Tunisia can but Iran can’t

Why Tunisia can but Iran can’t
By Ali Reza Eshraghi

The surprising rapidity with which Tunisians unseated President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been watched keenly in Iran, not least by the political opposition known as the Green Movement.

As Iranian blogs and Facebook messages abound with the punning phrase, “Tounes tounes, Iran na-tounes” – meaning “Tunisia could, Iran couldn’t” – there has also been sober reflection on why this was the case; why the massive protests that followed the disputed presidential election of June 2009 came to nothing in the end.

At the same time, as economic hardship sparked riots in Tunisia, Iran remained almost eerily calm in the wake of increases in thecost of fuel, bread, water, gas and other essentials, as the Mahmud Ahmadinejad administration launched a program of cuts to Iran’s large and costly system of subsidies.

The Bolivian government began a similar subsidy-elimination program at around at the same time as Iran, but was rapidly forced to retreat in the face of wide-scale protests.

The lack of protests surprised even the Iranian government, which had stationed police on the streets in anticipation of trouble. In Tehran, the hub of the 2009 demonstrations, people simple began economizing. The only visible public reaction took the form of long queues at ATM machines as people rushed to withdraw themoney the government had placed in their accounts as partial compensation for the subsidy cuts.

Aspects of the Tunisian uprising are strongly reminiscent of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Both countries had secular, Western-backed governments at the time, and both revolutions occurred when the United States had a Democrat president who was concerned about human-rights issues.

Tunisia’s revolution also resembles the Iranian Constitutional Revolution which began in 1905 and was the first of its kind in the Middle East.

The Constitutional Revolution was sparked by the public flogging of bazaar merchants accused of hiking sugar prices. In Tunisia, the protests took off after Mohamed Bouazizi, a college graduate who had turned to street vending because he could not find other work, set himself on fire in protest when police confiscated his cart.

There are many valid comparisons to be drawn between the economic situations in Iran and Tunisia as motors for protest.

In Iran, the situation is arguably worse on all fronts. For a start, economic sanctions have made life harder for both ordinary citizens and the private sector.

The economic growth rate is close to zero, compared with Tunisia’s, estimated at over 3% for 2010. If Tunisian inflation stood at about 3.5%, consumer prices in Iran have been rising at double-digit rates for the past several years. The central bank in Tehran claims a rate of just under 10% for 2010, although parliamentary researchers disagree; and in any case, inflation is likely to rise even faster as price subsidies come to an end this year.

Official figures from Tehran suggest that the unemployment rate, at about 15% of the working-age population, is roughly similar to conditions in Tunisia, although unofficial Iranian sources say the figure is much higher.

Finally, the percentage of Iranians living under the poverty line is between 18% and 25%, compared with 7.4% of Tunisians, and there are plenty of university graduates like Bouazizi doing any work they can find – in the Iranian context, typically driving taxis.

Another important difference is that unlike the unpopular Ben Ali, President Ahmadinejad draws significant voter support from the poorer sections of society. At the very least, his administration can count on the backing of five million people who are Basiji volunteers and their family members. Even Green Movement leaders who insist the 2009 poll was rigged accept that Ahmadinejad won between 30% and 40% of the vote.

During the 2009 election campaign, all of Ahmadinejad’s rivals attacked him on the economic front. Opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi accused him of distorting economic statistics so much and of having a poorer grasp of inflation than his, Karroubi’s, own mother.

Yet Green Movement leaders were unable to translate their concerns into the kind of language that persuade ordinary voters to back them in large numbers.

The truth is that many of the mothers Karroubi joked about actually voted for Ahmadinejad. This was not because they were misled; they simply looked at the way things were and decided their best interests lay in government cash handouts rather than in promises of structural change.

In the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, there have been only a handful of localized urban protests over economic matters, and they have never spread. Every once in a while, there is news of a strike over unpaid wages at some plant, but not once – even at the height of the 2009 post-election protests – did industrial unrest escalate into nationwide strikes.

