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Let Democracy Resound

by SOHRAB AHMARI and NASSER WEDDADY

23 Apr 2010 23:4811 Comments
fireincairo.jpgWhy Arab and Iranian reformers should unite.

[ opinion ] Recently, hundreds of Egyptians gathering in downtown Cairo were brutally repressed by security forces. Nearly 100 demonstrators were beaten and detained merely for exercising their universal rights to free speech and assembly to protest Egypt's 29-year-old emergency law. But aside from a solitary AP dispatch, the protest went largely unnoticed in the West. Egyptians seeking international recognition for their struggle were demoralized, with some lamenting on Twitter: "Are Persians made of gold and Egyptians made of s**t?"

The Egyptians' complaint referred to the international coverage and attendant goodwill afforded the ongoing Iranian uprising after last June's fraudulent election. Ironically, beleaguered Iranian democrats have issued a similar lament during street protests: "Are Gazans made of gold and Persians of s**t?" The comparison critiques the willingness of some Western liberals to ignore the Iranian struggle while vociferously spotlighting Gaza.

These parallel laments, from cities hundreds of miles apart, point to an encouraging new phenomenon: the emergence of a transnational democratic consciousness across large swaths of the Mideast. Thanks to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Middle Easterners are increasingly exposed to firsthand reports of reform struggles in nearby countries -- and are in turn adopting new techniques for their own struggles against despotism. For those fed up with tyranny at home, the struggle for human rights carried out by neighbors provides both inspiration and tactical lessons in nonviolent resistance.

Yet the same ethic and sectarian tensions -- Persian versus Arab, Sunni versus Shia, etc. -- that often make the region such a dangerous place for its inhabitants also divide its reformers. For example, because many Iranians believe Ahmadinejad imported Hezbollah thugs from Lebanon to violently repress the postelection protests, some Greens give voice to racist anti-Arab sentiments. Conversely, Arab nationalistic and anti-Israel sentiments have pushed some on the Arab street, including progressives, to embrace the Iranian regime's belligerence -- in spite of the threat the mullahs' militarism and meddling poses to Arab states.

This is wasted potential. Arab and Iranian democrats have much to offer one another. Since the election uprising broke out, Iranian democrats have mastered numerous clever, nonviolent strategies: writing antiregime slogans on banknotes, refusing to pay gas bills to state-owned companies, and mass chanting of "Allah-o Akbar" from rooftops after nightfall. Arab reformers can adopt many of these tactics so they -- like the Iranians -- can move their struggle against autocratic misrule from the virtual world to the street on a similar scale.

Moreover, after the rigged election, Iranian dissidents previously at each others' throats over ideological differences successfully forged -- and have largely maintained -- a united front. Their massive street protests prompted a violent response that discredited all of the regime's claims to respect the democratic process and any of its lingering revolutionary credibility.

Arab reformers remain internally divided across ideological lines and have allowed their cause to be smothered by the overwhelming focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab reform movements need to rebrand their campaigns so that the Western public understands that a successful and lasting peace process in the Middle East entails resolving the conflict between citizens and their rulers. Iranians have managed to frame their struggle in this way, demonstrating vividly how they live under internal occupation.

Arab activists, for their part, have pioneered the use of information technologies for activist ends. At the recent Cairo protest, the names of detained protestors were relayed in real time by hundreds of social media users to marshal an army of volunteer lawyers and ensure that detained protestors do not disappear indefinitely in the regime's jails. Dissidents in Arab countries, like Egypt's Wael Abbas and Tunisia's Sami Ben Gharbia, have spent years developing sophisticated technology to expose repression and are inspiring a second generation of younger activists. Now that many Iranian dissidents have been driven back underground, they would do well to study the examples of North African cyberreformers.

Though led by Iranian Shia clerics, the 1979 Iranian Revolution profoundly impacted Sunni Arab states deep into the Maghreb. Islamists in Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, and beyond saw Khomeini's revolution as a vivid blueprint, one that confirmed the prophecies of Sunni Arab Islamist ideologues like Sayid Qutb. Just two years ago, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood proposed establishing a ruling clerical elite based on Iran's Guardian Council.

