characteristics and implications for the region and beyond

By: Ali Akbar Mahdi

2011 began with a new wave of protests starting in Tunisia, spreading to Egypt,
Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, and other
Arab countries. The first two uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have already achieved their objectives of removing their presidents. The leadership in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria continue to resist the demands of their protestors while the ebb and flow of protests and suppression have resulted in massive incarceration of opposition activists and the death of hundreds of innocent people. Libya has already fractured with foreign powers engaged in bombing government positions and aiding the opposition.

Though protests, uprisings, and revolts against dictatorship in the Arab world are nothing new, they had not been frequent and massive enough in the past five decades to generate either serious challenges to presiding political elite or the necessary structural changes for more democratic governance and political systems. Yet, the latest chain of events in the Middle East and North Africa are in many ways unique, historic, and monumental in terms of their speed, spread, and effects. The following is an overview of major revolts in the past six months and how they are affecting the politics of the region within and beyond with a focus on several key countries.

Revolts from North Africa to the Persian Gulf
If we were to pick a single event triggering unrest and then setting these movements in motion we can pick the encounter of a 26 year old Tunisian vendor with a female
municipality officer on December 17, 2010. The vendor, Mohammad Buazizi, was
hit and fined, and his scale was confiscated because he had no license for selling produce. Desperate, and responsible for his widowed mother and siblings, Buazizi complained – to deaf ears. With no meaningful response to his pleas, he set himself ablaze that evening and ended up in the hospital.

Protests by family and friends were met with violent reactions by police and soon
escalated into a societal issue aired on national and international media, like Aljazeera, compelling President Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali to visit Buazizi in the hospital before his death three weeks later. Young people picked up Buazizi’s cause, highlighted his tragic life on Facebook and other social media, and helped organize nationwide protests. As workers unions, women, teachers, and middle class professionals joined these protests and strikes, Ben Ali had no choice but to resign and leave the country on January 14, 2011.1

Tunisian protests and their success in bringing down Ben Ali triggered protests in
other Arab countries in the Middle East and Africa. Country after country experienced massive demonstrations demanding the resignation of their autocratic rulers, an end to political suppression and economic corruption, implementation of the rule of law, accountability, transparency, and in a few cases where non-existent, even a constitution. Most monarchies, especially those with oil revenue, developed a two-fold response to this unrest: showing strength by arresting dissidents and discouraging public protest while allocating money for job creation, public spending, and even direct hand-outs to their citizens. Saudi Arabia allocated billions of dollars and planned on the creation of 50,000 jobs.2  Sultan Qaboos of Oman granted legislative power to two advisory councils and increased pension and social security benefits3. Burdened by high unemployment, rising food prices, widespread corruption, and cash shortage due to lack of oil money, Jordan’s King Abdullah II could not replicate his counterparts’ response in the Persian Gulf. Instead, he dissolved his entire cabinet, promised more political reform, and appointed a new prime minister.4

In Egypt, street protests gathered momentum right after the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia. Tagged to earlier efforts by the “April 6 Youth Movement” in support of textile workers in 2008, young people utilized social media such as the Facebook and Twitter to exchange information and organize demonstrations, offer directives, generate posters, etc. Creating a page named “We are all Khaled Said” (a 28 year old man who was arrested in June 2010 in an internet café in Alexandria and beaten to death in custody) on Facebook, young people posted a video online documenting police involvement in the spoils of a drug search. The page, currently with 114,561 members, helped to mobilize youth and discredit the regime. As protests spread, demand for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak came early and persistently, increasing public pressure by hour as demonstrators occupied Tahrir square for 18 days. When the US pulled the plug on Mubarak by asking him, first, to accept change and later, to resign, the Army decided to stay neutral and declare support for the protesters, thus leaving Mubarak with no choice but to resign.

