Arabs watch US protests with multiple lenses

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 9 Jun 2020

People around the world showed solidarity with US anti-racism protests but in the Arab world mixed reactions percolated

Palestinians lift banners protesting the killing of Iyad Hallak, a disabled Palestinian man shot dead by Israeli police, and that of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck during an arrest in the US, during a rally by supporters of the Fatah movement in the West Bank city of Hebron, to mark 53 years of Israeli occupation and oppose Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied territory, on June 5, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

On 1 June as protests against the death of an African-American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a police officer peaked in the US, a veteran American Middle East reporter posted on his Facebook page a photograph of a journalist working for the Arab media covering the street protests in Washington.

It “strikes me as the height of irony,” wrote the US journalist on his page about a picture of Nadia Bilbassy, a correspondent for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel in Washington, doing a piece to camera close to a protest in the city.

Comments by a chorus of old colleagues and friends followed, mostly sharing the derision and urging the retired reporter to weigh in with his own thoughts and experience from covering the Arab world for decades.

There was a hint of cynicism in the debate: while the TV correspondent was reporting on protests in Washington, Arab audiences at home do not have the privilege of watching anti-government demonstrations on their own streets.

It was, however, typical bravado by American reporters who pretend they know all about the Middle East but are mostly and utterly lacking in context and probably also facts.

The Arabs have become accustomed to orientalist bias, stereotyping, prejudice and even racial stigmatisation in the US media, but their struggle for justice and freedom has never been in question.

Over recent months, protests have engulfed cities in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, with millions of people pouring into the streets for months on end demanding change. Veteran political leaders fell in Sudan and Algeria, while prime ministers were forced to resign in Lebanon and Iraq.

The dramatic protest movements revived memories of the 2011 Arab Spring, which swept away regimes in several Arab countries and ignited lengthy civil wars in others.

Indeed, the New York Times reported last week that the US protests had brought to the minds of many Americans and people around the world a similarity with the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The US Foreign Policy magazine said a central thread linked the unrest across the US with recent upheavals in the Middle East, being the basic demands of the protesters.

Under the headline, “Yes, Lafayette Square is Tahrir Square,” the magazine wrote that recent uprisings in the Middle East “do provide a useful lens through which to understand America’s present crisis.”

As protests over US police racism and racial inequality have spread to more than 140 American cities in the days since the death of Floyd, the Arab world has been watching the unrest in growing disbelief, even sometimes pushing aside news of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Worldwide, thousands have defied pandemic-related bans on gatherings to pay homage to Floyd and to express their solidarity with the American protesters, highlighting inequalities worldwide and hoping that the US protests will be a catalyst for change at home.

But while the response from Arab governments to the unprecedented street protests in the US has remained largely and understandably muted, there have been mixed reactions from the Arab public towards the unrest.

In Iraq, where thousands have been protesting since last October against government corruption and mismanagement and have been demanding jobs and better services, many have spotted the parallels between the US protests and their own grievances.

Across their country, Iraqis have showed their solidarity with those Americans fighting for justice, and some of the protesters still camping out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Iraqi uprising, have sent warnings and advice to demonstrators across the US.

“I think what the Americans are doing is brave, and they should be angry, but rioting is not the solution,” Yassin Alaa, told the French news agency AFP.

In Lebanon, demonstrators who defied the coronavirus lockdown this week to protest against poverty, corruption and the mismanagement that has shattered the country’s economy stood in solidarity with the US protesters.

Floyd’s death at the hands of the US police has also sparked outpourings of sympathy and solidarity from many Arabs who have gone on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to voice their support for the protesters.

Yet, for many other Arabs, the turmoil in the US has been an unwelcome reminder of an unruly period during the 2011 and 2019 uprisings that threatened their countries with instability and chaos.

In Arab countries known not to be allies of street protesters, the media has been highlighting the chaos and violence of the US protests.

Saudi columnist Mashari Al-Thaydi blamed the US unrest on a mix of violent mobs, anarchists, leftist groups and supporters of former US president Barack Obama.

“They are not after justice, but rather after ending the American era and destroying it,” Al-Thayid wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat, a newspaper owned by the Saudi Royal Family.

In Bahrain, a writer for Akhbar Al-Khaleej said the US should draw lessons from the protests and stop supporting human-rights activists and pro-democracy movements that he accused of carrying out “agendas of sabotage.”

But whatever the reactions to the US protests, the turmoil has been shining a light on the situation in the US, a country which has had a profound and enduring impact on the Arab countries and the Middle East.

For many Arabs, it was the US rediscovered through the lenses of the present crisis that they feel will affect US foreign policy in the Middle East where it has been the preeminent power for decades.

Like in Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere, the images of the death of Floyd, the protests, the burning cars, police violence and the problem of racism in the US in general have touched strong emotions among many Arabs.

For these Arabs, it has been particularly jarring to see such things in the United States, a country whose government and institutions exercise moral authority to advance democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

The violence with which the protesters have been met in US cities has certainly undercut US efforts to project the country as promoting universal values or claims to be the world’s moral guardian.

Comments such as the ones by the veteran US Middle East reporter and his friends have always been seen as typical orientalist imaginings of the Arabs, but they also reflect the sickening arrogance of those Americans who still cannot look at themselves in the mirror.

They also ignore the fact that Western foreign policy and in particular that of the United States is to blame for the present state of affairs in the Middle East.  

But beyond reactions to the severity of the problems of racism and police violence in the US that the current situation reflects, the crisis is also likely to have serious impacts on the influence and the role the US has been playing in the Arab world.

Even with the different approaches seen in the official and public reactions to the violence in US cities, the issue remains not about US moral authority as much as about the country’s projected role as a global power in the post-protest era.

At a time when the US is suffering from real political and economic problems that are the outcome of deep inefficiencies, the problem today is that the US political system seems to have lost a lot of the credibility needed to be able to fix the damage caused by the crisis.

The US’s place in the world will certainly decline because of this civil conflict, but nowhere will its role and influence be brought more into question both by its critics and its allies than in the Arab world.

The political turmoil triggered by the protests, coupled with the Covid-19 crisis, may influence the results of the 2020 presidential elections, especially if there is a major swing against the way US President Donald Trump has handled the situation.

A Democratic administration under candidate Joe Biden is expected to redraft US policies in the Middle East, which could bring about changes and shifts in power that may reshape the regional environment.

Apart from solidarity with the protesters, or the lack of it, this fear of uncertainty probably underlines the Arabs’ response to the US crises more than the protests themselves.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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