Saturday, January 22, 2011

How Strongly Will the Tunisian Torch Glow? Why Tunisia, but not Iran? (analysis)

On December 17th , 2010, in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid a vegetable salesman Muhammad Bouazizi burned himself to death. His act was reflecting the total despair after losing the means of survival of his family when the authorities confiscated his mobile vegetable stand. The story is somewhat intricate, but the primary reason was apparently his unsuccessful fight against corruption and arrogance of the authorities, high unemployment and economic decline of the country. Call it maybe a hyperbole, but the act of this young Tunisian “Jan Palach” sparked a fire that might spread further. European holidaymakers and travel agents may fear to lose a favorite summer destination, but many people across the Middle East and North Africa see in it a glimmer of hope for other countries with dictatorial regimes in the region: Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Sudan and finally Syria and Iran.

Several days after Bouazizi, four people from Egypt, five from Algeria and one from Mauritania followed his act. One Egyptian and one Algerian succumbed to their injuries. Not all people have gone so far, but at least they gathered courage and took to the streets to protest against the abuses of their governments.

The Algerians protested against increase of prices of milk, sugar and flour, but the regime of President Abdulaziz Bouteflika is not so oppressive to bring about a greater public opposition. The waters of Nile under the barge of aging President Hosni Mubarak moved as well and the country is doing economically worse than Tunisia. An other good candidate for a political pension would be Muammar Gaddafi with his green book. Of course, he condemned the events in Tunisia, because of his good relationship with the former president. However, even from Libya through the thick curtain of censorship reports leaked about some protests, mainly because of the bad situation in housing and major delays in building new appartments for young people. Even in Jordan on January 16th about 3,000 people protested outside the Parliament and due to high food prices they demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, but did not dare to attack the royal family.

Although I know less well the situation in Tunisia than that in Iran, I will try to compare and outline some important factors that influenced the events and the result of two revolts, the ongoing Tunisian, and the one after the Iranian elections in summer of 2009.

Tunisia is a small North African country of 10 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, in terms of ethnicity they are arabized Berbers. Most of the country's income comes from tourism. Iran is one of the key Persian Gulf countries, in terms of natural resources and military potential. It is a country of 70 million, mostly Shia Muslims and ethnically mostly Persians, Azeri and some other ethnic minorities. What is important is the high number of educated young people who have access to the Internet and are able to independently report on the situation through social networks and publish authentic videos of the demonstrations.


At the beginning of all revolts and revolutions there must be the people's dissatisfaction with the situation in the country. In Tunisia, it was unemployment, corruption, clientelism, mafia-like families of the ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila, who controlled everything in the country, especially that what brought in some money. And also lack of freedom, censorship, imprisonment of people. The situation in Iran is very similar.

Many come with conspiracy theories, that the revolts are fomented by outsiders. These theories are numerous when talking about Iran, because of its officially anti-American stance. Okay, I admit, can not be excluded. However, if people are ready to speak out against regimes who do not hesitate to open fire on them, the situation must be so serious that they are ready to undergo a mortal danger and come out into the streets with bare hands against machine guns.

It is very interesting to see how similar is the scenario of response of all dictators, when their seismograph recorded stronger jolts at the foundations of their thrones.

The first step is always searching for an external enemy and trivialization of the protesting group. Absolute rulers never actually admit that people can be dissatisfied. Insurgencies must always be encouraged by the invisible enemy from outside, a superpower who wants to interfere in the internal affairs of the state and destroy that little paradise on earth. People must be happy just because they are ruled by the chosen leader X.

The autocrat orders to act harshly against people, and when he talks about the protesters, he does not spare derogatory expression, just like "the mob, extremists, traitors, provocateurs, thugs, vagabonds, etc." First casualties arise among the protesters, police violence is escalating and people are still louder. There may be cases of looting, attacks on police stations, prisons, government buildings and other infrastructure.

The leader is scared and tries to reconcile the people. Concessions follow, real or illusory. Usually he choses a scapegoat among the ministers, identifies him as responsible for the situation and makes him resign. He promises to reduce prices of some commodities, new elections, or to investigate the situation which originated the protest (for example, the disputed election results). Usually also initiates an effort to reduce violence, prohibits the use of live ammunition and the like. On the other hand, threatens citizens with further violens, if the crouds don't disperse. Severe security measures are put in place and usually a curfew.

If the policy of carrots and sticks fails, the leader has only two alternatives: to bring in the rule of absolute terror, or flee the country like a rat flees from a sinking ship.

In Iran a year and a half ago the first alternative happened. In Tunisia, the second one.

Why in Tunisia the public pressure succeeded to oust the dictator after one month, but not in Iran? Where Iranians got it wrong?


The answer is a mixture of several factors. One of the most important is that most of the Arab dictatorships are secular. Their ideology is based solely on the strength and loyalty of the army and security forces to the ruling party or group. They are based on a cult of the leader, or they may be the right-wing or ultra-left, but it is still a political ideology, and its dogmas, though twisted and manipulated, they still belong our own, tangible world. We can disagree with them, criticize them, argue.

