Egypt, Tunisia . . . and Iran

February 15, 2011 Topic: AutocracyDemocracyPublic OpinionSociety Region: EgyptIranTunisia

Egypt, Tunisia . . . and Iran

A deliberate American drive to isolate regimes only prolongs their lives. 

This is a moment in history to watch in awe: Millions of newly empowered citizens peacefully overthrew a regime that has been an anchor of regional politics and American policy in the Middle East. It is a moment to savor the pride, the dignity, the empowerment.

While the immediate focus will inevitably be on the start of a new era with all its unknowns and complexities, we need to think deeply about the meaning of the Egyptian uprising and its implications for American foreign policy. A good place to start is to reflect on three powerful conclusions of one of the key young organizers of the uprising, Wael Ghonim, as he was interviewed on Egyptian Dream TV and elsewhere since.

First, this uprising is less about food and more about dignity. Sure, poverty, especially in the extreme, can add to people’s sense of humiliation and powerlessness, particularly where the gap between rich and poor is growing. But neither Ghonim nor his fellow organizers were poor or underprivileged—even if the revolution ultimately became far broader in its scope and more varied in its makeup.

Second, Ghonim, weeping, pronounced to his audience repeatedly, “We are not traitors, we are not traitors,” without any prodding from his interviewer. It is hard to overestimate the deep fear of foreign control that is prevalent in the political culture, not only in Egypt, but elsewhere in the Arab world, and which is cultivated by governments in the region to rally the public behind them. Egyptians and Arabs want liberty and freedom from repressive regimes, but many fear imperialism and outside domination even more.

Third, empowerment—the knowledge of what others outside one’s borders have, the connectedness to the rest of the world, being plugged into global communications—was the principle reason for the drive and the success of the initial organizers of the uprising. Certainly, the information revolution and openness to the outside world were not the cause of the uprising. For many years we have observed a seemingly untenable and widening gap between governments and publics but one without obvious and observable consequences—in part because everyone assumed that mobilizing millions of angry people and empowering them requires substantial political and social organizations the likes of which governments prevented from ever emerging. But, that the information revolution provided a new vehicle of both empowerment and mobilization can no longer be doubted. That this revolution is expanding rapidly we have been measuring every year. The genie is out of the bottle.

These three takeaways lead me to the following conclusion: A deliberate American drive to isolate regimes in international politics probably prolongs their life. Cuba is of course the clearest case of all, but Iran and North Korea may also provide good examples. Someone will immediately bring up South Africa, but that nation-state and its experiences were profoundly different.

There are two important points about the American role in Arab and Muslim countries in particular: The vast majority of the people feel that the primary objectives of American policy in the region are to control oil and protect Israel—not to advance democracy. Anger with the United States is only partly about American support for repressive regimes, as it is at the core based on important policy issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq--as I have found consistently in the public-opinion polls I have conducted at the University of Maryland in conjunction with Zogby International.

In addition, the U.S. pursuit of priority national interests, such as protecting the American military presence in the Middle East, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, confronting al-Qaeda and its allies, and minimizing threats to Israel, have not only trumped all else but have inadvertently contributed to the prevalence of repression: Rulers are externally rewarded for supporting American policies that are highly resented by their publics, which in the process makes the rulers more insecure and more inclined toward repression to prevent revolts. Annual polls of Arab public opinion since the 2003 war reveal a prevalent perception that the Middle East has become more repressive every year.

These two factors combine to weaken the American role as a principle agent of democratic change in the region. And governments can play on the fear of American imperialism (or, more often, Israel’s Mossad) to limit the power of opponents. There is nothing that can rally people even behind unpopular governments more than the fear of a foreign threat. The clerical regime in Iran has used this fear for decades, and while this fear has diminished over the years, it has provided greater space for the regime to consolidate its rule, including in the early years of the revolution, when there were other legitimate contenders for power and the Iranian regime used the war with Iraq to eliminate effective opposition. Granted, there is evidence that Iranian society is divided and that the regime has its own grassroots constituency. But one has to wonder whether increasing focus on the nuclear issue, and the sense that Iran is defending itself against Western imperialism slows down genuine attempts to liberalize. Certainly, one of the telling stories of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is that they were non-ideological and it was harder for anyone to point fingers at the West.

Importantly, the information revolution in both Tunisia and Egypt appeared to be critical in starting the ball rolling before other segments of society joined in. It provided the added value that seems to explain the timing and the scale of mobilization, without the traditional organizing political and social groups. This information revolution played itself out in two ways: providing more information from, and links with, the outside world, and providing interactive instruments for coordination and organization without the need for political groups as intermediaries. In isolated states, publics are less able to exploit the benefits of this revolution in the pursuit of political change.

Of course, the aim of American policies toward Iran, Cuba, or North Korea may not be at their core to bring democratization, but other strategic priorities that have to do with changing those governments’ foreign policy behavior (which in the case of Iran is its nuclear program and support for groups that the United States identifies as terrorist organizations). But that just makes the point: the pursuit of strategic priorities as the United States has defined them for decades has had the consequence of slowing the natural indigenous drive for reform in the Middle East. With a changed regional environment and newly realized public empowerment in the Middle East, the real challenge is not simply to react to crises—and there will be many to come—but to rethink the way we define and pursue our interests in the region.

Image (c) Phillip Maiwald