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Comparing US Racial Protests and the Arab Spring

The current American popular movement aims for social reform, not regime change, Mideast experts say

Middle Eastern analysts see significant differences between the massive protests and riots in the United States triggered by the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the anti-government clashes and uprisings in Arab streets, especially during the so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and spread across much of the region in the early 2010s.

Nizar al-Makan, a political analyst and instructor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences in Tunis, told The Media Line that the continued protests in the US had no clear agenda to bring down the state apparatus, and were therefore completely different from popular movements and uprisings seen on Arab streets.

The US case was a human rights issue, which aimed at social reforms, whereas in Tunisia, for instance, the uprising in 2011 demanded political, economic and social change, he clarified.

“What’s happening in the US has to do with racism, and it is a spontaneous movement that happened before and was shut down. [In 2011-2012] we witnessed Occupy Wall Street movement, which was similar to current events but was vigorously suppressed by American law enforcement, in particular the New York City police and the National Guard,” Makan said.

He explained that America since the beginning of the 2000s had been suffering from societal division and political schism, which had created a kind of extremism, a huge intellectual gap “between the Democrats and their democratic ideas, and right-wing Americans, especially the ‘neoconservatives’ [among the Republicans] and their religious agenda and extremist political agenda regarding domestic and foreign issues.”

A principal issue in American society, with deep historical roots, concerned relations between whites and blacks, Makan said. “Even so, I believe that this [current protest] movement is spontaneous and it will soon be contained, despite its spread to others states [from Minnesota], especially the southern states, which have taken the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the policies of the current American administration, in particular regarding the global coronavirus pandemic crisis,” he added.

Adnan Abu Odeh, an analyst, writer and a former cabinet minister and head of the Jordanian royal court, told The Media Line that the demonstrations in the US had no connection to anything that took place during the Arab Spring, as the American situation concerned citizens’ discontent over domestic polices, in particular those related to the COVID-19 crisis.

“What happened in the Arab region during the Arab Spring was a result of a democratic maturity among people that drove them to demand democracy, but what’s happening in the US is completely the opposite: Citizens of a democratic country are protesting because its administration deviated from the principles of democracy,” he said.

Nevertheless, Abu Odeh pointed out that President Donald Trump was trying to exploit the riots and looting in the US to serve his agenda of winning re-election in November. “Also, he blamed China for what has happened for that reason as well.”

Asad al-Owiwi, a professor of political science at Al-Quds Open University in Hebron, told The Media Line that the issue in the US related to a history of American enslavement of Africans, and of violent treatment of them ever since. “Unfortunately, this attitude still exists in American society and has been reinforced by Trump’s racist discourse in a new way. That’s what happened.”

However, Owiwi pointed out American citizens, in general, enjoyed a large range of freedoms, something that Arab citizens in the region lacked to an enormous degree. “We can say that there’s a state of frustration and depression in the US caused by the crisis of the global pandemic, which helped to create such protests, but I’m sure that the American administration is capable of containing the situation and dealing with it,” he said.

Salah Qerata, a Madrid-based security analyst who until 2013 was a senior intelligence officer in the Syrian army, told The Media Line that the previous and current popular movements and protests had surely bewildered the leadership in the US, and could reach a point where the government would be forced to back down or at least make concessions. This is “unlike the situation for Arab popular movements, which are often shut down before they even start and are therefore ineffective and incapable of producing change.”

He said that after decades of suppression and totalitarian regimes with a complete absence of democracy in Arab countries, protesters often concluded that it was better to accept their unfair realities and situations because protests movements often produced results that were worse than those that had triggered them in the first place.

“If we look at the Arab region, for instance, Libya, Syria and Yemen, it’s true that the situation in these countries was bad in terms of living conditions and freedoms, but look at the situation there now – it’s worse,” Qerata elaborated. “Therefore, the people who participated in the popular movements, and those who didn’t, both regretted the uprisings and blamed them [for the subsequent deterioration].”

Mansour Rajhi, a Cairo-based Yemeni analyst and chief economist at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the so-called Arab Spring was a result of Arab citizens’ political and economic sufferings, “whereas in the US, the economic situation is good and the performance of the American administration was until recently good, maybe one of the best economic phases.”

Rajhi suggested that the situation in the US had to do with Trump’s “racist policies,” which, along with Floyd’s death, had motivated the Democrats and liberals to protest racial discrimination. “And it’s known that there is in American society a kind of apprehension about dealing with the subject of racism and discrimination,” he added.

Ankara and Tehran both cheered on the events in the US; Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed support for #BlackLivesMatter and opposition to racism in a series of tweets criticizing the US. For instance, Khamenei tweeted on Sunday that “if you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the US “racist and fascist” and said that the events in Minneapolis were a “painful manifestation of the unjust order we stand against across the world.”