Alimagham: What Egypt & Tunisia Tell us About Iran

Pouya Alimagham writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

What the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions Tell Us about Iran

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.

Pouya Alimagham is a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan and a blogger at iPouya.

39 Responses

  1. The big difference between Iran and the Arab countries where the population is rebelling is that Khamenei/Ahmadinejad have a very large base of local supporters. There is good evidence (no real proof of electoral fraud. opinion surveys, etc.) to suggest that they actually have majority support. So while Iran might not be a true democracy, at least the government reflects the will of the people rather than the will of the hegemons in Washington. How big was Mubarak’s base? A few billionaires and the well paid Ministry of the Interior goons.

    “Until now, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been the only populist-led revolution in the Middle East.”

    Go read your history books – there have been other “populist-led revolutions” in the Middle East but the colonialists put them down.

    • Yes of course, but the Iranian gov’t's narrative claim that there’s succeeded because of its belief in Islam as an ideology and Khomeini as its charismatic leader. The point made in the article stands.

    • I think if the gov’t puts down an insurrection then no revolution has occurred. I don’t see any problem with the statement

  2. Bengazi falls as troops defect to rebels? Do my ears hear correctly?

    This is a world-historical moment. The Egyptian revolution succeeded on the tacit understanding that the conscript Egyptian troops, and lower levels of officers, would not fire on their population. This is the first example of troops actually leaving the state command structure and going over to the truly populist revolution.

    In such situations, the negative reasons why the old order failed to maintain are at least as important and interesting as the reasons the new order formed. And I would also like to stress that it is all a process, which depends on the moment-to-moment experiences of millions of individual persons in these nations (who do see themselves as part of a larger Arab nation), a process which had begun long before the 15th of January, when Tunisia overthrew its dictator, or the 25th of January when the Egyptian process began. And it is a process that will go on, Allah willing, through 2012 and 2015 and on and on. And this process will continue to be mediated by the individual experiences, and social interactions, of millions of persons in the affected Arab states, who will in fact be creating and distributing philosophies, psychological attitudes, political understandings and economic systems of value with their every minute-to-minute experience. See my previous work for more on these topics.

  3. I imagine one of the key differnces was that the egyptians seemed to have a much more focused goal, the removal of mubarack, the iranian protests from what i remember did not strongly come out and call for the removal of the supreme leader who is just as oppressive as mubarack was.

  4. [garnering the support of Iran’s armed forces]

    There are calls to put MEK off the terrorist list. Looks like a step in this direction :)

  5. An interesting analysis, but based on fauly assumption. It is too soon to call Egypt’s ouster of Mubabarak a revolution. A revolution requires xfer of power from a set of classes to another set of classes. It is not clear that this has happened. Egypt’s situation in 2011 is more similar to coup of 1952 than Iran’s 1979 revolution where power changed hands. Or at least after a period of power struggle soem segments of Iranian society consolidated their power. I just read that Egypt’s junta has outlawed strikes, an ominous develoment for an alleged revolution. Please do not rush to judgment.

    • “An interesting analysis, but based on fauly assumption. It is too soon to call Egypt’s ouster of Mubabarak a revolution.”

      I think the author of the article hinted at this point when she said it’s too early too know the direction the revolution will take, i.e. would be usurped by the military and be absolved of being called a revolution in the first place.

  6. The Iranian revolution of ’79 was not engineered and led by ayatollahs; it was a popular revolt against the Shag involving all sectors of society. But the section of the people with a strong organization happened to be the ayatollahs’ and they came to power easily convincing the populace as the only option to any other. Although it is very premature to state with any certainty the path of the Tunisian, Egyptian and other revolutions in the region, it is almost a given that the same line of thinking will hold true in these instances; that those who have the organizational strength will have an upper hand in the final outcome of these events. I will mot be surprised if the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt have a strong representation in the parliament in the promised coming election if the process in not compromised. The Shia and Sunni schools of Islam are fundamentally different from one another and one should obviously not expect the final outcome of the revolution in Egypt to be similar to that of Iran, but the strong role of the MB in the future is not something to dismiss out of hand. Just to stress the fact these regional upheavals are instigated and led by the youth is not an all inclusive analysis because the final outcome in regards to the leadership could be much different from what the original group of leaders had in mind.

