Efforts to undermine protest movements by framing them within a narrative of foreign or oppositional interference are part of a familiar autocratic playbook. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dismissed ongoing protests against the country’s new citizenship bill as being propagated by his political opponents, whom he blames for “spreading violence and creating an environment of fear.” Anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia ahead of local elections in Moscow last year were similarly attributed to “foreign meddling.”
In some countries, protesters have come to expect this sort of delegitimization—and have even taken steps to avert it. In the recent anti-government protests in Iraq, for example, demonstrators intentionally framed their movement as nonsectarian in an effort to avoid delegitimization by the state. “There are particular reasons why the Sunnis in Iraq are not out on the streets in large numbers,” Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told me in October. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, and Khatib noted that the distinct lack of Sunni protesters had to do in part with the fear that mass mobilization in Sunni areas would lead to “people accusing these Sunnis of rising up against the government because they are pro-ISIS,” and make the protests easier for government forces to stamp out.
Trump’s apparent endorsement of the protesters in Iran puts them in a similar bind.