As the US Congress met to certify the election results in favor of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on January 6, President Trump held a simultaneous rally and incited his supporters to march on the Capitol, the seat of American democracy.
“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump told his supporters.
Thousands followed his command and stormed the capitol, ransacked the esteemed public offices, and forced congressmen and women to hide under desks. Vice President Mike Pence was escorted out by his security detail.
As this drama unfolded in America, Middle Easterners, too, watched with astonishment. The young and democratically-minded who have been fighting for democracy in their own countries worried that it might become even harder for them to sell the idea of free and fair elections as the panacea to their political crises. They feared that by unleashing a mob to overturn unfavorable election results, the president of the world’s oldest democracy might have legitimized the actions of authoritarian leaders who often use force to quell dissent.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said that the US is a paragon of democracy and has had the agenda to spread it across the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the concomitant collapse of a bipolar world. He argued that the erosion of democratic traditions and values in the US is bound to have a ripple effect. “When you convey the message that democracy is taking a blow in the US, you shake confidence in democracy everywhere,” he told Inside Arabia. “Recourse to violence plays right [into] the hands of dictators and justifies their actions.”
“When you convey the message that democracy is taking a blow in the US, you shake confidence in democracy everywhere.”
Every time Trump made a faux pas or said something unpresidential, American diplomats tut-tutted and scrambled to damage control. Every time he displayed his disdain for democratic institutions, the Middle East’s dictators felt vindicated and saw an opportunity to discredit democracy.
Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei chastised Trump and said that post-election chaos is “God’s revenge” against the US for sowing instability in the Middle East.
“Have you seen the situation in the US? This is their democracy and this is their election fiasco. Today, the US [and] ‘American values’ are ridiculed even by their friends,” Khamenei tweeted. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the incident was an example of “what a failure Western democracy is.”
Such reactions by the Iranian leadership are directed towards domestic consumption, to dissuade the Iranian youth from demanding democracy and to justify the ideological state of the Islamic Republic of Iran over Western democracies, even though Iranians are denied political liberty and are struggling to pay their bills.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and militia backed by Iran, took the cue from its patron and mocked Trump with the same intentions. Lebanon too is grappling with a severe economic and political crisis for which many in the country, at least partially, blame Hezbollah.
May God protect the world from that “crazy fool called Trump,” said Hezbollah chief Nasrallah, for the nuclear button, is in his hands. At least five people died in the violence at the Capitol, which Nasrallah said showed that the American president was ready to kill even his own citizens to stay in power. “It is a small example of what Trump has committed in his four years in several other countries,” Nasrallah said.
“If a Middle Eastern leader loses elections tomorrow, even he might not accept the results.”
The dictators and monarchs in the region, many of whom are America’s allies, were conspicuously silent, perhaps gloating in the legitimacy Trump’s actions had granted them. Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, told Inside Arabia: “If a Middle Eastern leader loses elections tomorrow, even he might not accept the results. As it is they often don’t, but with what’s happening in America our dictators will get a free pass.”
As the American media and experts compared the police’s feeble response to rioters on January 6 with the heavy-handedness it has adopted when dealing with Black Lives Matter activists, the Arabs compared it to how the US responds to similar incidents that occur in their countries. Social media in the Arab world was abuzz with comments that had such an insurrection been witnessed in an Arab country, one the US was not getting along with, it would have slapped sanctions and maybe even called for military action.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently living in exile in the US, said American double standards must end. He said that America’s democratic institutions saved the day and proved that democracy isn’t about a single leader but checks and balances. He hoped that when Biden takes charge he would understand that many Arabs, too, wish for true democracy. “If Biden comes to power and says ‘let’s be pragmatic, let’s talk to Assad’ then that would be hypocrisy. Just like the Americans, the Syrians, too, want democracy and not a criminal like Assad,” Barabandi told Inside Arabia.
America’s democracy shines most in contrast to the Middle East’s dictatorships. But the rules-based and rights-based model has taken a beating under Trump.
America’s democracy shines most in contrast to the Middle East’s dictatorships. But the rules-based and rights-based model has taken a beating under Trump. His disrespect for democratic institutions – backed by almost half of America – has revealed an America unknown to the rest of the world, especially those who looked up to it as a role model. It has disillusioned many Arabs who expected the US to support their cause.
“It’s not protest, it’s insurrection. The world’s watching,” Joe Biden said reacting to the pandemonium at the Capitol. “Democracy is fragile. To preserve it requires people of good will, leaders with the courage to stand up.”
The insurrection at the Capitol was a reminder that democracy is not a default setting even in the US and requires every other generation to fight to preserve it. President-elect Biden has announced plans to hold a global democracy forum when he takes charge, but he may have to save it at home first.