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Impact of the Egypt Revolution on Iran's Protest Movement

By Nader Habibi

The success of Egyptians in ousting Hosni Mubarak after only 18 days of peaceful protests has inspired a new political awareness in other Arab countries but its regional impact will not be limited to the Arab world. A few days before Mubarak's departure Iran's Green Movement leaders asked the government for permission to orchestrate a demonstration in solidarity with the Egyptian protestors on February 14. Not surprisingly the government has rejected this request and has threatened a harsh punishment for anyone who participates. This proposed demonstration is a first indication of how Egyptian people's uprising might have reinvigorated Iran's Green Movement.

Iranian opposition plans to hold a rally on February 14.
February 14 facebook page

To understand how the Egyptian revolution might impact Iran we must look at how it can affect the government and the Iranian dissidents separately. Iran's dissidents, particularly the members of the Green movement, have been relatively quiet in recent months after the government managed to suppress the post election uprising. This passivity and silence is not a sign of diminishing opposition to the regime. Millions of people are still unhappy with political repression and poor economic conditions but they remain passive because the regime has demonstrated its willingness and ability to punish the protesters severely. While millions of Iranians share a common resentment towards the ruling regime they vary in political courage. Whenever there is a call for participation in a political protest each dissident looks at the benefits (political change and freedom) and potential costs (death, injury, arrest, loss of job, ...) and decides to participate or not.

Developments in Egypt might have changed the costs and benefits of political activism for millions of Iranians. Living under dictatorship imposes an emotional cost on citizens of authoritarian societies. These emotional costs often depend on the status of peer countries and neighbors. When an entire region lives under authoritarian rule citizens of each country might justify their predicament by saying it's the same situation everywhere. However, when people in a neighboring country, suddenly liberate themselves, the emotional cost of living under dictatorship increases. This is how the Tunisian uprising affected the people of Egypt who after thirty years suddenly found it humiliating to live under dictatorship when another smaller Arab country had managed to liberate itself. And this is how the success of Egyptian revolution is likely to affect millions of Iranians. They now feel envious of Egyptians and their tolerance of living under authoritarian rule has diminished.

The success of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings could also transform the pessimism of millions of Iranians into hope. Some dissidents who have lost hope after the failure of 2009 uprising, might now believe that if Iranians imitate the Tunisians and Egyptians and come to streets in large numbers they might also be able to achieve political freedom. This type of reasoning can increase the value of participation in mass protests for millions of Iranians. Mohsen Sazegara who is an exiled dissident and a former Revolutionary Guards leader, has said that in recent days he has received hundreds of emails from Iranian youth who have been curious about Egypt and have expressed a desire to see similar uprisings in Iran.   

Finally, the unprecedented international support for Egyptian uprising during its short period of struggle can also convince some Iranians that if Iranians can manage to orchestrate similar large demonstrations they will capture global attention and the world community will pressure the Iranian government not to use force against demonstrators. This perception is most likely inaccurate but nevertheless it can convince some Iranians that global community, and the United States in particular will support their uprising with more intensity than 2009. Consequently they might assume that the fear of international backlash will discourage the Islamic government from using too much force. Such reasoning can lower the perceived cost of participation for these dissidents and increase their willingness to join the protests.  

The government of Iran is also very mindful of the Egyptian revolution. It is well aware of the potential impact of Egypt on political behavior of Iranian dissidents and has increased its efforts to deter people from participating in February 14 or future demonstrations. Steps taken so far include arrest of opposition leaders, increased police presence and repeated warnings of severe punishment for protestors who dare to defy the government. While these tough responses are necessary from regime's point of view before the mass protests break out, the actual response of the regime to mass protests will also be affected by Egyptian revolution. Just as the increased international attention limited the options of the Egyptian army in reaction to the uprisings, the Iranian government will also be mindful of the severe international backlash that it might face if it unleashes violence against demonstrators.

 The international reaction might be more severe this time than in 2009 for two reasons. First, the US administration is under strong domestic pressure to support any potential protests in Iran.  Some neoconservative groups are even pressing the Obama administration to actively support the Iranian protestors in hope of bringing about a regime change. Second, sentiments of the international community after Egypt and Tunisia are more tolerant of international intervention on behalf of any Middle Eastern country that rises against dictatorship in mass protests. In this new climate it will be very easy for the United States and European Union to mobilize the international community for severe sanctions and other forms of punishment against the Iranian government if it resorts to violence. 

Just as the Iranian government has raised its threats against the protestors the international community (the U.S. in particular) is likely to intensify its threats against the use of force by the Iranian government. The Islamic regime is fully aware of the potential for severe international backlash and will be forced to weigh its options in response to protestors very carefully. If it underestimates the international reaction it might resort to violence and face a destabilizing response which could ultimately empower the protestors. If it moves with caution and behaves like the Egyptian army, the protestors will be emboldened and the mass protests will intensify. Neither option will be desirable from the government's point of view. 

Regardless of how the government might react, there is no denying that the Egyptian revolution has increased the cost of repression for the government of Iran at the same time that it has energized the Iranian dissidents. As a result the likelihood of renewed mass protests in Iran has increased but the outcome of these protests is far from certain. Approximately ten to twenty percent of Iranian population are benefiting from the current regime and/or identify with it ideologically. This group will fight to preserve the status quo. The dissidents are divided into reformist Muslims (under the leadership of Mrs. Karrubi  and Mousavi) and a silent but large group of secular Iranians who are interested in more fundamental political and social change. The outcome of a new round of mass protests in Iran (if it ever takes off) will depend on the dynamic interactions between these three groups and possible interventions by international players.

About the author: Nader Habibi is professor of Middle East Economics in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University

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