While success came to Tunisian and Egyptian protesters early and fast, that has not been the case with other Arab countries affected by what is now called the “Arab Awakening,” “Arab Spring,” or “Arab Revolts” (and revolution in case of Egypt and Tunisia). The experiences of Yemeni, Bahraini, Libyan, and recently Syrian protesters are quite different and tragic. These protests have met with bloody resistance by their leaders and the outcome remains uncertain, thus worthy of a brief review.

The uprising in Yemen is fueled by a breakdown in military, political, and tribal alliances which helped the unification of the country in 1990; and is reinforced by typical grievances including poverty, corruption, and political repression. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia where a vibrant middle class composed of women and youth were involved in the massive use of social media for political mobilization, Yemen is a poor country whose minimal virtual infrastructure is incapable of generating the kind of alliances and political cohesion seen in Egypt and Tunisia. The uprising has remained focused on the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for too long and has failed on his repeated promises of democratic reform. Adjusting to the loss of a good ally in Egypt, the US took a much more cautious approach to Yemen by urging Saleh to speed up his reforms. Saleh has had a good relationship with the US, been very cooperative and helpful to the US War on Terror, and has received much financial support from the US for fighting the infiltration of Al-Qaeda in his country.

More than the US, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have been most concerned with the events in Yemen. These countries are alarmed by the speed and depth of these street protests and fear the collapse of an Arab regime in their own backyard – an extremely dangerous precedent. In the meantime, even with a divided army and hesitant foreign patrons, Saleh has not been willing to give up the power. Yet, the conflict has escalated, casualties are mounting, and further radicalization of the population jeopardizes stability in the whole region. With continued protests, violence, and political suppression, some military elite aligned themselves with the opposition and the Gulf Cooperation Council devised a plan for Mr. Saleh to step down. But Saleh has been dragging his feet, accepting the plan one day and adding conditions the next. It seems clear that he and his associates are watching the fate of Mubarak in Egypt closely.

Originally, when pressured to step down by the GCC and the US, Saleh demanded influence on the transitional stage and financial and legal immunity after leaving office. The US was comfortable with the GCC plan as long as her own security objectives in Yemen were met. Yemen’s future remains uncertain, however. If Saleh leaves, the country faces five possible scenarios, as predicted by Thomas Juneau of Carleton University. From most likely to the least these include: a) regime maintenance with a change in the composition of ruling elite, b) an unsustainable continued stalemate, c) democratization and federalization, d) fragmentation, and e) Somalization.5

Bahrain has also acquired a tragic fate. Ruled by a minority Sunni, the Shia majority, along with many middle class Sunnis, demands a constitutional monarchy, restoration of parliament, political participation for all citizens, and an end to discrimination based on religious denomination. Though depicted as a Shia versus Sunni conflict by the ruling elite and the US media, Bahrain’s uprising is about citizen rights and not theology and sectarian concerns. Surely, sectarianism practiced by the ruling family does play into the anger expressed by the Shia majority, but protesters’ demands are universal democratic rights within a constitutional monarchy. The ruling Khalif, along with Saudis and UAE Emirs, considers these demonstrations as provocation by Iran and continues to resist any concession to the demonstrators.

Afraid of the rise of the Shia to power, thus establishing another dominant Shia country like Iraq and extending Iran’s influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent in troops to crush these protests. To these Sunni monarchs any change in the political mathematics of Bahrain may result in Iranian overreach in their backyard. Unfortunately, concerned with her own naval presence in Bahrain where the fifth fleet is stationed, the United States also has sided with this view and has been mute on condemning the excessive violence inflicted on protestors.

Libya also has also been caught in the Arab Awakening but in the most tragic way. Confronted with the uprising, Muammar al-Qaddafi responded unsympathetically and implicated himself by threatening people with outmost revenge – remarks that scared the population, raised humanitarian concerns around the world, and gave enough ammunition to his foreign detractors to build a case against him in the UN Security Council for foreign intervention and support for his opponents. Soon, repression by Qaddafi became rampant; opposition forces succeeded in gaining control of Benghazi, the UNSC authorized Western intervention, NATO forces flew to Libya, and the bombing of Qaddafi military positions contributed to the emergence of a battle of take-lose-retake of cities between opposition and Qaddafi loyalists. Libya has literally become a battlefield with its infrastructure targeted daily, its population forced into a game of loyalty between government forces and the opposition, and thousands of its citizens seeking refuge in European and African countries.

