Election 2020

Middle East Rivals Take Jabs at the State of U.S. Democracy

Regional media is covering the U.S. elections much like we covered theirs.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

An Iranian man watches U.S. President Donald Trump giving a speech on television in Tehran on Nov. 4.
An Iranian man watches U.S. President Donald Trump giving a speech on television in Tehran on Nov. 4. Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The coverage of the U.S. election on Press TV, Iran’s English-language state broadcaster, looked a lot like how the West covers elections in the Middle East. Iranian TV showed images of armed young men holding American flags, pre-election clashes, and boarded storefronts. It underscored the prominence of personal attacks in the campaign and baseless allegations hurled by President Donald Trump of electoral “fraud.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the next president—whoever ends up prevailing in the tight contest—to respect international law and treaties.

But there is something to that portrayal. Personal attacks, at least from Trump, did crowd out serious discussions of policy. Weapon sales skyrocketed ahead of the election. A strongman-like incumbent did claim victory before many of the votes had even been counted, saying that counting ballots was tantamount to a “fraud.” He threatened to challenge the election in the Supreme Court. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook had to flag the U.S. president’s posts for disseminating false information.

Several days ago, a photographer friend, who’s covered wars, protests, and elections across the Middle East, posted what he called “U.S. election gear.” It included the kind of kit we’re all used to carrying to cover turbulence in the Middle East, including a flak jacket, gas mask, and medical kit. Though initial fears of election-related violence failed to materialize, some observers worried that Trump’s inflammatory and premature claim of victory in the wee hours Wednesday morning could stoke unrest and a crisis of legitimacy, regardless of how the final vote count goes.

“The U.S. does have a history of election fraud,” said a reporter on TRT, the Turkish state broadcaster. “So these are legitimate concerns to raise and to explore here in this election,” she continued, despite the fact that most U.S, elections experts have cited very minimal fraud in past elections. Egyptian TV reported on skirmishes outside the White House. The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar TV ran a photo on its of Trump pointing his finger at his own head with the headline: “Trump Falsely Asserts Election Fraud, Claims a Victory.”

Countries—and leaders—who have borne the brunt of U.S. criticism for years are taking the opportunity to return the favor. Americans, for their part, have heard their whole lives that they are citizens of the world’s most vibrant democracy—a claim a lot of people around the world, including in the Middle East, probably believed, too. But this year’s contentious vote will leave behind a legacy abroad, of a beacon shining a little less brightly.

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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