Arab democracy and human rights in the Trump era

Arab democracy and human rights in the Trump era
Comment: The US can no longer assume the role of the leading superpower in championing the values of pluralism and inclusion, writes Tamara Kharroub
6 min read
17 Nov, 2016
A woman walks past the Trump Towers building in Istanbul on July 30, 2015 [AFP]

Since launching his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has promised to "take" Iraq's oil, ban Muslims from entering the United States, stop admitting refugees, bomb areas under IS control, kill family members of suspected terrorists, and subject terrorism suspects to "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," most of which would constitute grave human rights abuses and war crimes.

Within the United States, Trump has ridiculed the notion of democracy and equality by insulting Americans of a myriad of backgrounds. He called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, made sexist comments about women, vilified Muslims and called for monitoring Muslim Americans, mocked people with disabilities, associated African Americans with poverty and crime, and overall, presented views that resemble white right-wing nationalist ideologies.

Under a Trump presidency, what global leadership role should we expect America to play in support of human rights and democracy, especially in the Arab world? Although it is difficult to foresee Trump's concrete policies, his composite positions and general ideologies can give some indication.

The era of 'strongmen'

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump expressed admiration for 'strongmen' and spoke fondly of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and beyond.

Following his victory, heads and proponents of authoritarian regimes welcomed the results of the election and maintained that Trump will be a strong leader and a positive force in fighting terrorism. Trump equally expressed his support for what he calls "strong men" in power, such as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Donald Trump clearly has no interest in democracy and human rights in the Arab world

Already, Trump communicated his intentions to improve relationships with Sisi and Erdogan, declaring that Erdogan deserves "credit" for turning around the coup attempt and that he respects the role of strongmen such as Sisi against terrorism. He even said that dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are good in fighting terrorism, and expressed his interest in working with Assad and Russia to fight IS.

Donald Trump clearly has no interest in democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and will support and enable autocratic regimes; re-establishing relations with them while overlooking their human rights abuses under the pretext of "counterterrorism".

America-first approach

Donald Trump's campaign also sustained a narrow focus on US interests and domestic policies, from the economy to immigration and law and order. Rather than being a global leader in defending democracy and human rights, Trump's "America-first" approach promises to build walls, increase sanctions, ban people, withdraw from the international system and pull out of international agreements. 

Trump has argued that human rights and democracy should not be a priority for US foreign policy

Trump has argued that human rights and democracy should not be a priority for US foreign policy. As such, the Trump administration will likely not pay any serious attention to democracy promotion programmes nor to pressuring human rights abusers and holding them accountable, let alone finding funding for either. Traditional US support for democracy and human rights will diminish, affecting the prospects for successful democratic transitions and reforms in the Arab region.  

Moreover, "America-first" will create a vacuum for regional and global powers to take advantage of. Several regional players such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have already welcomed Trump's election victory, and see it as an opportunity to exert their influence and political agendas in the region.

While the majority of the Arab public is opposed to US intervention in the region, Trump's "America-first" approach will not necessarily translate into sovereignty and self-determination. His isolationism is combined with belligerence and a fondness for dictators.

Belligerent isolationism

Trump's belligerent isolationism is likely to destabilise the region even further. His hawkish positions towards what he calls "radical Islamic terrorism", combined with his isolationist approach towards any measures that promote democracy and human rights, will increase the influence of groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda. Such groups will surely exploit this divisive president to recruit new members, and even call for lone-wolf attacks in the West. 

This reductionist counterterrorism strategy of military measures, while disengaging from democracy, human rights and state-building in the region, has long proven unsuccessful - even counterproductive.

Trump also strongly criticised multinational alliances, even calling NATO "obsolete". Although Trump is unlikely to withdraw the US from NATO, his critical views of international organisations such as NATO and the UN, and their peacekeeping processes, may imperil US funding and the already limited resources these organisations have, in the face of severe international humanitarian crises.

Losing soft power

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States and the vicious campaigning that preceded it demonstrate that the US is losing the very values of liberal democracy, justice and freedom it has been waging wars for.

Soft power is a nation's ability to shape world affairs through culture and values, rather than through coercion and military means (hard power) or financial measures.

For decades, one of the important elements of American global appeal has been its commitment to the values of multiculturalism, equality, and democracy, which might mitigate some of the resentment towards US foreign policy and military adventurism around the world.

His isolationism is combined with belligerence and a fondness for dictators

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has expressed views and intentions typical of authoritarian even fascist leaders. He made serious remarks that endanger the notion of American freedom, including attacks and threats against religious and ethnic minorities, objectification of women, threats against the media and journalists, the use and promotion of violence at his rallies, among many others.

Reports of increased hate crimes and attacks against minorities have surfaced in recent months, and have been linked to Donald Trump, his supporters and his campaign rhetoric. His recently-appointed chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, is known for his racist views.

As former chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon promoted voices of white nationalism, racism, islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Although Trump was democratically-elected on the basis of the US Electoral College system, he represents a movement that doesn't care for such democratic values as pluralism, equality and human rights. His journey to the White House was filled with xenophobia and right-wing populism. 

Trump's path to the presidency was further marred by misogyny. He made several derogatory objectifying remarks about women, bragged about groping women and admitted to sexual assault, and was accused of sexual assault by a dozen women. Thus, the longstanding US role in promoting women's rights in the region will be difficult, at best.

As such, US "soft power" and credibility in being the leading global power committed to equality and human rights, have already suffered greatly. The US can no longer assume the role of the leading superpower in championing the values of pluralism and inclusion.

The Trump rhetoric and victory have narrowed and exposed America's ability to lead internationally in promoting human rights and equality, fostering civil liberties, and preventing torture and human rights abuses. 

Overall, Trump's rhetoric towards the Arab world thus far has been a combination of belligerence, Islamophobia, and unilateral approaches, all of which suggest further destabilisation in the region and a deteriorating state of human rights and democracy.


Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.