Forces loyal and opposed to Qaddafi are engaged in a battle whose outcome, as time goes  by, will ultimately be determined by Qaddafi’s resources to fight and the Western powers’ determination to support his opposition in a breakaway territory. To the extent Qaddafi has cash available to hire mercenary soldiers, sell oil in international markets to resupply his army, and recruit fighters to fight for him, he will be able to prolong the current stalemate and reinforce the current split into the unforeseeable future. The bloodier this war gets, and the longer it takes, the more civilian casualties, infrastructural damages, and an undemocratic outcome become likely. Libyan hopes for a quick transition to democracy have been arrested by the insatiable desires of the Western countries for oil and a ruthless dictator for power and glory. Continued NATO airstrikes and Qaddafi’s artillery attacks have devastated Libyan infrastructure, depleted cities of people who are fleeing for their lives, and has created a major humanitarian crisis in the country.

The most recent Arab regime affected by the wave of uprising, and seemingly headed towards a prolonged and unpredictable outcome, is Syria — a country dominated by one family and a group of oligarchs representing a religious minority. Bashar al-Asad and his father have ruled this country with an iron fist since 1970. The country has been under emergency laws for close to five decades, any voice of dissent has been suppressed, the media is controlled by the state, censorship is widespread, and demands for political participation are denied. When Bashar succeeded his father in 1994, he promised some modest reforms but was never able to sell change to his ruling allies in the military and government bureaucracy. Abroad, he portrayed himself as a young reformist who was willing to work with the West towards reducing regional tensions in return for the restoration of a portion of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. However, his close alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran and radical Palestinian factions, plus support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, made his efforts suspicious and inadequate to both the US and conservative Arab rulers.

Asad’s response to the new wave of protests was different than his father, who in 1982 crushed a revolt in the city of Hama, killing reportedly up to 10,000 citizens. In the first days of protests in late January-early February, he reiterated his promises of reform and demanded a stop in protests. As the public demanded action rather than rhetoric, he responded by force, killing hundreds. The public did not trust his promises, continued protesting despite crackdowns, and demanded the lifting of emergency laws which had been in effect since 1963. Though Asad lifted the emergency laws, the deadly violence inflicted on protesters has radicalized them, protests have continued, and the number of death and arrests continue to rise. All communications among cities and to the outside world are either blocked or controlled. Media coverage is limited to pro-government demonstrations, death or injuries of soldiers or government agents, and reports of foreign intervention and fifth column saboteurs among protesters. The future of protests as well as Asad’s rule remain uncertain. David Lesch of Trinity University believes that Asad will continue to alternate between small concessions and lethal force – a “bipolar policy” that will wear the population down but might also lead to Asad’s loss of power. 6

Socio-Historical Considerations
It is important to remind ourselves that parties involved in these revolts include more than native people and their governments. Unfortunately, the fate of the Arab world has been tied to foreign patrons and forces – some from the colonial era and others in neo-colonial format. Aside from the differences in their political structures (monarchy, elected and non-elected presidents, and rulers with various titles), the sociological characteristics of these countries vary tremendously: from predominantly tribal, rural, to urban, sparsely populated to densely populated, limited geography to vast landscape, poor to rich in resources, and so on. The national interests of each of these countries do not overlap with the broader interests of “the Arab World” or even “the Islamic World” (since they are all Muslim countries).

The media writes about these revolts as “revolutions,” especially for Tunisia and Egypt where the ruling governments have collapsed. What prompted the use of this label was the suddenness and the lofty demands they made on their governments. Such a characterization remains journalistic and devoid of theoretical and structural reference points. Of the two countries affected, Tunisia’s political structure and governance remain the same, though some members of the old ruling elite have been deposed and reforms are initiated to make governments more accountable, anticipatory, and responsive to public needs. Egypt is still ruled by the same army which has maintained a tight grip on the country, though a new constitution is being worked out, an election is planned, and debates about the governance and laws are openly held by various groups. Young activists are called in for questioning and many are now being tried in military courts – a situation which has caused new sets of minor protests.

