June 5, 2020
IntelBrief: What Protests in the United States Have in Common with Protest Movements Worldwide
For years, Americans have looked on as protest movements catalyzed overseas, from the so-called ‘Color Revolutions’ that swept through former Soviet Union countries in the mid-2000s, to the Arab Spring that dominated headlines beginning in 2011. Beginning in the summer 2019 and continuing throughout the early part of 2020, protesters and demonstrators took to the streets to demand justice, reform and accountability in Sudan, Algeria, Chile, Hong Kong, Lebanon, and many other countries from North Africa to South America and beyond. But when Americans think of authoritarian rule, where strongman leaders threaten protesters with military force, curfews are imposed to ban citizens from gathering, and journalists are harassed and intimidated in order to prevent them from reporting, they are more likely to conjure images of Cairo than Minneapolis.
The protests in the United States reflect a growing degradation of moral authority. The Trump administration is now being criticized by the same authoritarian regimes that the United States has long sought to hold accountable for their deplorable records on human rights, from Beijing to Tehran. Critiques from countries like China, a nation that has imprisoned more than one million ethnic Uighurs in concentration camps may ring hollow, but when the United States’ best response is, ‘other countries are doing worse,’ then the argument is already lost. In a post-9/11 world, incidents like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been major blows to American soft power, but overall, people around the world still maintained faith that American institutions and a commitment to a robust and representative civil society would prevail. But with over 100,000 dead in the United States due to the Coronavirus pandemic and its mishandling, nearly 40 million unemployed, and riots convulsing major American cities raging against racial injustice and police brutality, the United States has never looked more fragile. Americans’ trust in their government has reached a nadir and the damage inflicted upon the social fabric of this nation will take years to repair.
The U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, layered with economic calamity and the current protests, have combined to accelerate the downward spiral of America’s global standing at a time when much of the world is desperate for reliable and responsible leadership. By withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO), in the middle of a global health crisis no less, the United States has lost an important voice in a multilateral institution, paving the way for China and other countries to fill the void of American leadership. Ordinary citizens and journalists in oppressed nations who have experienced uprisings against authoritarianism and injustice see common parallels in their experiences and the protests happening in the United States. There are limitations to the comparisons in the uprisings (explicit dictatorship, free press, cultural context etc.) but there remain similarities in the way U.S. leaders, police, and security forces have responded, with a heavy hand and a draconian and counterproductive approach to quelling social and political unrest.
Growing injustice and the marginalization of minorities—religious, ethnic, racial—are not challenges that only happen in developing and non-Western countries. On the contrary, similar themes are evident in the manifestations of protests in the United States and decades of neglect of minority communities, systemic racism, and police brutality against African-Americans. It is neither possible nor desirable to continue to ignore the glaring inequities, oppression, and socio-economic inequalities that have led to a resurgence of global protests in 2019, especially as the United States joins the company of authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Sudan which have experienced similar uprisings. Citizens should be protected when exercising their right to speak out against their governments’ mishandling of justice and rise up against human rights abuses and inadequate governance.
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