Today, the region's salvation may very well be the result of the emergence of a new Arab-Iranian alliance, only this time an "axis of democrats." The laments of battered protestors in Egypt and Iran should be taken as a call to cooperation. Arab and Iranian democrats - like all people who stand up peacefully and purposefully against dictatorship - are made of gold.

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American blogger studying law at Northeastern University. Nasser Weddady is Civil Rights Outreach Director at the American Islamic Congress.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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11 Comments

"For example, because many Iranians believe Ahmadinejad imported Hezbollah thugs from Lebanon to violently repress the postelection protests, some Greens give voice to racist anti-Arab sentiments. Conversely, Arab nationalistic and anti-Israel sentiments have pushed some on the Arab street, including progressives, to embrace the Iranian regime's belligerence -- in spite of the threat the mullahs' militarism and meddling poses to Arab states."

First of all, it's been determined that the source for the Twitter rumor of Hezbollah antiriot forces being deployed in Tehran was actually Israeli intelligence.

Second, let's not beat around the bush here: the racist anti-Arab sentiments espoused by a number of Iranian diaspora subversives centers around Islam.

Third, what "militarism and meddling" are these authors referring to? Standing up to Zionist injustice? Promoting the rights and interests of Shia citizens?

Honestly, how do you expect political partisanship to be compatible between states like the Republic of Egypt and the Islamic Republic of Iran? That's sort of like expecting compatibility between the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the American Democratic Party. Really, it doesn't work that way.

Tehran Bureau, it's about time the editorial content of the site (periodically) contain elements of material more in line with the political mainstream inside Iran, that is to say non-subversive views representative- for example- of the Combatant Clergy Association and/or the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran. Objectivity and a sense of even-handed political representations are considered of value here- are they not?

Pirouz / April 24, 2010 12:05 AM

Pirouz,
"First of all, it's been determined that the source for the Twitter rumor of Hezbollah antiriot forces being deployed in Tehran was actually Israeli intelligence."

Really?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uflLjI_AlMU

"Objectivity and a sense of even-handed political representations are considered of value here- are they not?"

Practice what you preach. Should you not?

Niloofar / April 24, 2010 8:16 AM

No alliance - this article is ridiculous. The u.s. imperialists and the zionists are the unjust ones, not the Iranian Government.

Radical_Guy / April 24, 2010 6:22 PM

Pirouz is right. Iran is not a threat to Arab states. Iran is a threat to the corrupt dictators ruling Arab states, who are supported and kept in power by the U.S. and Israel.

John / April 24, 2010 8:54 PM

This is an interesting article and respectful thought process, but unfortunately, misguided.

Neither Iran nor Egypt will ever become democratic unless the people are allowed to fight their respective regimes on their own terms. The article fails to recognize that the principle reason for the lack of progress in these respects is outside intervention.

Ayatollah Khomeini gave Iran two principle gifts. First, the recognition that the Western interests are the eternal enemy of Iran. Second, independence. It is due to this independence that Iranians society has had more upheavals, and reform movements than the entire 30 year rule of the Shah.

What Iran needs now is the national confidence that can never be threatened by the outside world. That the IR would no longer be able to use the real threat of an American attack (the elephant in the room this article ignores)as an excuse to suppress peaceful civil dissobedience. Ironically, the path to full fledged secular democracy for Iran has become embeded in the successful conclusion of the nuclear program.

Unfortunately for Iran, both sides are correct. The public in Tehran (as demonstration were largely limited to that megacity) have a right to peaceful civil dissobedience, and, the IR is correct to have a limited tolerance for such demonstration when they are being used by outside forces to overthrow Iran's regime.

Iran must go nuclear for its secular democracy to have a chance. Egypt will benefit from the growth of a secular democratic Iran allied with Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. And eventually, the house of card will come down in Egypt too.

Pouya / April 25, 2010 10:36 AM

Niloofar

I did look at your link just as you asked us to. And it was interesting. I don't know what this world "picture evidence" created on the net is supposed to mean. Can pictures not be doctored up? How does the author, holding his camera in a western city pretending to be Iran as evidenced by the pavement, know this information? who are his connections? But most importantly, is it not plausable that these individuals are Iranians, who work for the IRGC, and have traveled to Lebanon too. In another words, is it not possible that the names are doctored up, that picture of Iranian agents are being used and are being presented as Arabs? This whole matching of individuals to names in several locations and in foreign countries appear too sofisticated for one innocent individual.