In time, these developments might lead to a revolutionary change in these societies and their politico-economic structures. But, from a comparative historical view point, calling these changes “revolutionary” is short-sighted and inadequate. It is very difficult to characterize these uprising as revolutions compared to either classical (French, Russian, Cuban) or modern (Iranian and Nicaraguan) revolutions. Revolutions are dramatic events of serious structural consequences in social, political, economic, and cultural domains. Change of a government without major change in the core structures of society will not necessarily mean a “revolution,” even though it has the potential to lead to revolutionary change, if the dynamics of change accelerate and transform major social processes in society, both at the normative and behavioral levels.

What we are witnessing today, often called “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening” interchangeably, is a new wave of uprisings, acting in a domino effect, moving like a storm through Arab countries and marking a new era – an era filled with opportunities and threats, hopes and promises, and a good deal of uncertainty. Though Arab spring or awakening are less problematic descriptions and reflect various aspects of recent protests, they shall not lead us to an Orientalist view, expressed in different tones by people like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman: that these societies have been in a frozen winter of history and are now all of a sudden waking up to the Western values of democracy, globalization, and modernity. It is true that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many Asian, East European, and Latin American societies governed by authoritarian rulers broke out of the mold in the 1990s and almost all Arab countries remained controlled by authoritarian rulers, many even to this date. Yet, despite this “democratic deficit” relative to other regions, Arab countries have not been as stagnant as portrayed by Friedman and Lewis. 7

Some Arab countries have a long tradition of social resistance: In the past two centuries Egypt has had four major uprisings against French and British colonialism (1798-1801, 1870s, 1880s, and 1921). Palestinians have been fighting for their rights since the establishment of the state of Israel. Bahrain had a democratic uprising in mid-1990s leading to the establishment of the National Action Charter in 2001. Lebanon experienced rapid development after the civil war and had massive political demonstrations after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, forcing Syrian troops out of that country and establishing a new government. Iraqis rose up against Saddam Hussain in 1991 and were left in the cold by Americans who remained indifferent to their struggle at the time. From mid-19th century to early 2011, Algeria has experienced a war of independence and several political uprisings.

Overall, major factors contributing to the failure of Arab populations in getting rid of their autocratic rulers in the past two decades include, the Iran-Iraq war, the continued Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite two Intifada’s (1987-1993 and 2000-2005 ), the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussain, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and her allies, the continued tension between traditional religious and modern secular forces within these countries, lack of strong and viable civil society institutions, the resilience of ruling oligarchs, close politico-military-economic alliances between these oligarchs and hegemonic Western countries, and the demographic nature of many of these societies.

Causes of these revolts
The causes of these revolts are both structural and non-structural. The structural factors include massive urbanization in the past three decades uprooting rural migrants and overwhelming cities with poor families seeking work. Added to this urban crawl is the urbanization of rural towns where availability of modern amenities has increased popular expectations for socio-economic welfare and political participation.

The second factor is the universalization of education leading to an increased educated population whose aspirations for a better life are often arrested by a poor economic outlook and the prevailing socio-cultural traditionalism. Another corollary effect is the rise in female education and their rising demand for entry into the labor market – a demand insufficiently met by neo-liberal policies adopted in the past two decades, or when met not commensurate with their education and aspirations.