Last year, the influential merchant class of the Tehran bazaar stopped work in protest at taxation changes, but once again there were no public expressions of sympathy from other groups.

Even a recent “political” suicide in Iran, that of a man who set himself on fire outside parliament in 2008 in protest at his inability to find work, passed largely unnoticed – in stark contrast to Bouzizi’s death. The talk in the Iranian media centered on whether the man really was a veteran of the war with Iraq as he claimed, or a drug addict.

The nature of leadership and the complexity of the state system differ sharply from Tunisia to Iran.

The initial violent crackdown on protests in Tunisia mirrored the Iranian authorities’ actions after the 2009 election; and the figure of 70 deaths is roughly comparable with the number the Green Movement claimed then. But while Iranian leaders showed (and still show) that they have the resolve to crush their opponents, Ben Ali began retreating step by step, dismissing Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, then apologizing for the bloodshed. Before fleeing the country, he told protesters, “I understand you!” – words that recall the Shah’s words prior to fleeing Iran in 1979, “I have heard the sound of your revolution.”

At least Ben Ali – who has gone to Saudi Arabia – and the late Shah found states willing to take them in. Iran’s present leaders would have less chance of finding a welcoming host if they had to leave in a hurry.

The Tunisians had a single leader to obey, and then to rebel against. Power in Iran is much more diffuse. As long as he was in office, Ben Ali could at least be the one man who was happy with the way things were going. In Iran, by contrast, no one is satisfied with the status quo – not even Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both of whom express unhappiness with policies pursued over the past 20 years, and are probably discontented with one another.

Like everyone else, the Supreme Leader bemoans the prevalence of corruption, while Ahmadinejad’s chief vice president is currently the subject of a corruption case.

In the seat of Shi’ite learning, Qom, the ayatollahs accuse the government of ignoring their advice and failing to curb inflation and unemployment, but they also grumble that ordinary Iranians are disregarding religious traditions.

Government, parliament and judiciary all criticize the others. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps must defend the regime at times of crisis even at the cost of its own reputation, but in private, its leading members are orificial of the government and what they see as its rash actions. Officers in the regular army cannot stand the Guards, and vice versa.

Workers are mad at both the government and their own employers; employers are unhappy with government and with the workforce, and the government has little patience with either of the other two. The traditional merchants do not care for the current government, but are also suspicious of the modern lifestyle and values of the emerging middle class; farmers do not like townspeople; and working-class people may be suffering under the government’s economic policies but would not align themselves politically with the middle classes.

Paradoxically, it is the widespread and divergent nature of dissatisfaction that allows the regime to carry on.

And despite the apparent clamor of voices in the elite, the Iranian regime knows how to deliver its message via state broadcasters. It can appeal to both nationalist and Islamic sentiment, and accuse its opponents of falling under the pernicious influence of hostile states. Ben Ali was unable to appeal to popular feelings on such matters.

The Tunisian protest movement had an identifiable foe – a single authoritarian leader and his corrupted entourage, rather like the Shah of the 1970s. Opposition in Iran operates in the context of a complex constitutional setup, and an even more complex reality.

The 2009 unrest was as spontaneous and unplanned as recent events in Tunis. But Green Movement leaders proved unprepared to take control of the protest mood or to direct the crowds in the streets. Crucially, they had no interest in turning a movement protesting about electoral fraud into a revolution that might have had uncertain consequences for them and the country. After all, the Green Movement leaders themselves had previously served in various official posts in the Islamic Republic.

On balance, it is perhaps more surprising that Ben Ali’s 23-year rule came to such an abrupt end than it is to observe the Iranian regime’s resilience a year and a half on from the protests.

Inside Iran, many educated people would have concerns about a Tunisian-style overnight revolution. For all its faults, the current state at least provides some kind of framework, whereas violent upheaval might bring short-term joy followed by highly unpredictable consequences.

Ali Reza Eshraghi is IWPR’s Iran Program editor.

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