January 30, 2011
The Collapse of the Revolutionary Culture and its Rebirth with Conflicting Values.
Iran’s revolution and its outcome (a dictatorial regime, incredible levels of violence, etc) have weakened revolutionary culture in different ways. Peaceful methods to attain ends have given way to violent ones. But still, the idea of revolution lingers in the back of the minds and will not go away this easily. When Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the president who had ruled over Tunisia for 24 years fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 of this year, suddenly everybody began to ponder: why not topple seyed Ali and force him to flee as well. The period between the start of Tunisian demonstrations against their economic and political conditions on December 17 and the flight of Ben Ali on January 14 is not very long, so how come the many month demonstrations of Iranians did not produce a similar result? Even though the number of deaths among protestors in both countries were about the same (Tunisia’s transition government announced 78 deaths of which 42 were among the detainees who died of burns in prison, while the UN presented over a 100 deaths), this event demonstrated that revolutionary culture is still alive among us and if an opportunity arises, many people will rise to topple an existing order.
Historic Evidence for Cyclical Patterns of Revolution and Destruction
Opponents of the Iranian regime, who have been waiting for years for changes in the political structure of the country, rejoiced at the flight of the Tunisian dictator and brought new optimism to them. This joy also brought about questions and directions. The goal now was to topple Ali Khamenei just as Ben Ali was removed. But can this optimism to topple or remove Iran’s supreme leader be supported by historic observations and evidence, and theoretic basis? As far as I know, there are two historic evidences and one theory that support the possibility of replicating in Iran what took place in Tunisia.
Revolutions of 1848
The revolutions that erupted in Europe in 1848 began in Paris. When it succeeded there and a republic was declared on February 24, 1848, the wave flowed to other European cities and within a short time everybody was impacted. On March 2 revolution conquered the south-western regions of Germany, in Bavaria on March 7, Berlin on March 11, Vienna and Hungary on March 13, in Milan on March 18, etc. In other words, this revolution soon spread to 10 countries (today known as France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, parts of Poland, former Yugoslavia and Romania). But within just a few months, all of these revolutions failed and in 18 months all of the toppled regimes (except in France) returned to power. As Eric Hobsbawn, the British Marxist historian, some of these regimes such as the Habsburg Empire became even more powerful than the past. Thousands of revolutionaries were killed in the most brutal manner and ten times as many were exiled or imprisoned. Quick victories along with unbelievable reach, and magnanimous promises, the climate of citizenship and romanticism soon gave way to very rapid defeats, retreats, and returns. These are the most important features of the revolutions of 1848.
Revolutions of 1989
The second series of events that makes Iranians hopeful are Eastern European revolutions of 1989 which succeeded in a relatively short time. On the second bicentennial of the 1789 French revolution, staring from August and continuing till the end of 1989 the communist regimes of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Democratic Republic of Germany all collapsed without the firing of a single bullet (except for Romania). Then came the turn of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which fell in December of 1991. But along with these successes one should also mention the communist regime in China which in 1989 ruthlessly fired at its opponents at Tiananmen Square and ended that peaceful revolution.
Perhaps what has begun in Tunisia is similar to the revolutions of 1989. Since Tunisia, we are now witness to replications of Mohammad Albo Azizi’s act of setting himself on fire in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Algeria where people have already set themselves on fire resulted in popular protests and demonstrations in other Arabian towns (in Jordon, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc). The thousands of demonstrators in the streets of Cairo last week chanted “Viva Free Tunisia”, Death to Hosni Mubarak” in the presence of thousands of policemen. Demonstrators across Egypt chanted slogans against Mubarak – who has been in power for some 30 years – and clashed with police. Last Tuesday, the demonstrators in Egypt called the day “Revolution Day against Torture, poverty, bureaucratic corruption and unemployment.” There were even demonstrators in front of the Egyptian Supreme Court where protestors held posters that said, “Tunisia is the solution.” These actions bear witness to the claim that Tunisia has turned into the revolutionary model.
The theory of Archetypal
This theory asserts that when a dictatorial regime falls and is replaced with a democratic regime, the event turns into a model for other dictatorial societies thus spreading democracy in this way. This theory is particularly true for countries that are adjacent to each other in the same region. In other words, this view believes that when an undemocratic regime collapses, pressure mounts on authoritarian regimes across the globe.
Comparing Iran with Tunisia
Both countries share a dictatorial form of government. But beyond that, the two regimes have nothing else in common.
Ben Ali was the leader of a 10-million people secular regime with a liberal economy and a pro-Western orientation. Ali Khamenei is at the head of a religious regime that has a state-oil economy, is anti Western and is in complete isolation with the West. Tunisia lacks oil and earns its income through tourism (with about 6 million tourists per year in 2006) while the economy generated revenues through the export of domestic products. The Iranian economy in contrast is essentially dependant on oil revenues (between 2005 and 2010 Iran generated 391 billion US Dollars through the export of oil). Income per capita in Tunisia in 2009 stood at USD 7,810 while at Iran it was USD 11,470. 8.3 percent of Tunisians in 2010 lived under the poverty line while in Iran this figure is at least 20 percent. Inflation in Tunisia in 2010 was 5.4 percent while in Iran it stood at 9 percent. The inequality factor in 2010 in Tunisia was 400, about the same figure as that of Iran. Regarding corruption, Tunisia has been rated as 59th from amongst 178 countries in 2010 while Iran was 146th, with Iran being much worse. Social and economic structures and demands in both countries have outpaced the political system.
These figures and facts indicate that Tunisia’s economic conditions are not as bad or in a crisis. Iran’s economy is much worse than Tunisia’s. Inflation, unemployment, poverty and corruption were all worse in Iran than in Tunisia. While some commentators have pointed to the levels of corruption committed by Ben Ali and his family, this issue must be looked at across the regime, not just the head of the system. According to Transparency International, corruption in Iran is almost three times worse in Iran than it is in Tunisia.
Finally, Tunisia enjoys legal civil institutions. Examples of this are the Workers Union, the national women’s union, and the national students union. In contrast to this, in Iran no civil institution independent of the government is tolerated. Even though Tunisia’s unions were formed in a dictatorial system and its leaders are known to be corrupt, the members of the unions were not. They have played a central role in the demonstrations. Iranian dissidents lack any organization, desire democracy and human rights, while in Tunisia Muslim fundamentalists and the communist party were and still are among the key opponents of Ben Ali. In the 1980s, Ben Ali arrested some 30,000 members of the fundamentalist Islamic organization. One such leader Rashid al Ghannushi has now returned to Tunisia from exile in the UK, as leaders of the communist party and Islamists assert that they are after a democratic system.