    The ayatollahs’ in Iran know a thing or two about how to take control of a revolution and stay put in power and we should take note when they give council to the people of the regions. Even though we can only speculate on the percentage of the population than can lend ear to the advise of the ayatollahs and take them seriously, we should not take their views lightly because of the role the Iranians played in the region in recent decades siding with the aspirations of the Palestinians and making fools of the major Arab regimes in the region. Even though what we see in the Middle East is fundamentally an upheaval mainly about the economic difficulties (isn’t every revolution about the economy?) it is a no-brainer that the region’s politics is a major concern for the Arab and Muslim masses. No matter how the MSM and the talking heads in our nation make light of the Palestinian issue in these events and sometimes dismiss it outright as none issue, I believe the ayatollahs’ are very much in synch with the people in regards to its importance. The majority of the world and Muslims particularly were against the Israeli war in Lebanon and Gaza and everyone knows which country in the ME was solidly behind those who were fighting the incursion. The Shia Nasrallah of Hezbollah was the most popular figure in Sunni dominated Egypt and, I guess much of the region in 2006 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And we all know that Iran was its main backer. In short, I don’t think the populations of the ME see Iran in the same light as they see their own governments. Yes, the revolting public might not want a version of the ayatollahs replacing their current regime, but they remember vividly the role they played in the region vis-à-vis Israel and I bet the people do not regard them as their enemy. In fact, what the people remember clearly is the role our nation played in the region during those trying times siding with Israel and the role it is still playing now showing more concern about the stability of the region rather than the welfare of these masses.

  7. Pouya: no mention of the public opinion polls showing Iranian support for the Islamic political establishment by a 4:1 margin? Or that four polls consistently show that Ahmadinejad actually won the 2009 election? And what about Brill’s comprehensive analysis that had withstood all serious challenge in showing that the 2009 election was legitimate and Mousavi basically lied when he said it was not?

    Glaring omissions.

    How can you have a revolution when those that are revolutionary are but a slender minority? It didn’t work in America during the years 1968-72, why should it work in Iran today? Because you want it to?

    • I think the point of the article would be have been muddied if he went into the issue of numbers, majorities, and the actual election results. That’s all beside the point made.

  8. ? for the experts
    ? i think prof cole has commented on this a while ago
    ? Is it not an essential, possibly detremining factor, that the Iran ruling clique has Oil income to back it while those in Egypt and Tunsia do not

  9. There’ a flaw in your hypothesis and it is this; there have been no “revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt. The essential power structure in both states remains the same. Presidential resignations and “soft” coups do not a rvolution make.

    • I think the author hinted at that, that we’re not sure of the direction the revolution will take, i.e. whether it’ll be usurped by one faction or altogether subverted by power centers like the military.

    • This is certainly true, but this was only temporary. In the Islamic Republic’s narrative, and it is just that, a narrative, Bazargan’s role was minute in the grand scheme of things: The Iranian Revolution turning (or being forced) into an Islamic one.

  10. Many keep bringing up that the power of not only the will of the Tunisian and Egyptian people but of course the power of the internet, twitter, facebook,Al Jazeera. What we do not hear folks talking about is how the US MSM covered the protest in Tunisia and Egypt 24/7. They are not covering the protest in Bahrain like this. They are focused on Libya. Always fascinating where they turn and do not turn those cameras.

    Hell the anti invasion protest here in the states did not get even a slice of this type of coverage. Hundreds of thousands of us marched against that invasion across the nation millions and 30 million world wide. The MSM cameras did not give us the time of day

  11. Is it the case that, Libya aside, the only “opposition” movement in the Middle East that the U.S. government supports is in Iran?

  12. “the awakening of the peoples is undoubtedly connected to their unique geographical, historical, political, and cultural circumstances. We cannot expect what happened in the Great Islamic Revolution of Iran over 30 years ago to repeat itself in Egypt, Tunisia, or any other country. However, there are common features as well. The experience of any people may be beneficial to other nations.” -Ayatollah Khamenei

  13. Speed with which Egypt fell??? Hasn’t regime been in place since 1952? Ditto some of the other regimes in the ME. Versus only since 1979 for the Iranian regime. Not sclerotic enough yet to be pushed over.

