What Egypt & Tunisia Tell us About Iran

My article on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment: There has been much debate about whether the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, especially in the latter, will produce a system resembling that of the Islamic Republic in Iran, which was born of revolution in 1979. However, in focusing on what is indeed an important question, two crucial points have gone unnoticed: The speed with which these two revolutions have occurred tells us something about their Persian counterpart’s endurance as it relates to its own grassroots protest movement, and at the same time the revolutions challenge the Islamic Republic’s narrative on the discourse of revolution in the Middle East.

Remarkably, the Egyptian regime—for all its international and regional support, decades of institution-building and massive security apparatus—collapsed after facing only 18 days of an albeit concerted and relentless protest movement that would not settle for any compromise short of Mubarak’s ousting.

The Egyptian government’s inability to survive the protest movement contrasts with the Iranian government’s continued grip on power. After the June 12, 2009 presidential election, large segments of Iranian society morphed Mousavi’s election campaign into a popular protest movement that grew rapidly and reached nearly three million people in Tehran alone three days after the announcement of the results. The speed with which the protests mushroomed prompted Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to order a crackdown a week later. Through the use of mass coercion and the deployment of its own supporters, a sizeable number in themselves, the regime systematically regained control of the streets after months of intermitent protests. The efficacy with which the regime enforced its will on the protesters and its ability to call upon hundreds of thousands of its own supporters signify its ability to endure in the face of a protracted and explosive challenge to its authority.

That the relatively isolated Iranian government was able to weather such a prolonged storm, lasting eight months in all, while the powerful Egyptian regime, which enjoyed regional and international support, notably from the US, fell after only 18 days attests to the Iranian government’s endurance. This is an important point deserving consideration when calculating how to promote non-violent democratic change in Iran.

That is to say, marches and demonstrations alone will not be sufficient to enact peaceful regime change in Iran. As Iran’s opposition tries to rekindle its own protest movement by tapping into the momentum of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the opposition’s strategy should not be limited to street activity, as it was in the past, but expanded into a more comprehensive approach including strikes, encampments in Iran’s own Liberation Square and, most importantly, garnering the support of Iran’s armed forces—all of which were tactics vital to success in Egypt.

Besides underscoring the Islamic Repubic’s ability to endure and highlighting the necessity for a broader strategy for non-violent action in Iran, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions also provide an ideological challenge to the Iranian regime’s discourse on revolution. Specifically, these recent revolutions cast doubt on the regime’s narrative that Islamic Revolution is the only means by which to topple foreign-sponsored and deeply entrenched dictators in the region. Until now, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been the only populist-led revolution in the Middle East. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 were not revolutions in the traditional sense, but military coups against hated monarchs that were immediately supported by the masses. As the sole country to orchestrate a popular revolution, the Iranian government has argued that revolution is possible in the Middle East only through the framework of Islamic Revivalism, positing its own history as a testament to this contention. Arguing that it was solely the people’s belief in Islam as an ideology that empowered the revolutionary movement to overcome the Shah’s western-backed regime, such a narrative of the Iranian Revolution marginalizes other forces and factors that contributed to the revolution’s emergence and success.

Although it remains uncertain which direction they will eventually take, simply by virtue of having emerged within a secular and nationalist framework, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions’ current states of triumph provide an alternative to the Iranian government’s theory of revolution. By doing so, they have inadvertently detracted from the allure of Islamic Revolution, which the Iranian government has long championed. In other words, the Islamic Revolution can no longer claim the mantle of being the only path to popular revolution. This challenge to the Iranian government’s discourse on revolution explains why authorities in Iran, however unconvincingly, are attempting to depict the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia as part of a wider Islamic Awakening.

Thus, in addition to the belabored discussions about the improbability of these revolutions charting a path similar to that of Iran’s in 1979, the two points related to the durability of the Iranian regime and the challenge posed to its narrative of revolution warrant attention because of the crucial insight they offer Iran observers. The speed with which the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia fell stands in stark contrast to the Iranian government’s survival after the 2009 post-election turmoil – a critical point that needs to be considered when strategizing how to promote non-violent democratic change in Iran. Concurrently, these recent revolutions bring to the fore an alternative that challenges the Iranian government’s narrative on revolution, revealing that a revolution does not necessarily have to be an Islamist one in order to claim victory over a seemingly invincible authoritarian regime.

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