In January, a group of Trump supporters led an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, smashing windows, destroying the Speaker of the House’s Office, and breaking into the chamber of the House of Representatives, among other things. Since then, Joseph Biden was sworn in as President of the United States without incident, while Donald Trump and his supporters remained relatively quiet, causing many in the United States and around the world to look eagerly to the future.
However, as Ranj Alaaldin of Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy observes, while the insurrection at the Capitol may have “limited consequences at home, where democratic and law enforcement institutions are still strong and effective,” America’s failure to follow the standard it has insisted upon worldwide may have ripple effects around the globe, especially in the Middle East.
For the anti-democracy promoters in the Middle East, the insurrection is the perfect opportunity to delegitimize democracy and justify their stance. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, a noted enemy of the United States, posted on Twitter in response to the insurrection: “This is their democracy and this is their election fiasco,” pointing to the “American Values” on display that are “ridiculed even by their friends.” Iran’s former Defense Minister, Hossein Dehghan, gloated in a Twitter post of his own that the “architect of all riots, coup d’états, and color revolutions” are now being “overtaken by protesters.” This, he implied, was the consequence of the “American Dream.”
A similar sentiment is shared by prominent Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr, who wrote among other things that “we have always told you that Western democracy is misleading and artificial.” Many Iraqi citizens have drawn a comparison to events at the U.S. Capitol with a riot in 2016 where al-Sadr’s own supporters overtook the Iraqi parliament, although not due to an election protest.
While it is unclear whether the propagandizing of the January 6th insurrection will successfully deter citizens of these Middle East countries from seeking democratization in general, the reputation of the United States has certainly been diminished in the eyes of many people in the Middle East. Arab Israeli journalist Mona Omari said that the events at the Capitol “shattered my image of Congress,” continuing later that “future congressional decisions will not have the same weight.” Yusuf Erim, chief political analyst and editor-at-large for Turkish broadcaster TRT was even more critical, claiming that “America has lost its position as the pinnacle of democracy” and predicted that “these events will hinder the ability of the U.S. to effectively intervene in other countries to promote democracy, given such an ugly show at their own nation’s capital.”
Further evidence of America’s diminished image can be seen from several sarcastic tweets commenting on the situation. Many pointed out the hypocrisy of United States intervening in ‘unstable’ Middle East countries while being unable to control their own population. Journalist Hind Hassan called for “looted American artifacts” to be kept in Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq “indefinitely for protection” while others tweeted for Iraq and Afghanistan to send peacekeeping troops to ‘save America.’
Even political leaders joined in, with the Lebanese representative to the UN tweeting “If the United States saw what the United States is doing in the United States, the United States would invade the United States to liberate the United States from the tyranny of the United States.” Perhaps the most prominent sarcasm came from Turkish politicians who mirrored much of the same rhetoric said by the United States, in July 2016, during a military coup attempt in Turkey. The speaker of the Turkish parliament said of the matter “As Turkey, we have always been in favor of the law and democracy and we recommend it to everyone.”
Despite the damage to the United States’ global image, there are a few silver linings to be taken from the insurrection. Even with all of the chaos, the United States Congress reconvened later that evening and even under its most difficult test in decades, the institutions of the United States held strong. For those in the Middle East still holding faith in democratic governance, it is this resilience and the triumph of institution over populism that will be used to combat claims that democracy does not work. Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab emphasized that the Middle East should look to the role of the United States free press and independent judiciary in upholding democratic values during the election opposition as motivation for their own reforms in press and judicial freedoms.
As for the U.S., Marsin Alshamary reflects that the insurrection should be an encouragement to approach democratization efforts in the Middle East with more humility. “In the future, the U.S. would be well-advised to approach democratizing states with less hubris” says Alshamary “and to recognize that the social divisions that make governance difficult in Iraq are similar to the unaddressed social and racial inequalities that plague American society.”