Yes, Lafayette Square Is Tahrir Square

A central thread links the unrest across the United States with recent upheavals in the Middle East—the basic demand of the protesters.

Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest in Lafayette Square in Washington on May 30.
Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest in Lafayette Square in Washington on May 30. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

As is often the case with major crises around the world, social media has exploded over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent nationwide protests. Twitter, in particular, has featured both virtue-signaling performance art and access to information that one would not otherwise know existed. Somewhere in between those two extremes have been the contributions of regional experts like me, who perceive the scenes on the streets of major American cities as inviting comparison to other parts of the world.

Is Minneapolis Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian city that sparked the Arab Spring after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi? No. But recent uprisings in the Middle East—specifically in Egypt and Turkey—and the responses they evoked from their governments, do provide a useful lens through which to understand America’s present crisis.

Of course, the history, politics, and economic institutions of Turkey, Egypt, and the United States are quite different from each other, as are the complicated webs of political, economic, and social grievances that sparked their respective uprisings. But their similarities are instructive.

In Egypt’s Tahrir Square in early 2011 and in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two years later, protesters expressed their outrage over police brutality, crony capitalism, corruption, the arrogance of those in power, rigged politics, and their collective marginalization. The immediate cause of the Gezi Park protests was the planned destruction of a nine-acre park adjacent to Taksim Square in Istanbul. The green space—a diminishing commodity in the Turkish megalopolis—was slated to be redeveloped into a mall fashioned to look like the Ottoman-era barracks that once stood there. Concerned environmentalists began a sit-in in late May 2013, which subsequently blew up into something much bigger, spawning demonstrations in Turkey’s major cities. In Egypt, the protesters who descended on Tahrir Square were inspired, in part, by the memory of Khaled Said—a young man beaten to death by police in Alexandria in June 2010.

The most obvious parallel to draw between the Middle East and the protests happening around the United States is between the deaths of Floyd and Said. But it would be a mistake to stop there. The parallels are, in fact, deeper and more profound.

In both cases, Egyptians and Turks were exhausted and outraged that political institutions of the state and the prevailing social orders had combined to rob them of their dignity. They were left powerless until some unexpected and unpredictable development led them to take to the streets in large enough numbers that they felt safe demanding change. The self-martyred Bouazizi, the slaughtered Said, and the brutality of riot police in Istanbul tripped something in the collective consciousness of Tunisians, Egyptians, and Turks, galvanizing people to take action. In each case, the state responded with violence.

This should feel familiar to Americans by now. When I listen closely to what the folks brave enough to protest at this moment in the United States are saying, I see they are making similar demands as their courageous counterparts that I heard in the now famous squares of Arab countries and Turkey a decade ago. What is Black Lives Matter if it is not a demand for dignity? As a community, black Americans have been forced to confront every variety of pathology that exists in U.S. society, which in their most grotesque and heartbreaking variety manifest in the killing of innocent people at the hands of police who are never held accountable for their crimes (just like the police in the Middle East).

The only ones unable to understand the justice of the demands to be spared the indignities of such inequality are the beneficiaries of America’s corrupt status quo, its corrosion of institutions, militarization of the police, destruction of the social safety net, unchecked power of corporations, and criminalization of people of color regardless of their socioeconomic status. This blindness among the American political class and white America writ large has rendered them as out of touch as Egyptian elites no matter how many times they may have written #BLM in the last week. And then there are those influential voices in the United States who approximate the vile Turkish trolls and government officials who insisted that witnesses to the violence of Turkey’s riot police were doing the bidding of the enemy of the nation. Of course, both the Turks and commentators on the American right focused their ire on Jews—in the former case, Zionists and international bankers, and in the latter, George Soros.

What does this say about America and American foreign policy? There is a side debate happening among some foreign-policy analysts about whether the violent spectacle of American streets robs the United States of any credibility to speak about human rights in other counties. It does. How could I raise an objection to the treatment of Gezi’s “girl in the red dress,” who was famously pepper-sprayed at close range, when American police officers are doing the same? There is no moral high ground on press freedom when CNN’s Omar Jimenez is arrested while doing a live shot in Minneapolis or when an American police officer punches an Australian journalist in the face while on air a few blocks from the White House. My words about the condition of prisons in Egypt or Turkey are compromised when the United States imprisons more people than anywhere in the world, the majority of whom are black men.

It used to be that my interlocutors in the Middle East told me that they were outraged about America’s conduct in the region but they loved the United States for its principles, its ideals, and its institutions. I don’t hear that anymore. So, yes, there are differences in the protests but not as many as Americans like to tell themselves.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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