    • I think what the author was focusing on was the actual protest movement, Mubarak fell in 18 days while Iran’s gov’t survived intact after 6 months.

  14. The comparison of Egypt and Iran and the arguments in this piece are shallow.

    Egyptians at this point want to do what Iranian did 32 years ago. Gain true independence. Egypt has yet get there. Even if it accomplishes it, it would be difficult to run the country without handouts from US whereas Iranian oil money allowed them to maintain their independence. You would know Egypt has gain its independence if it breaks the siege of Gaza.

    With their independence established and tested after years of war and economic sanctions, the new generation of Iranians want to move beyond independence. Traditionally (in good times) Iran has always been a strong central government. The generation is seeking to change the government to a more decentralize, distributed power structure. Naturally such changes have domestic resistance to it that the Iranian government has been able to take advantage of. In my view the Iranian case has more similarity with US civil rights movement than Egyptian uprising. Egyptian uprising at this point seems like first steps toward gaining their independence.

  15. I may be nit-picking but you claim that the Iranians protestors numbered in the thousands while the supporters of the regime were only in the ten’s of thousands? Is this accurate?

    As much as I detest all theocracies, I fear that the Iranian people should stay out of the western fold, otherwise they will just be more “carrion” for Rapacious Western Corporate Greed and it’s expropriation of sovereign natural resources.

    Democracy would be nice but powerful people might lose money and we just can’t allow that to happen.

  16. There’s no real way of knowing, but Tehran’s mayor put the demonstrations at June 15 at 3 million. On Feb. 11, 2010, the regime organized protests were also large, if not as large. The point is that this regime, unlike the Egyptian regime, was able and is still able to count on a large segment of society to come out in its support. Both side’s claim to be a majority, that’s beside the point. The point is that Iranian gov’t's ability to bring in such large supporters tells us something about the possibility of the Tunisian and Egyptian movements producing similar results in Iran; that it is unlikely.

  17. “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”

    Since the Iranian opposition is limited to somewhere around 8-13% of the population, large scale strikes, encampments, etc. which require hundreds of thousands of participants are not in the cards.

    As for “support of the armed forces”, this reveals a fairly deep lack of knowledge of the relative factions in Iran. The armed forces – not to mention the IRGC – are very unlikely to support an opposition which is widely regarded as a seditious, foreign-backed minority.

    All of the recent talk about “hundreds of thousands” of recent protesters in Iran have as far as I can tell been utterly hyped way beyond the actual numbers. Based on videos viewed so far, the largest reasonable number might be 10,000. And in a city the size of Tehran, as someone noted, that kind of protest can just be ignored.

    The facts remain that the Green Movement has no traction in Iran. And given the fact that Iran is under actual covert attack by the US and Israel, Iran’s government is well within reason to crack down on the movement.

    This has been under considerable discussion over at http://www.raceforiran.com, the Flynt/Hillary Leverett site. The consensus is that Iran’s government is far from being in a position to be overthrown a la Egypt and Tunisia. Nor does it need to resort to the sort of oppression we’re seeing in Libya to control its opposition.

  18. The Iranian military and the IRGC are not a monolithic bloc. It is true that the IRGC has a vested economic and ideological interest in the longevity of the system, which was implied in the article when the author mentioned the efficacy of the security establishment, but it is not monolithic and the way in which the post-election tumult was handled has created fault lines within the rank-and-file. Furthermore, the Green Movement does enjoy wide support, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into street action anymore bc of the fear the regime has created since it ordered the crackdown on June 19, 2009. Before then, people were coming out in droves:

    link to youtube.com

    But yes, as stated, the situation is very different in Iran than in Egypt or elsewhere bc of the IRGC and because the regime is able to call out hundreds of thousands of its own supporters, support the Mubarak or Ben Ali regime did not enjoy.

