Two years ago today, images of rioters violently besieging the U.S. Capitol marked the startling transition from America's 45th to 46th president. "It's not protest, it's insurrection. The world's watching," Joe Biden, then president-elect, said in an address as Donald Trump's extremist supporters ransacked the Capitol and hunted down lawmakers, in an attempt to disrupt the official certification of Biden's election. "Think what the rest of the world is looking at," Biden asked, as he called on "this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward."
The shock of Jan. 6 was not confined to the United States, as scenes of the attack were watched all over the world. In the Middle East and North Africa, many people were dumbfounded to see this deadly unrest unfold in the American capital. Among both Arab elites and everyday citizens, it was a jarring contrast with America's proudly self-proclaimed "democratic exceptionalism."
To be sure, pro-democracy activists and civil society organizations across the Arab world have never been delusional about the hypocrisy of U.S. rhetoric regarding democracy in the region. From the U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," to ongoing, unquestioned support for autocratic Arab regimes and Israel's repression of Palestinians, there has been a gap, to say the least, between America's words and actions. Nonetheless, these same pro-democracy activists and organizations have long recognized that the U.S. system is, for all its flaws and shortcomings, still a liberal democracy. An armed mob storming the legislature to derail an election seemed more likely to happen in a country with far less developed and consolidated democratic norms and institutions.
"This act of American political extremism undermined any U.S.-supported advocacy for civil society and political democratization in the Arab world. More than that, it severely undermined the U.S. narrative of being a beacon for the free world."
- Andreas Krieg
In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, "they know a militia when they see it," said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specializing in Libya. "They know what happened in Washington."
"The attack on the Capitol affected the perception of the United States as a beacon of democracy for its own citizens," said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies (and a non-resident fellow at DAWN). "Of course, this is a process that began with Donald Trump and the gradual and steady erosion of America's democratic character."
Many regional autocrats who have long tried to convince their citizens that democracy leads to instability, or even "chaos," reveled at the opportunity that Jan. 6 represented. Considering the irksome lectures from U.S. officials about the rule of law, the attack on the Capitol was a chance to dismiss that criticism as hypocritical and mock the very idea of American democracy.
For the region's "authoritarian counterrevolutionaries," the mob's assault on the Capitol "strengthened their argument that authoritarian stability might be the best approach to keeping the peace," according to Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at King's College London. "This act of American political extremism undermined any U.S.-supported advocacy for civil society and political democratization in the Arab world," he said. "More than that, it severely undermined the U.S. narrative of being a beacon for the free world, strengthening the authoritarian revival in the Middle East."
Many Arab autocrats staunchly supported Trump's presidency, given his fondness for rulers like Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Trump's "favorite dictator") and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They were hoping for his re-election in 2020. As the attack on the Capitol unfolded, "there was a sense of quiet and subtle but very real hope that things would go their way," Hashemi insisted. "In other words, anti-democratic forces—authoritarian regimes and Arab dictators—were on the side of the rioters, not the Constitution of the United States and not the process that was under way to ratify a democratic election."
For Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary history and politics in the Gulf and the director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, the mob violence in Washington two years ago paralleled some tactics used by certain Arab governments to stifle pro-democracy movements and try to maintain their own power. As Trump mobilized his supporters to attack democratically elected American lawmakers so he could stay in the White House, Arab publics were reminded "of some of the tools used by some of their own governments, especially within the Arab uprising context," Zweiri said, such as when pro-regime thugs attacked Egyptian protesters in the streets of Tahrir Square before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. These are the kind of desperate tactics used by desperate rulers that "divided and weakened society," he added.
"I would argue that the post-Jan. 6 developments, especially the congressional hearings and the FBI diligence in pursuing the insurrectionists, resonated more in the region, especially among activists and civil society organizations."
- Randa Slim
Of course, America's democratic system weathered Jan. 6, and in the two years since then, there has been a concerted effort to hold Trump and his allies accountable. The extent to which the House of Representatives and the Justice Department have taken steps to investigate and charge the insurrectionists—whether or not that ever includes criminal charges against Trump or anyone in his inner circle—has not been lost on activists and governments in the Arab world.
"I would argue that the post-Jan. 6 developments, especially the congressional hearings and the FBI diligence in pursuing the insurrectionists, resonated more in the region, especially among activists and civil society organizations," said Randa Slim, the director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "These developments show that while U.S. democracy is not perfect, it withstands and successfully deals with challenges to the integrity of the electoral process. They also show how all branches of the U.S. government, at the federal and local levels, worked together to prevent a sitting president from abrogating the voters' will by force and through legal means."
"In doing so, they affirmed the primacy of the rule of law, and that no one, including a sitting president, is above the law," she added.
Still, the legacy of Jan. 6 lingers in the Arab world, shaping perceptions of political stability—or instability—in America itself, with consequences for U.S. foreign policy and leadership abroad, as well as its position in the Middle East. If the U.S. government was unable to provide security for its own lawmakers in Washington and protect the Capitol from an armed mob, can it really ensure stability in Arab countries halfway around the world that rely on the U.S. as its security guarantor? Whether America actually has such robust democratic institutions was in serious doubt two years ago, "and that concern is still there," Zweiri said.