds of people. These scenes played out across the Middle East — in Baghdad, Sanaa, Beirut, Tehran and Khartoum, to name a few — as cries for a dignified life grew louder for years to come.
Unlike Cairo, Baghdad and Sanaa, we aren’t counting the dead of protests in the US at the end of each day. But for millions of black Americans the daily doses of terror in the form of white supremacy has been exacting a death toll.
Too many have died as a result of systemic racism. Instead of reaching for the lofty ideals the US has said it stands for over and over again in condemnations to countries across the globe, Trump is mirroring some of the tactics that he has condemned in his foes. And in doing so, he has turned the American presidency into a propaganda opportunity for oppressors worldwide.
Exploiting the narrative
The callous killing of Floyd loops endlessly on state media outlets across the world. The footage of US cities engulfed in flames and the brutal police response play over and over again across television sets globally. If and when the US government tries to raise concern for human rights abuses in foreign countries, propaganda outlets will serve up these images as justification for their own oppression. The brutality of police dispersing peaceful protests and the disregard for reconciliation, gives autocrats and their mouthpieces fodder for their own violence.
Governments that were ordering the killing of protesters not long ago are voicing their support for American protesters and calling for restraint. Their words are laced with irony. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently reproduced his American counterpart’s statement on Iranian protest, to condemn police violence in the US.
The presidential director of communications for Turkey, one of the top jailers of journalists worldwide, held a call with the US ambassador and “expressed his concerns about violent attacks targeting employees of Turkish media outlets, including TRT World, and received assurances that the United States administration regretted the incidents and would monitor the situation.”
In Egypt, a government mouthpiece that once cheered for the deadly crackdowns on dissent supported Trump’s effort to stem out “chaos.”
No more pretenses
While few in the Middle East were under any illusions as to how quickly America could abandon its ideals for its national interests, a little bit of pretense sometimes goes a long way.
The world is littered with activists who were abandoned by Washington, people who were given half-fulfilled promises of support for democratic causes. Look no further than Syrians who rose up against Bashar al Assad asking for democratic reforms, or the Kurdish population in Northeast Syria, abandoned by their American allies, or to the people of Egypt who took to the streets to topple one dictator only to have the US all but welcome another one, or to the women activists in Saudi Arabia who asked for as little as the right to drive, and then were imprisoned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, repeatedly touted as one of Trump’s strongest allies.
That disillusionment spans generations. Millions lost faith in the US as a defender of human rights when images of torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison flashed on their TV screens. Detentions in Guantanamo Bay without trial also served as proof of the US’s double standards, abuses that had echoes on American soil in the way black Americans are policed and incarcerated.
Despite all this, an American condemnation of human rights abuses carried some weight. It was something that autocrats begrudgingly hoped to avoid, prompting them to sometimes give ground on in order to ease diplomatic wrangling. At times, democracy activists in some of these countries managed to exploit spaces opened up by the US’s moral policing, and managed to push through a small change in laws or getting an activist out of prison
When Trump dropped these pretenses both at home and abroad, he dealt the final blow to the moral higher ground presumed by the US in the region.
His handling of the crisis and his numerous crude references to other countries in the Middle East, Africa and South America reinforces the double standard of how policing works. The message is clear: for people of color across the world, America is willing to compromise its stated ideals sometimes for money, and to preserve the status quo.
The safety of black people in America is a global issue. Not just because it is our duty to our shared humanity but because their safety helps to ensure ours.
Editor’s note: Sarah El Sirgany is a senior planning editor for CNN, based in Abu Dhabi. She covered the uprising and political upheaval in her home country Egypt, along with other political news and conflict in the Middle East. Gul Tuysuz is a senior producer for CNN based in Istanbul. She has covered uprisings across the Middle East, with a focus on Syria.