  19. “The opposition group Coordination Council for the Green Path of Hope issued a defiant call for protests to commemorate the 7th day of the martyrdom of two students killed during the 25th Bahman (Feb.14) demonstrations. For the first time the reformist group’s call to protest was asking for “an end to religious dictatorship.”

    link to huffingtonpost.com

  20. Picture is worth a thousand words
    Reminds me of last days of Hitler and Hitler Youth….
    by Roozbeh_Gilani on Mon Feb 21, 2011 08:31 AM PST

    where gangs of teenage German kids were deployed against the might of tough, experienced Red army soldiers, who’d marched to the gates of Berlin all the way from the battlefilds of Stalingrad….

    I hope these kids who obviously have little knowledge of how shamelessly they are being used by the islamist fascists against their own compatriots, are treated much much better by the Iranian people after the regime is gone, than their German counterparts were by the Red army soldiers…

    Using teenagers to crack down on people. It is sick.

    link to iranian.com

  21. A mind-boggling lack of perspective on Iran here.

    First of all, Iran is as much of a thuggish dictatorship as any other country in the region. Democracy is a sham there. The President (the highest office that the people can elect) does not control the armed forces (the Supreme Leader does), does not appoint judges to the highest court (Supreme Leader), cannot veto legislation (Supreme Leader), and can be removed from office at will by … the Supreme Leader.

    Second – the Iranian revolution as a popular uprising? Yes, absolutely at first. And people were genuinely excited to have some freedom and democracy after living so long under the darkness of the Shah’s dictatorship. But the religious thugs had another idea, and so they had to kill a few thousand Iranian students, academics, lawyers, judges, journalists, etc. in order to consolidate power, and the Iranian people swapped one darkness for another.

    This is why I’m not worried about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Khomeini poisoned the well for anyone trying to intercept a democratic uprising and kill his way to power.

    I do think that if Libya falls, Iran will fall. I say this only because the Iranian military, after watching the Libyan regime fall in spite of the the slaughter, will not have the stomach to kill Iranians in such numbers. At least I hope, because the Iranian regime has already shown once that they will slaughter their own people for Islam, and they could well do it again.

  22. To Pouya:

    the US wants an Islamic Iran. It serves as a perfect foil to allow them to interfere in the Middle East. The existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the main props for US support of Israel. It creates a bogey-man which can be exploited to justify our invasions of both Iraq and Afghanista­n, no matter that Iraq was a secular state and Afghanista­n a Sunni Muslim state prior to our invasions. A truly secular, democratic Iran is not in the interests of the US. The US wants either an intransige­nt enemy with a fierce visage or a compliant client with democratic window dressing and at this point it sounds like Obama has chosen the former for now. But, please do not foregt, the last thing they want is a free, independen­t, nationalis­t Iran that protects its self-inter­est and the welfare of the Iranian people.

  23. Don’t forget that a foreign invasion helped the mullahs consolidate their regime in Iran. The same process by which foreign intervention makes a revolution more radical was also seen in France and Russia.

    The mob that stormed the Bastille was not Jacobin. The women who began the rising in Petrograd were not Bolsheviks. A lot of the people who helped overthrow the Shah were not Islamists.

    But all it takes is some bunch of imbecile foreigners to try to intervene in a revolution, and then all bets are off!

  24. “A Ruthless Opponent

    The result, says Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian studies at St Andrews University in Scotland, is that Iran’s opposition will be unable to achieve the same rapid transition attained by demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt.”

    “The opponent they’re facing is a good deal more ruthless and much more embedded,” Ansari argues.

    link to rferl.org

  25. IRI kills just enough to scare, but not too much to cause general upheavel, then they use their propaganda machines to divert responsibility. It all makes sense, read the article and look at the numbers.

    If they don’t use tanks in the streets or kill people by hundreds (like Gaddafi), its NOT because they don’t want to, its because of the managed killing policies that they have perfected over 32 years, to stay in power.

    link to news.gooya.com

  26. the breathtakingly hypocritical condemnation of Qadhafi for his repression of the people on the part of Ahmadinejad has got to be one of the wildest things I have ever seen or heard.

    More on Tehran’s state of unannounced martial law
    link to bbc.co.uk

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