The third structural factor is the youthful demographic structure of these societies. Data from the UN in 2009 indicates that 60% of the Arab population was under 25 years of age with, the median age of the whole population being 22 in comparison to the global average of 28. 8

The fourth factor is the wide gap between rich and poor. Visible disparity and conspicuous consumption — both with rich natives and foreign advisors — increased the sense of deprivation and discrimination among the public, especially the unemployed. Recent neo-liberal policies had resulted in a skewed labor market in which wages were declining, food prices were increasing, government subsidies were being cut, foreign investment had created a lopsided growth benefiting a few on the top, while highly educated people often found little meaningful opportunities. In most of these countries, foreigners had better jobs and pay than locals, adding salt to the injury for an educated youthful population who felt as second class citizens in their own countries. To all these should be added recent increases in global food prices leading to higher cost of living for the lower and middle classes. These factors were so severe that as soon as the political snowball began rolling in these countries, ruling oligarchs set up funds for job creation and unemployment benefits. The Saudis announced job creation for those on temporary employment and paid 22 billion Pounds to youth. The Sultan of Oman ordered the creation of 50,000 jobs and $400 a month in unemployment benefits.

These regimes were also facing non-structural pressures emanating from their specific and unique political characters, politico-economic conditions, pathological governance structures, and poor economic performance. Poor economic performance often led to massive corruption in both formal and informal sectors. In thick bureaucratic structures of these Arab countries poor wages often bred corruption and economic cronyism – features which interfered with market mechanisms – created a sense of helplessness for citizens unable to secure services without bribery, nepotism, and association with centers of power. This massive corruption undermined the work ethic, contributed to a sense of detachment to one’s profession, and created a state of anarchy in government bureaucracy where service was offered in return for kickback.

The suppressive political environment created by emergency laws, high security measures, censorship, arbitrary arrests, and lack of freedom left the majority of citizens with a sense of voicelessness. In the absence of genuine elections, citizens felt like subjects who were at the mercy of a king or Emir without representation. Constitutions either did not exist or if they did, it was ignored by the political elite. There was no accountability with regard to state funds and, where applicable, oil revenues, leaving the impression that public funds are being squandered for the luxurious life-style of the rich and powerful.

Finally, close alliances between most Arab governments and Western countries left the Arab street with a sense of rage and alienation, especially seeing their governments’ inability to  compel the United States to act as a neutral mediator in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that these governments offered the West cheap oil and political stability in return for military supplies, training, and security created a feeling of being irrelevant in the calculation of national interests. The anger, humiliation, and despair as a result of the recent invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries, insensitivity to Arab concerns and demands, and continued setbacks on the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the disadvantage of Palestinians created a fertile ground for these revolts. In fact, most countries started their massive outpouring under the banner of “the day of rage” in order to reclaim their dignity, hope, and self-confidence – qualities which were destroyed by continued subordination of Arab policies to the interests of Western hedgemons in the region. These revolts re-ignited the Arab sense of agency and past historical glories. They negated the Orientalist claim that Arab history is stagnant and Arab people are content with their autocratic rulers.

Sociological Characteristics
These movements, except in Bahrain, are generally non-sectarian and secular. Religious groups are engaged in protests but they are neither instigators nor directors of these protests. We have seen no demand for Sharia and religious revival. Most protests are focused on the state, its leadership and personnel, laws, corruption, inequality, lack of political freedom, and poor economic performance. Surely, religious groups might be biting their time and will interject their own demands as these movements succeed and shape the future of these societies. In fact we are witnessing such a development in Egypt today. But, the democratic nature of these movements often works against theocratic vision of governance – something more appealing in the 1980s and 1990s in the region.

As social movements, these movements have lacked charismatic leaders, especially in the form of a veteran politician or trusted person. Nor have they had strong and well-known organizations behind them. Many have identified these social movements as “new social movements” characterized as non-ideological, dispersed, leaderless, and rights-focused. Strangely, they have also shown little interest in xenophobic slogans. Anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Zionist slogans and banners are rarely seen in these protests. Lack of leadership, as well as lack of a coherent ideology, has worked to the advantage of these movements because it has made it harder for their governments to suppress them easily. Such characteristics are also helpful for a more gradual transformation of power since they reduce the chances of radicalization of these revolts. In Iran of 1979, a charismatic leader and an Islamic ideology took the events in a radical direction, to the surprise of all.

