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Tunisia's Revolution: Lessons for Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

19 Jan 2011 20:30Comments
612070_orig.jpgInvolving all economic classes is crucial in the struggle for democracy. But don't bank on help from Uncle Sam.

[ analysis ] Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali -- the man who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist since November 7, 1987 -- was overthrown by a popular revolution on January 14, and had to flee his homeland and take refuge in Saudi Arabia. Although not commonly referred to as such, he was in fact a military dictator. He earned degrees in France from the Special Inter-service School in Saint-Cyr and the Artillery School in Châlons-sur-Marne, and in the United States from the Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, and the Anti-Aircraft Artillery School at Fort Bliss, Texas. During his military career, which began in 1964 when he was 28, Ben Ali founded Tunisia's Military Security Department and led it for ten years. He was general director of national security from 1977 to 1980. After stints as ambassador to Poland and interior minister, he was appointed prime minister by Tunisia's first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, in October 1987. A month later, he overthrew Bourguiba in a bloodless coup and proceeded to rule the country until he, in turn, was overthrown.

While it is not yet completely clear that the revolution in Tunisia will lead to true democracy and the rule of law, much has already been said in recent days about the implications of Tunisia's revolution for the rest of the Arab world, particularly in the Middle East. But are there any implications for Iran? Iranians have been involved in their own struggle for democracy since at least the Constitutional Revolution of 1904-11. While Iran has enjoyed brief periods of semi-democratic rule -- from the 1940s until the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, during the first year after the 1979 Revolution, and from 1997 to 2000 during the first three years of Mohammad Khatami's presidency -- it is still not a democracy. The question is: Are there lessons to be learned from Tunisia's revolution? To answer the question, we must first understand the similarities and differences between the Iranian and Tunisian societies.

First and foremost, unlike almost all the Arab countries in which Islamic parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, the opposition in Tunisia is not led by Islamic parties. Tunisia does have the Hizb al-Nahda (Renaissance Party), a moderate Islamic Party, which was officially banned in 1991. While it is politically active, it did not play a major role in the revolution.

In contrast, power in Iran is controlled by one religious group -- albeit a reactionary one -- and the domestic opposition is led by another religious group. I am not claiming that seculars do not play any role in the opposition, but that they are mostly outside Iran and are not very visible within the country.

Second, the revolution in Tunisia was led by the workers. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), a powerful trade union federation, played a major role in the revolution. Despite the fact that three cabinet posts in the interim government were given to the UGTT, the union decided on Tuesday not to recognize the new government. "We withdrew from the government on the appeal of our union," said Houssein Dimassi, who had been appointed minister of training and employment. "It does not interest us to be part of a government that does not give sufficient assurances to the Tunisian people when the will is to move towards a real democratic transition." He was referring to the fact that many members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally party of the ousted Ben Ali still control all the key ministries, such as Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Finance.

Incidentally, this explains why the mainstream media in the West, and particularly in the United States, is not devoting sufficient attention to such a monumental event in the Arab world. If the revolution had been led by an Islamic group, the mainstream media would have covered it round-the-clock, presenting it as further evidence that "Islamists," "political Islam," "Islamic radicals" -- code words used by Islamophobes -- are making advances to justify the West's own agenda, namely, control of the most important resources of the Islamic countries.

In contrast, the opposition in Iran is led by the urban middle class. Workers were the last major cohort to join the 1979 Revolution, and they have not yet played an important role in the Green Movement. In fact, the hardliners have tried to co-opt the lower class through such measures as cash handouts and the dispensation of "justice shares" -- government stocks that are highly restricted and mostly worthless -- right before the rigged 2009 election. This is why Mir Hossein Mousavi has emphasized time and again that the Green Movement needs to embrace society's lower classes. He has stated repeatedly that workers should see that their concerns for affordable housing, affordable education for their children, well-paying jobs, and so forth are also the concerns of the Green Movement. A little noticed, but very important aspect of what the regime has been doing is blocking the growth of labor unions, preventing various unions from establishing organic relations with each other, and arresting and imprisoning union leaders.

Third, the population in Tunisia is Sunni Muslim, while Shiites make up 90 percent of Iran's population. Whereas the Sunni Arab rulers have been closely allied with the West, Iran's Shia rulers have been hostile toward the West ever since the Revolution.

Fourth, the Tunisian military played an important role in the victory of the revolution by taking on the elements of the secret police and presidential guard that were still loyal to Ben Ali. These forces were engaged in sabotage and looting. They attempted to occupy such practically and symbolically important sites as the presidential palace, but were pushed out by the military. Reports indicate that neighborhood militias in small towns have worked with the regular army against Ben Ali loyalists.

In contrast, the high command of Iran's military, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to the regular armed forces, is loyal to the ruling elite. In fact, the Guards and the Basij militia played the key roles in the violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election. As I have emphasized in the past, in Iran's power structure -- namely, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and the reactionary clerics, the Revolutionary Guard high command, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters -- it is the Guards that wield the most power, partly through such hardline commanders as Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, and partly through Ahmadinejad.

Fifth, unlike Iran which is resource-rich and earns about $80 billion through oil exports, Tunisia is a poor country, one of whose main sources of income is tourism. The tourism industry has been hit particularly hard by the global economic recession, resulting in an unemployment rate of 30 percent among Tunisian youth.

But there are also similarities between Iran and Tunisia.

First, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, who played a leading role in her husband's dictatorship, had bought off the majority of the country's economic elite. According to cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia that were released by WikiLeaks and published by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, a large proportion of Tunisian upper class was directly linked to Ben Ali and his wife. Some highlights from a June 2008 cable:

Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.... The economic impact is clear, with Tunisian investors -- fearing the long-arm of "the Family" -- forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high.... Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family -- the Trabelsis -- provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians.

I must point out here that I reject the notion that the WikiLeaks documents played a major role in Tunisia's revolution. The government collapsed because unemployment was rampant, food prices had increased dramatically due to high inflation, and the political system was repressive.

How similar is this to the situation in Iran? Neither Khamenei's nor Ahmadinejad's wife plays a visible role in any economic activity. However, in order to secure his base of, Ahmadinejad has granted large projects worth billions of dollars to Guard-linked companies, showered the Basij militia with cash and resources (according to the Basij commander, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the militia's budget increased by a factor of seven in this past year alone), and -- despite taking important steps to eliminate subsidies on many essential commodities -- has continued to keep the dollar cheap, in essence subsidizing it. Who benefits from the cheap dollar? The beneficiaries are the conservative bazaaris and other supporters of the regime who take advantage of it to import everything imaginable from countries such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan, profit handsomely, and destroy domestic industries and producers in the process. The fact is that no one can invest in any major sector of the Iranian economy unless they enjoy a link to the Revolutionary Guards and the reactionary right.

Food prices have also increased dramatically, high unemployment is persistent, and the government has no solutions. The rate of economic growth has been so low -- reportedly under 1 percent in the current Iranian year, which ends March 20 -- that it is being treated as a state secret, with no governmental agency willing to speak about it. And everyone that I have talked to inside Iran tells me that the general populace believes that the most onerous wave of subsidy eliminations and the inflation they will provokes are still to come in the new Iranian year.

In addition, Tunisia's population of ten million is similar to Iran's: young, educated, and mostly urbanized. Internet, Facebook, and other cyberspace tools played an important role in the victory of Tunisia's revolution. Similar to the Green Movement, the involvement of young people was crucial to the uprising.

So, what are the lessons of the recent events in Tunisia for Iranians? To answer the question, we must first recognize that although what has happened in Tunisia is referred to as a revolution, it is not similar to the 1979 Revolution; rather it is similar to the Green Movement. In fact, many of the Tunisian bloggers who were pivotal in spreading the latest news about the revolution have said that they were inspired by the Green Movement.

Recall that in October 2009, Ben Ali was reelected for a fifth term with a reported 89 percent of the vote. The African Union sent a team of observers -- led by Benjamin Bounkoulou, former foreign minister of the Republic of Congo -- to monitor the election, which they described as "free and fair." But in less than 15 months, the "popularly and democratically elected" president had to flee his country as a result of a social/political movement in which working people and the poor played an important role, backed by the military.

Thus, the lessons that Iranians can draw from Tunisia's revolution are, first, that it has had a much broader social base than the Green Movement. As I have always emphasized, unless the poor and working class openly join the democratic movement, it may not be able to succeed. Yes, the urban middle class wants freedom -- political, social, cultural -- but the middle class makes up only about 40 percent of the population, and it is also worried about its economic position. Recall that it was only when the workers joined the 1979 Revolution and went on strike, particularly in the oil industry, that its success was ensured. Again, this is why Mousavi has emphasized that the Green Movement needs to spread its wings and enfold every strata of the society. Subsidy cuts, high inflation, chronic unemployment, poor economic growth, and vast corruption, all exacerbated by the foreign-imposed sanctions, may act as a catalyst for the Green Movement's future success.

Second, just as in the case of Tunisia's revolution, the open support of the rank and file of the military can potentially play an important role in either pushing back the hardliners and forcing them to take meaningful steps to open up society and improve conditions, or toppling them altogether. I am not talking about a military coup. That will not lead to democracy. What I am talking about is the creation of a situation in which the military leaders recognize that they cannot use the armed forces to put down the democratic movement. Is this possible?

Both General Jafari, the top Revolutionary Guard commander, and Major General Ataollah Salehi, chief of the regular armed forces, have acknowledged that the Green Movement and its leaders are popular among the ranks of the military. Even if we look at the current situation from a purely economic point of view, the military rank and file is grappling with the same problems as the rest of the population. So, the question arises: Is this support the reason why Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have not been arrested, because the military leaders are terrified more by the prospect of open mutiny in their own ranks than by the reaction of the common people out on the streets? I do not know, but it is certainly something to think about.

Third, the leadership of the Green Movement must take the initiative and not just react to the news and what the hardliners do. It must call for concrete actions, from persistently protesting the rising prices of everything, the cruel treatment of political prisoners, and the suffocating environment in the universities, to peaceful civil disobedience. For example, if the prices of water, gas, and electricity become unaffordable due to the elimination of subsidies, the leadership must call on people not to pay their bills. It must also not satisfy itself with cosmetic, superficial "reforms." It should settle for nothing short of deep and irreversible change to the political system.

There is another lesson here, especially for the part of the opposition in the diaspora that believes the United States will help it to achieve democracy in Iran. The United States was completely aware of the depth of the Tunisian dictator's corruption, yet it continued to support him anyway, until he was gone. The lesson? The Unites States is not interested in democracy per se. It will support any regime that protects its interests. If this happens to be a corrupt military dictatorship, like those in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, or even Libya (have we heard anything about violations of human rights in Libya since it gave up its nuclear program?), so be it.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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