Ever since Tunisians successfully ousted their dictatorial and kleptocratic President Ben Ali after 23 years of his oppressive rule after just one month of protests in December 2010 and January 2011, people have been asking: “Why can Tunisians achieve what Iranians couldn’t in 2009?”
Not having been to Tunisia (but having been part of the protests in Iran in the summer of 2009) and believing that personal experience is a very underestimated research tool
international politics, I am reluctant to compare the situation in two quite different countries. But the following are a few thoughts that come to mind:
- Tunisia is a small country with 10 million people, whereas Iran encompasses a huge area with 76 million people. (This argument will be void however if Egyptians will succeed to oust Hosni Mubarak.)
- On average, Tunisians might be more and better educated as Iranians. Tunisia has been investing heavily in higher education and is widely credited for good results in this sector. Iran, on the other hand, sees education mainly as a threat to Islamic values and its power and has thus been cracking down on education and academia.
- Facing large protest in June 2009, the Iranian government did not make the same “mistake” as the Tunisian one: In Iran, no concessions were made, neither political, nor social, nor economical. Concessions by an embattled government seem to embolden the protesters even more.
- President Ben Ali of Tunisia gave up. After just one month of protests, he decided to pack his gear and start a new life in exile. The Iranian government, in contrast, remained steadfast and it was the bulk of Iranian protesters who gave up very quickly once the crackdown became brutal around 20 June 2009.
- Tunisia was basically ruled by one clan. In Iran however, the government does have some basis of support, for one among clerics and very religious Muslims, and also among the bloated number of civilian and para-military government employees who see their economic future tied to this particular government.
But one rather embarrassing difference was clarified again these days by the figureheads of the opposition in Iran, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, themselves:
- These Iranian opposition leaders have asked the Iranian government for a permission to protest. “We believe that if in Iran the opposition were given permission to demonstrate, it would become clear which side has a popular base and support”, they said. One aide to Mr Musavi predicted that “millions would show up if the government did not use force against the protesters.”
If you are a dictator, that’s the kind of opposition you can live with: “Please Mr Dictator, can we protest a bit?” Do these gentlemen not know that Tunisians and Egyptians did not ask for permission, but have been defying curfews and bravely facing beatings and bullets? Asking a brutal, oppressive regime for permission to protest against it is already embarrassing enough, but then even asking for a guarantee of non-violence from the dictatorship that you wish to oust clearly displays the timidity which is one of the reasons why the Iranian protests crumbled. (In another post I point to an Iranian Nobel laureate as a further prominent example of this disheartenment.)
If there is one generalisable lesson from successful revolutions throughout history and around the world, it is this: Courage is a necessary ingredient. If you are not willing to risk anything, the dictator won’t need to budge.
To those of us who have been looking at Tunis and Cairo with the hope for a revival of the Green Movement in Iran: I am afraid we can stop holding our breath.