THE BLOG

From Ferguson to Cairo

08/21/2014 02:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

by Laurna Strikwerda
Program Officer, Middle East and North Africa

Ana Mubasher began in 2012 as an online platform for citizen journalists in Egypt after the uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Lately, it has been hosting content from a very different place -- Ferguson, Missouri. The police killing of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed African American man, has sparked protests in the town that have brought the issues of police violence, racial inequality, and freedom of assembly to the forefront of Americans' minds. But as a quick glance at Ana Mubasher or Twitter shows, Ferguson's impact has extended beyond our national borders. How U.S. institutions handle the crisis will have international as well as domestic ramifications.

Protests have been ongoing in Ferguson since Brown died on August 9. This week, the National Guard was called in. Although Wednesday night was relatively calm, many fear this escalation could still exacerbate tensions. Images of tear-gas clouds and police in military-style gear, which have come to characterize the protests, prompted democracy activists and other social-media users in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to draw connections between police tactics in the United States and their own countries. "Nope, this is not in Egypt or Turkey. This is in the USA," wrote Egyptian Twitter user @TheBigPharoah. Palestinian protesters tweeted tips on how to handle tear gas. Egyptian American press freedom activist Sherif Mansour suggested on Twitter that supporters of Egypt's military-backed regime might be happy to see images of "police brutality and arrests of journalists" from the United States.

Clearly, Ferguson is not Gaza, or Bahrain, or Egypt. As many activists in those countries would note, the situations are simply not in the same category in terms of scale, severity, or political context. But no one should be satisfied merely with the fact that there is less tear gas and deadly police violence in the United States than in authoritarian countries.

There are already abundant signs that U.S. institutions are responding much differently than an authoritarian regime would. Authoritarian states use violence and censorship to both suppress protests and block any discussion of the issues behind the demonstrations. In Ferguson, greater transparency and respect for free assembly are evident. The protests themselves and widespread media coverage have successfully created pressure on federal and state authorities to investigate Brown's death, try the officer involved, and examine the local police department's broader actions and practices. U.S. courts and prosecutors can be expected to eventually deliver justice in this case, and freely elected officials at all levels of government can pass new laws to ensure that citizens' rights are better protected in the future.

Indeed, the protesters are pushing their existing democratic institutions to fulfill these obligations--not calling for a complete transformation or replacement of the political system itself, as is frequently the case with uprisings against entrenched authoritarian regimes. The idea that protesters must be able to exercise their fundamental right to assembly is not in question. Unfortunately, the "over-militarization" of police, in the words of Missouri governor Jay Nixon, and criticism from Amnesty International about possible excessive force against protesters have raised doubts about how this right is being observed in practice.

Authorities have cited instances of looting and attacks on police as a rationale for stepping up security measures and imposing some restrictions on assembly and movement. The presence of rogue actors who disrupt otherwise nonviolent protests will be familiar to activists in authoritarian countries, as should the need to develop effective strategies to respond to it. In Ferguson, Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery reports that residents have taken up guarding businesses even when police fail to do so. Civic activists and the broader community can play (and are playing) a strong role in calling for nonviolence, but stopping looting and violence while protecting the right to free assembly is ultimately the responsibility of law enforcement agencies.

In addition to the specific problems surrounding Brown's death in Ferguson, the self-corrective process in the United States should seek to address long-standing issues--including racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the intensification of police tactics even as crime rates decrease--that the case has brought to the fore. Such matters are regularly tackled by U.S. media, nongovernmental groups, politicians, and courts, but rarely do they receive the sort of focused national and international attention that Ferguson has generated. This should be taken as an opportunity for progress on all fronts. Americans have the political and social resources to meet the challenge, including an engaged civil society that can help hold their government accountable.

The United States has a long history of activism that has resulted in changing laws and practice. In discussions with Bahrainis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and others from the MENA region, Freedom House has heard countless times about what the stories of the American civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., mean to human rights activists in those countries, in terms of both vision and tactics. Despite the fact that the U.S. government has failed to vigorously support democracy movements in the region, local democrats still look to the United States for models on how to create political change.

What happens in the United States does matter globally. If we as Americans can use Ferguson as an opportunity to showcase our high standards and address our own shortcomings in protecting fundamental human rights, those actions will reverberate all over the world. It may be in improving ourselves that we can have the strongest and best impact on others.

This post originally appeared on Freedom House's blog.