Major forces of these movements are middle class youth, along with women. The new middle class born out of the recent educational expansion and the rise in oil revenues in oil-producing Arab countries, served as an important backbone of these movements. These forces have acquired a new political outlook and have increased their aspirations by becoming familiar not only with material aspects of modern society but also with its political and cultural by-products, namely political liberty and rule of law.

Young people growing up under the influence of globalization and techno-communicative revolutions were not content with exchanging their social and political freedoms for material comfort – a choice made by some of their parents in recent decades. Arab youth and politically conscious middle class wished to have economic, social, and political freedoms experienced in other parts of the world. Such a world is easily accessible to them through modern technology such as blackberries, iPhones, satellite televisions, and the internet. Rightfully, many of these revolts, especially the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, are explained in terms of the role internet, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Al Jazeera satellite television played in both mobilization and distribution of information. While “cyber-dissidents” were a major factor in these revolts, so was the release of WikiLeaked cables. These cables exposed the conspicuous and corrupted lifestyles of Arab leaders and their complacent attitudes toward political machinations of foreign powers – a revelation which angered the Arab public and poured salt on their injury.

These technologies and resources served not only as the source of information but also tools for organizing and mass mobilization. Once successful in the use of the information and mobilization, activists demanded massive and relentless public protests. In fact, if it was not for their sustained and massive characters, protests in Egypt and Tunisia could have been easily suppressed. In these two cases two other factors contributed to the achievement of their political goals. Activists avoided the traditional focus in the Arab world on Zionism, Israel, imperialism, and the United States. They figured out that if they wished to succeed, they would do better if they only had one enemy, thus channeling all their energies towards the removal of this enemy. Both in Egypt and Tunisia, the major demand was the resignation of their autocratic and corrupt presidents. Such a focus prevented divisions among various groups with different political and social outlooks. In the case of Egypt, such a unity was a by-product of Hosni Mubarak’s policy of eliminating any potential political force in the country. In his nearly three decade rule, Mubarak concentrated all power to himself and his associates to the detriment of political parties, civil society organizations, secular intellectuals, and his political rivals. Such a concentration created a unified opposition who, in a right historic political moment, could not be easily suppressed.

Given the non-democratic nature of political structures in the Middle East, the views, attitudes, performance, and direction of military forces become a crucial factor in change of power in the society. In most Arab monarchies, the army is under the total control of the monarch. In Egypt and Tunisia Mubarak and Ben Ali had tight control over their armies and were allied with military men in controlling the economy and politics, even though these two armies were professional and more independent in their character than armies in Arab monarchies. This professionalism and relative independence became crucial factors in the transition to post-autocratic period and the way army responds to the public demand for the removal of the president. Once convinced that their autocratic leaders were not able to withstand the wrath of the nation, army leaders separated their lot from the leader by either supporting protesters or declaring neutrality – a position which loosened the presidents’ hold on power. That has not been the case in Yemen and Libya where some army leaders broke away and some remained loyal to their political leader.

Finally, mention should be made of the specificity of conditions in each of these countries and how those conditions have contributed to the success or failures of these movements. For instance, the existence of strong civil society organizations in Tunisia was helpful to the emergence and success of the movement both during the mobilization and after Ben Ali’s departure. In Egypt, the demographic concentration in urban areas became a discouraging factor for the army’s suppression of persistent and massive gatherings. In both Libya and Yemen, the continued influence of tribal forces is affecting the outcome of these movements, while in Bahrain the sectarian nature of the population is used by ruling power to legitimize its suppression of universal rights to all citizens and to avoid a constructive solution to the conflict.

In most cases, these movements are still in their formative stages. Even in Egypt and
Tunisia, where protesters have succeeded to remove the old political leadership, they are still affecting change and being affected by post-uprising developments. Egypt is now ruled by a Supreme Military Council whose members were close allies of Hosni Mubarak. Women and youth are still coming to streets and risking arrest for demanding change. The Egyptian constitution is being rewritten and an election is scheduled. Debates and struggles taking place in Egypt today will certainly generate new political and economic spaces, processes, structures, opportunities, and restrains. They may amount to broader changes or may even retreat to earlier periods in the history of each country. The future remains open, but more hopeful than the past.

