The World Is Watching America’s Reaction to the George Floyd Protests
Pro-democracy activists in authoritarian countries always pointed to the United States as a model. After police attacks on protesters, it has become increasingly hard to do so.
Hearing and watching George Floyd say “I can’t breathe” on video is bound to shake you. If you are American, it can make you sad, angry, and ashamed—renewing your belief that black lives matter and that systemic racism must end. For many non-Americans, though, Floyd’s unjust and gruesome death has meant all of this, but also much more.
Particularly in autocratic countries and in countries where democratization is incomplete and fragile, watching Floyd pleading for his life, American protesters getting tear-gassed, and journalists getting attacked can shake one’s faith in the values that the United States has long prided itself on standing for.
Those outside the United States cannot help but ask themselves: How can “the land of the free and the home of the brave” fail to confront police racism? If democratic values and human rights cannot be upheld in the land where the Constitution secures “the blessings of liberty,” can they be upheld at all?
These questions are being asked, with much bitterness, in countries like Egypt (and, it is safe to assume, in other countries undergoing similar conditions or equally severe political repression) where pro-democracy activists have made sacrifices and paid a high price in their pursuit of democratization and human rights.
The Arab Spring and the 2011 Egyptian revolution awed many Americans and reminded them of their own revolutionary history. Sadly, in 2013, a counterrevolutionary military coup brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power and shattered Egyptian democrats’ dreams. Since then, street protests have been restricted, protesters rounded up, and dissidents jailed and sometimes tortured.
The brutality of the crackdown on supporters of democracy and human rights was severe enough to make some lose their faith in the revolution that had given them hope almost a decade ago: calls for freedom seem to have brought only a reactionary government and a level of political repression that many had never even witnessed in the era of Hosni Mubarak.
While already in distress, Egyptians watched in shock as Americans voted Donald Trump into office in 2016. Then, they observed the U.S. president’s hostility toward the media and toward minorities and immigrants. Prior to 2016, Egyptian supporters of democracy and human rights were at least able to point to the U.S. system, along with other democracies, as positive examples in their effort to convince fellow Egyptians of the merits of democratic principles and human rights, and to rally them behind this cause.
Now, after Floyd’s killing and police attacks on protesters, it has become increasingly hard to do so. In many nondemocratic countries, opponents of democracy and human rights, such as those in Egypt who prefer to prioritize the Sisi regime’s war against militants in the Sinai Peninsula over democratization, are now saying, “See, we told you: Democracy just does not work. Human rights are nothing but empty words that mean little when more pressing and realistic issues, such as fighting terrorism or imposing law and order, are at stake.”
Nondemocratic leaders are even more confident in their suppression of freedoms and their condoning of police brutality. They know that the violations taking place in the United States are being watched live by their citizens. These leaders can now simply laugh off the U.S. State Department’s annual reports criticizing their own human rights practices.
While there is no guarantee that freedom, democracy, and justice will ultimately triumph, there are many reasons for those who advocate those universal values, wherever they are, to cling to their faith: The wave of anti-racism protests that have swept around the world despite the pandemic’s lingering danger; the fact that many Americans of all races are standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with many white Americans engaging in a renewed conversation about their white privilege; and the relatively rare conversation about race sparked by Floyd’s killing in countries like Egypt, where race was barely on the public’s radar before.
Many Egyptians, along with others outside the United States, are discovering and rediscovering their very own racism. Moreover, they are linking the Black Lives Matter cause to their own struggles against police brutality and their call for democracy, freedom, and a better life at home. “I can’t breathe” was translated into Arabic, and into numerous other languages, too, and it has gone viral—in art, graffiti, social media, and conversations in living rooms.
Democratic principles, human rights, and justice are widely shared human values. Liberal Americans who adhere to these ideals need to discard notions of American exceptionalism and think beyond their own borders and to realize the value of solidarity with those championing the same cause elsewhere in the world. “We the people” are not only of and in the United States. We are in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, South Africa, and around the globe.
More importantly, when Americans vote this November, their votes will not only be about the next occupant of the White House, but about broader universal principles—about faith in democracy and human rights, and the idea that they are achievable and worth struggling for.
Many Egyptian activists and democrats, as well as others around the world holding their breath while they are following news from the United States, are well aware of the deeply rooted injustices that have marred the American system since its inception, from slavery to the violent elimination of indigenous North Americans. But they also know that U.S. democracy, when upheld and preserved, provides the mechanisms and tools that enable injustices and human rights violations elsewhere in the world to be addressed—even if the legacy of slavery and the violence of settler colonialism will never be undone.
Democracy has enabled many U.S. officials to defy Trump in line with the U.S. system’s principle of separation of powers. It empowered the president’s opponents to take him to court with reasonable hope that justice can indeed prevail, just as the Washington Post and the New York Times challenged Richard Nixon in 1971 and Oliver Brown challenged the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in 1954. Brown v. Board did not end Jim Crow segregation, and its implementation was marred by massive resistance from racists, but it achieved something—and it was a historic step in black Americans’ long and unfinished walk to freedom.
The upcoming election is not the end of the road or the ultimate answer to the current crisis in the United States, but Trump’s reelection poses a real danger, not only to America’s system but also to faith in democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms. For those reasons, democracy advocates around the world need to keep up the momentum of grassroots action on the streets that was triggered by Floyd’s brutal death.