Not in a theocratic dictatorship like Iran. Who gets up against a religious dictatorship, it is like a straight fight against God's will, against the holy and perfect order, against something intangible and incomprehensible by human reason. We oppose the law created by a higher authority, against which the human mind is absolutely worthless. The Iranian government is actually ruled by the laws of the "merciful and compassionate" Islamic god, represented by Khamenei.

For modern secularist Westerners this ideas are probably very strange. Signs of religious dictatorship in Europe can be found in the depths of history, when the pope had temporal power rivaling the power of the German emperors, during the Inquisition, the index of banned books and the burning of heretics, scientists and philosophers who dared to argue with the dogma, for example that the Earth is flat and the sun revolves around it.

Torture was use to test the force of the “heretic's” faith. If a person is innocent, God certainly saves him from pain and death!

Of course, everyone knows hat these "divine" laws are used to serve the needs of the ruling group, but in societies where there is still a certain percentage of believers and tradition, it is a strategy that can work. People do not need to be afraid of the wrath of God after death. It is enough to let them fear of jail, torture and death sentences, which are issued as easily in Iran as saying “good morning”. Just since the beginning of the new year, 45 were hanged in Iran. An other punishment is exclusion from society, preventing further study and professional growth.

Therefore, in Iran a secularist opposition does not formally exist. The secularists had to leave the country, or are no longer with us. Many people are internally divided. They feel the need for change and separation of religion from politics, but are afraid to openly subscribe to secularism and reject the tradition, which has still deep roots. Nobody has the courage to say "God's government" has failed and us, the people, can do better.

Therefore, in Iran against each other there are officially just two factions of the same party. The green movement is a sprout from the same tree, and that is the reason many people do not trust them, but at present there is no better alternative that would involve the majority of the people. Only a referendum on the constitution of the State itself (a secular Republic, an Islamic republic, a constitutional monarchy or other form) could solve this crucial issue, because without it we can never know exactly what those 70 million people really want.


The Iranian government immediately deployed the Bassij against the hundred thousands of demonstrators. It is a voluntary organization of dedicated believers with different functions, particularly the armed protection of the Islamic revolution. The commanders of the Basij recruited uneducated poor people from remote places of the country, they paid very well and brought them into the city to fight against the "infidels". Like excomunicated people in the Middle Ages (excluded from the Church) became virtually outcasts, deprived of all civil rights, in Iran it is enough to describe an inconvenient person as "mohareb", who fights against God. That person may be beaten, tortured and killed without any hesitation.

According to reports, which leaked a few months after the elections, the situation in the summer of 2009 was very close to revolution. In my opinion, this is also suggested by an interesting phenomenon. When some Iranian police refused beating and killing their fellow citizens, the government did not trust Iranians any longer. They invited the loyal minions and mercenaries of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Arab countries to kill Iranians. I am still looking for a similar example in history when a government invited foreigners to fight their own people.

In Tunisia, the army showed its support to the people and not to the fugitive president. It prevented the misbehaviour of the secret police and of the presidential guard. In Iran there are indications that a large number from the regular army supports the opposition, but the highest peaks are still loyal to Khamenei. Khamenei's power is mainly based on the Revolutionary Guards, essentially a parallel army, better armed than the regular one. The Revolutionary Guards are also a major economic force that now controls most of the country's important industries and infrastructures, such as telecommunications and the nuclear program.


The Tunisian revolt had one great advantage: it was supported by the workers' union, an organization that is very strong in Tunisia.The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) got three seats in the new cabinet, but its representatives resigned to protest against the presence of the former ruling party of the ousted president (Democratic Constitutional Rally party), which had still under control three key ministries: foreign affairs, finance and defense.

One of the biggest errors of the Iranian "green movement" was that it failed to engage all groups of people throughout the entire social spectrum of the country. The Iranian government knows very well why they block the development of trade unions and suppress them brutally because it were the masses of workers who brought the revolution in 1979 to its successful end by general strikes, especially in the oil industry, so crucial for Iran. To keep the favor of the working class, Ahmadinejad continues distributing cash and food during meetings. The next year the government is planning to continue cutting subsidies and rising prices of basic food can lead to more economic problems and discontent of the poorest.

An other question is how a regime change in any Middle Eastern country will be welcome by the Powers who benefit from these countries, especially those who do not want to lose a good outlet for weapons and sources of cheap oil ...

In conclusion, I should say one more thing: Fortunately, the opposition in Tunisia is secular and pro-democratic and Islamist groups (represented by the Party, or Movement or Renaissance "Hizb or Harakat al-Nahda) do not have any strong base in the country and did not participate actively in the revolt. The only advantage of a military dictatorships is that it holds religious extremists at bay. Hopefully in case other dictatorships in the region fall, the power will not seized by Islamists, as it happened in Iran in 1979.