Yesterday’s attack by President Trump on the “dishonest media” who he says are “out of control” was just the latest in a series of assaults of those who question his policies. Reporters and others critical of the new administration are being targeted, and drawing parallels between the White House and some authoritarian governments has become uncomfortably easy.
When the president tweeted February 3, “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protestors are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”, ‘New York Times’ Beirut Bureau Chief Anne Barnard noted: “This is nearly identical language used routinely by Middle East authoritarians/dictators to discredit or dismiss protest and dissent.”
In a January 31 message to staff, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler wrote a memo to staff about “Covering President Trump the Reuters way”. He explained, “It’s not every day that a U.S. president calls journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ or that his chief strategist dubs the media ‘the opposition party’”. Adler cited the organizations’ work in repressive regimes “such as Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia, nations in which we sometimes encounter some combination of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials, and even physical threats to our journalists.”
“The United States isn’t Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but there are things to learn from the experience of dissidents there who have defended rights in some of the most challenging environments in the world.”
The combative tone of the Trump White House and the response of hundreds of thousands of street protesters echo some of the recent political dynamic in the Middle East. So I asked some experienced human rights activists from the region with experience of living under totalitarian regimes what advice they have for those in the United States trying to defend human rights.
Basem Fahty was one of the organizers of the Tahrir Square protests which brought down the dictatorship of Egypt’s President Mubarak six years ago this month. After a brief experiment with democracy, the country has since reverted to autocratic rule. I asked him what he’d recommend for protestors here to keep focus and direction. “The first thing I’d say is not to do what we did, because we failed,” he laughed. “But I think American activists should move from inside not outside the system, take advantage of having a system in the first place,” he said.
Kholoud Saber is an award-winning Egyptian human rights defender and leading feminists activist. “The context is really different from Egypt and it will take time to find a direction for the movement,” she said. “But it’s vital for American society that things like racism and sexism don’t get normalized. We also need to figure out internationally how to help stop these things in America as it is definitely going to affect the situation of the countries like Egypt, where people still fighting for their basic rights and freedoms under authoritarians regimes.”
Washington has already seen organized and spontaneous protests. In the last few weeks, when presidential motorcades sweep past, bystanders on the street turn their backs or boo at them. The U.S. appears increasingly polarized but it’s important not to alienate those who support the president, says Egyptian human rights defender Ahmad Abdallah, who was recently released from jail but still has charges pending against him. “The first thing I’d suggest is to focus on the idea that ‘it happened to someone, so it can happen to you,’ and to engage Trump supporters with the idea that some of them will suffer personally from his policies. Our major drawback in Egypt was that we talked to just ourselves but we should have talked with those who are on the opposite side to get them on our side,” he said.
“Legal challenges [to the attacks on human rights], this role for lawyers, is also extremely important. And it’s important too not to underestimate the power of boycotting companies that support these bad decisions,” he said.
Human rights defender Waleed Sulais was forced out of Saudi Arabia and into exile for his peaceful dissent against the repressive regime there, and he suggested, “The environment is different [from Saudi] but it’s important to stay patient and keep the momentum ‘til the next election. Arab dictators try to create an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness where we feel we can’t win anything. Arab activists have created a strong network to support each other to counter the risks and this Trump administration gives us a chance to build a global network;” advice endorsed by human rights activist Fatima AlHalwachi, based in Bahrain: “The protests we’ve seen have been great, and keeping momentum sustained is important, not just reacting ad hoc to attacks on human rights,” she said.
The United States isn’t Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but there are things to learn from the experience of dissidents there who have defended rights in some of the most challenging environments in the world. “Our experience shows that protests can open a closed space but they can’t bring about change on their own. Change is the result of everyday work, getting your hands dirty at a grassroots level of organizing – voter registration, court cases, these things,” said Fahty.