Ten years ago, Egyptian police killed 28-year-old Khaled Said while he was custody, enraging activists across the country.
A few months later, the region was on fire with protests later known as the Arab Spring. Egyptians packed the streets shouting slogans such as “Bread, Freedom, Equality!” These are three things Americans are widely perceived to have in abundance.
The demonstrations in the United States over the recent death of George Floyd, an African American, in police custody have sparked wonder in the Middle East, where mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon were only recently quieted by pandemic lockdowns. Activists say they see their dreams reflected in the calls of U.S. protesters and express support and warnings.
Twenty-six-year-old Nour Khalil was in high school when the Egyptian uprising brought down 30-year-dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. After classes, he would join the crowds on the streets demanding not just the fall of the government, but many basic rights.
The right to be safe in the hands of the police was a key demand for Egyptians back then, and is the main cry from Americans right now, said Khalil, now a human rights lawyer.
“From a humanitarian perspective the problems are similar,” he said on his way home from work last week. “It’s generated a wave of sympathy for the protesters, especially because the main spark was the death of one of their citizens.”
The pictures of protests in America are also almost the same as those seen commonly during the Arab Spring, Khalil added: angry young people, burning buildings and a single young man facing down a line of soldiers.
And while images of a people standing together against oppression are moving, he warned, the results are often unexpected.
In many parts of the Middle East, the aftermath of the 2011 protests was disastrous. Syria, Yemen and Libya are still suffering through brutal civil wars, Tunisians say they don’t remember ever being poorer, and Egypt is once again under the firm control of a single strongman.
“I hope Americans take a lesson from the Middle East,” Khalil said. “There is so much anger, so the results are unpredictable. But we do know that violence from either side generates more violence, and racist speech generates more racist speech.”
Besides violence and hate speech, activists also warn that government suppression or inaction can be dangerous.
Last October in Iraq, protesters flooded into the main squares of several cities demanding justice, safety and jobs. At first the government cracked down, cutting off roads and the internet and imposing a curfew.
But demonstrations continued by day, and by night young people clashed with security forces.
Eventually Iraqi authorities began to make some concessions, but violence against the protesters continued either with the government’s consent, or without the government’s protection. Hundreds of protesters were killed and posters of the dead still hang in squares across the country.
“I hope the American government goes out and listens to the people,” said Ali Almikdam, who spent four months camping in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square before fleeing death threats from militias. “If they suppress the protests in America, they will have consequences like what happened in Iraq.”
In Istanbul on Friday evening outside Trump Towers, about 20 protesters held signs saying, “Justice for George Floyd” and “Solidarity with the American people’s struggle.” Roughly as many police officers in riot gear stood by.
The group chanted for about 20 minutes before kneeling on the ground, fists raised and dispersing. Another protest earlier in the week quickly turned into clashes and at least five people were arrested, according to the Reuters news agency.
Gökçe Sentürk, one of the organizers, said the American protests inspired them to stand up for all marginalized groups, like gender non-conforming people, LGBTQs, low-wage workers and ethnic minorities.
“All people who are exploited or oppressed say, ‘We can’t breathe,'” she said.
It took the threat of massive coronavirus outbreaks in cities with dilapidated health care systems to quiet the movements in the Middle East, but many urban centers are still occupied by protest tents, and rallies in Iraq and Lebanon began again last month.
As he rested in his garden, Khalid Rawi, 29, a musician in Mosul, Iraq, said religious or ethnic discrimination in the Middle East can be as dangerous and demoralizing as racism in America.
“Some people think all Americans live the high life and are rich,” he said. “But in reality, many are very poor.”