In all the coverage I’ve read of the Tunisian and impending Egyptian political revolutions I haven’t read any observer make the connection that came to me today. If there is any precursor to these earth-shaking acts of social transformation, it might be in the June, 2009 convulsions that rocked Iran following the contested elections there. While it’s true that the Iranian mullahs outlasted and outmuscled their opponents and preserved their hold on power, I think the drama of this near-revolution wasn’t lost on young people throughout the region struggling under the burden of similarly corrupt, unresponsive and autocratic regimes. While Iran was a near miss, I think it may’ve inspired others.
Other similarities come to mind: Iran’s Green Revolution was powered largely by disaffected, non-ideological youth fed up with a moribund system that offered them no prospects either economically or politically. The vision of the reformers was an Iranian democratic system that retained its Muslim character. Tunisia, a much more secular country, certainly lacked the impulse for a Muslim component to its revolution. But the cries for democracy and an end to rule by fiat would certainly resonate in both Iran 2010 and Tunisia 2011. Each of these revolutions had its martyr: Mohamed Bouazizi is Tunisia’s Neda Soltan.
Cairo’s revolution is still in the making and no one can tell what will happen there. Mubarak has been sly and skilled in dividing and conquering his political competitors and enemies. No one knows whether he can pull this one out or will be buried by the weight of the nation’s disillusionment with him. The stakes are very high. Egypt is one of the most populous nations in the region with one of the largest militaries. It also has a rocky historical relationship with Israel along with a potent Islamist movement that could possibly either come to power or play a critical role in a post-Mubarak era. While it appears impossible that Egypt could be the author of a second Islamist revolution à la Iran, it still wouldn’t take much to drastically alter the playing field of Middle Eastern politics.
If Mubarak goes, one of America’s strongest allies in the region will disappear. While Israel’s relationship ran more cold than hot, at least it knew what to expect of Egypt under Mubarak. A radical change at the top will make both Israel and America terribly nervous. Imagine for example, an Egypt which was not hostile to Hamas. I’m not even talking about a new government that would embrace or endorse Hamas, but one that would merely be neutral. You can see right there how this would severely undermine the current consensus that Hamas is the devil incarnate.
Despite the U.S. calls for democracy in the region (especially under George Bush), the truth is that America prefers the devil it knows to the one it doesn’t. And make no mistake, true democracy in the Middle East is a scary proposition for both. What George Bush and other American leaders never understood is that democracy means independence: independent thinking, independent alliances, nations seeking their own interests rather than the interest of a ruling élite. That is not something that makes us uncomfortable. We (and I include Israel in this) want countries subservient to us and our interests. Sure, we’re willing to collude with the Mubaraks and Ben Alis and give them what they want. But we want something in return.
Truly democratic regimes will be seeking not the interests of a ruling family, but of an entire nation. And this may, indeed will bring these countries into conflict with their former allies, mentors and masters. It could be a long, rocky road.
Returning to Iran: the results of these upheavals won’t be lost either on the regime or the reformers. While the ruling Ayatollahs mustered more flexibility and political shrewdness in holding off their adversaries, there could be a fire next time to quote James Baldwin. Next time the mullahs may neither be as lucky or as successful. The example of one and perhaps two (and if Yemen’s dictator goes, perhaps three) tyrants being felled in a short interval will resonate throughout Iran. The fact that these revolutions are powered largely by a vision of democracy (or if not that, then at least greater freedom) and not specifically by Islam does not bode well for Iran’s rulers either.
If there is massive change in regimes, it will not bode well for Israel. As the Palestine Papers have revealed, Israel thrives on forcing its will on its Arab opponents. When there is a new set of leaders who cannot be co-opted, coerced or colluded with, all bets are off. Israel must feel like the Chinese proverb: may you be cursed to live in interesting times.
One thing we learned from the Teheran upheaval is that everything can change or perhaps nothing. So we’ll have to see how things develop.