While Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s resignation last Friday caused tremors in Western capitals due to the potential for a Muslim Brotherhood power-grab, the Egyptian president’s stepping down is paying an unexpected dividend. The unrest that induced radical political change in Egypt is now spreading to other Middle Eastern countries, including Iran.
Starting last Friday, the day of Mubarak’s resignation, hundreds of students in Yemen reignited protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, like Mubarak, has ruled his country for 30 years and his government is also regarded as being just as venal and corrupt. Inspired by Mubarak’s stepping down, the students are demanding their president’s resignation, and have clashed with pro-Saleh supporters and police, shouting: “Our demands are clear. Go out, Saleh.”
Monday’s disturbances mark the second round of demonstrations against the Yemeni regime. Protests had already taken place against Saleh in January, but they died down. Tribal divisions were blamed for the failure of the first round of anti-government demonstrations to oust Yemen’s ruler, since they impeded unemployed young men from uniting. Saleh also bought off the demonstrators with tax cuts and pay raises, and may attempt something similar with the students.
Bahrain, a small Arab island state off the coast of Saudi Arabia, is also experiencing political disturbances. On Sunday, demonstrators fought with police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. _The New York Times_ reports that the protesters were native Shiites, who make up 70 per cent of Bahrain’s population of one million (about half are foreign workers) and form the country’s least privileged class. The Shiites believe the country’s ruling Sunni elite discriminate against them in “housing, education and governance” and have for years been demanding extensive structural changes in government, which is run by a royal family under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
“We want real reforms, a real parliament elected by the people with legislative power. We want a constitution written by the people,” a Bahraini human rights worker told the Times.
But it is in Iran where events have taken a sweet, ironic turn. While numbers are unclear, _The New York Times_ reported an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets on Monday in solidarity with the events in Egypt and to protest against the Iranian state’s well-known domestic repression. And like in Yemen and Bahrain, Iran’s government security forces dealt with the protesters in brutal fashion.
“The conspirators are nothing but corpses,” Hossein Hamadani, a commander in the Revolutionary Guard was quoted in The Times as saying. “They will be dealt with severely.”
It was only last week that Iran’s rulers were praising the street demonstrations in Egypt, calling them an Islamic revolution that was imitating the ayatollahs’ 1979 revolution. They obviously never considered that the radical changes they were witnessing in Egypt could ever make an appearance within their own borders. Unacquainted with freedom, the Iranian theocracy is oblivious to the fact that freedom has no boundaries. And after spending so many years exporting revolution, the ayatollahs never considered their sinister activity could ever become a two-way street.
Iran faced an uprising by its people in June, 2009. Rigged elections sparked what has come to be called the “Green Revolution” that saw tens of thousands of Iranians take to the streets in massive demonstrations to demand regime change. But the ayatollahs and their security forces held firm and the protests were quelled through “shooting demonstrators, mass trials, torture, lengthy jail sentences and even executions of those taking part.”
The Obama administration suffered severe criticism for its lack of support for the 2009 Iranian uprising, so it was quick off the mark to encourage Monday’s anti-government demonstrations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned the Iranians about the use of force and indirectly called for a regime change.
“We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize in the last week,” she said.
Iran has warmly greeted regime change in Egypt and Tunisia as well as disturbances in other Arab countries not because they represent an Islamic liberation movement, as the Iranian leaders maintain, but rather because the downfall of Mubarak and the erosion of other hard-line Sunni regimes constitute a defeat for American foreign policy.
“Despite all the (West’s) complicated designs…a new Middle East is emerging without the Zionist regime and U.S. interference, places where arrogant powers have no place,” Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told a crowd in Tehran on Friday.
Mubarak’s resignation was especially significant for Iran, since Egypt is not just America’s chief Arab ally in the Middle East, but also has been Iran’s main opponent in the Islamic world the past few decades. The principle reason for Iranian enmity towards Egypt was the peace deal Egypt made with Israel in 1978. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who signed the peace treaty, responded to Iranian animosity by granting the deposed shah of Iran asylum. Iran, in turn, was so happy with Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, it named a street in Tehran after his murderer. The ayatollahs also gave refuge to members of the assassin’s family.
“Official Iranian media have for over three decades vilified Egypt’s ruling elites as the “Camp David” regime,” writes Mahan Abedin in _Asia Times_.
A power vacuum, or at least a weakening of authority in other American-allied Arab countries like Jordan and Yemen, which face an Iranian-backed revolt by Shia tribes, would also be hailed by Iran, since new regimes may be less hostile. The mullahs would also see strategic opportunities in a destabilised Sunni block to advance Shiism at the expense of Sunni Islam, and for Iran to become the leader of the Islamic world.
The Obama administration was not on top of events in Tunisia and Egypt and now only enjoys spectator status in the Middle East. But due to the demonstrations in Iran, inspired by Mubarak’s resignation, it can still play a pro-active role. By supporting and encouraging the Iranian unrest, at a minimum the mullah regime would hopefully be kept off balance and kept from interfering in events in the Sunni Arab countries by backing extremists, for example, or by committing terrorist acts. Many young Iranians, like their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, are also poor, unemployed and desire an end to oppression and a better life. Not to take advantage of this would perhaps squander the last opportunity the White House has to regain some of the ground in the Middle East it has so disastrously lost.