Regardless, the IR does not deny its connection to Hezbollah, do they? So, what's the point of "Hezbollahi's were in Tehran?" Are we to conclude no Iranian would ever participate in crowd suppression? Why would the IR need 3 Hezbollahi to suppress thousands of people? Were they 3 short? Are we to conclude that we should hate Hezbollah and what they have accomplished in their own struggle? So, they were in Tehran. They all admit they are part of a pan-islamic movement. There are IRGC's in Lebanon. So, what?

The real issue is should the IR have a right to suppress peaceful civil dissobedience regardless of how misguided it may be. Clearly, the answer is "no."

Pouya / April 25, 2010 10:58 AM

Pouya,

I agree and I am not claiming that 3 Lebanese or even a 1000 would make an impact against millions of Iranians, but to blame Israel for everything that happens inside Iran despite the horrors everyone witnessed on their T.V. screens, internet and every other means of mass media is simply ridiculous. They shoot and murder people right in front of the cameras, identify the killer and then point to foreign interference and Israel. My point is not Israel either, I am an Iranian and Iran is my concern. It is the lack of respect for Iranian people's intelligence that is troubling.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Niloofar / April 25, 2010 9:46 PM

Great article.

Some of these comments are nothing more than screens for the support of Arab fascism and militarism being used against its own civilian populations.

Have any of these "Imperialist/Zionist" claims ever been proven as actually true? I notice they are conveniently employed whenever the dictators of Arab or Persian states are threatened by internal revolution, and when an actual intellectual opposition to the West is lacking.

Israel and the USA should not even be mentioned in such an issue, since it's not up to the Western world to decide the policy of the Eastern one.

Ian / April 26, 2010 1:42 AM

One word: Oil.

Iranians are not made of gold, but the own "black gold", so the west will cater to them much more than to Egyptians.

The west will see to it that its clients get the oil at the best price. If the mullahs sell it to them at the best price AND in Dollars then they are happy. But, it has to be sold in Dollars. (BTW, best price is what makes the oil companies the most profit)

Before the elections there was a lot of talk of selling the oil in Euros, Yens, etc. But that died down when the US showed AN that he better watch his steps about the Dollar-oil relationship, in case he had forgotten Saddam's punishment for his attempt to break the Dollar-oil symbiosis.

So, get yourself a bit more oil my Egyptian brothers and you will be tweeting freely and will be picked up by birds of all feathers.

Anonymous / April 26, 2010 6:32 AM

"First of all, it's been determined that the source for the Twitter rumor of Hezbollah antiriot forces being deployed in Tehran was actually Israeli intelligence."


Heh. hah. BUAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA.

You poor things, and people wonder why is the way it is now.


John,

"dictators ruling Arab states, who are supported and kept in power by the U.S. and Israe"

Is Iran supported by the US?

Is Syria supported by the US?


The US has no power to keep a regime in the middle east, or anywhere, in power. The people do, by supporting it or being apathetic or not opposing it enough. Those dictatorships existed long before the US (and israel, LOL, they're barely defending themselves, now they're masters of the middle east!) got involved in the middle east. It's absurd. What is this US 'support'? The rich countries don't get aid, and the poor ones that have a peace treaty with israel get aid money but you think if that goes the regimes go? LOL.

How about several million egyptions get out in the streets. And do it again, and again. That's the least it takes. Maybe then the world thinks at least some egyptions don't support living as slaves.

US 'support' for 'evil' regimes is just another excuse to hate and blame america, in the case of the people of the middle east to deflect away from the real cause of all their problems, and the western leftist, as always, is ready to make sure they stay ignorant.

GeneralOreo / April 26, 2010 2:39 PM

Niloofar

I agree with your coments.

ultimately the Iranian government and its people hold the key to everything. Even in 1953, the coup occurred at the time when Massadegh had lost considerable popularity.

Pouya / April 29, 2010 7:50 AM