Implications for the region, and beyond
These movements have definitely created a new Arab social order in the Middle East and North Africa. In the first two months of 2011, it was even conceivable to see the probability of these movements connecting with other parts of the world beyond the Islamic and Arab world. However, their momentum slowed after the initial months when they arrived in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and now Syria. In all four countries the governments are fighting these movements – a fight that has become extremely costly and already dampening the urge of  populations in other countries to follow suit. Yet, the future of governance, resource allocation, foreign alliances, and so on will be quite different than what it was before the Arab Spring, even for countries which don’t succeed in their movements. The mathematics of accountability and participation will change due to the kind of expectations and pressures created by these movements, to a greater or lesser degree in some countries than others.

Egypt has already demonstrated that its foreign policy will be different than what it was during Sadat and Mubarak. While the ruling military council has maintained its good relations with the United States and the peace treaty with Israel, it has changed its posture towards Iran and engineered unity between Palestinian factions – a unity grounded in the recognition that both parties see a change in the attitudes and strength of their political allies (Egypt for Fatah and Syria for Hamas). Egyptian officials have expressed their readiness to establish formal diplomatic ties with Iran – a move unwelcomed by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf. Such a move is positive for Iran because it eliminates the animosities that existed during the Mubarak rule, but it will also increase Egypt’s stature as a power broker in the region – a move not very favorable for Iran.

A major non-Arab loser in the region has been Israel since it cannot have the autocratic rulers with whom she can sign agreements unilaterally without some national consensus – something that is hard to anticipate in Arab countries when Palestinians’ misery continues to get worse rather than better. Though happy to see some of these Arab autocrats shaken by their own cloth, Israelis are apprehensive about these developments because the devil they know is easier to deal with, than the one they do not know. For instance, they are happy to see a politically weakened Asad but uneasy about the political instability this might entail for the future of the Golan Heights. Israelis are extremely unhappy with Egypt’s new attitude toward Iran and Hamas.

Israel has used the recent uprisings as an excuse to convince the world, and more importantly America and Europe, that the major problem in the region is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Iran and Arab dictators. Israelis were surprised and angered by a recent remark by Qatar’s leader emphasizing the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the region – a position taken in an op-ed piece written by the President of  Turkey as well.

Outside of the region, the US and, to a lesser extent her European allies, have been concerned about these developments. Initially caught by surprise in Tunisia and Egypt, they accepted some setbacks and adjusted themselves to the new realities on the ground. A lesson learned about these movements is, if necessary, to encourage an autocratic ally to leave sooner rather than later. The sooner these dictators depart from power, the less bloody the transition, the more control over events and groups shaping the future. The Iranian revolution of 1979 took one year and a half but events in Egypt took only 18 days. Time leads to radicalization and bloodier a transition, as has now become the case in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.

Once it realized the setback in Egypt, the West moved back to the driving seat and began to move the cart in their direction or prevent it from going too far off from their desired path. Regardless of their efforts, these countries will find it harder to secure their strategic national interests the way they have done since WWII.

For the US these events have been a double-edged sword: the US uses them as examples of democratization and the fulfillment of people’s aspiration, yet it is uncomfortable with the political instability they entail and the implications they have for her old alliances with Arab autocrats. The US position toward these events has been contradictory and often hypocritical; siding, for example, with the Syrian people against Asad but being silent about what happens to people in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The worst is the case of Libya, a third Muslim country becoming the theater of Western military intervention with little prospect of an easy exit. Most Western countries have been concerned about the role Islamists might play in these events. Though a reasonable concern, these movements have been anything but Islamist. These movements are secular and mostly about citizenship, civil rights, rule of law, transparency, accountability, and democracy. Such demands are antithetical to the visions of Al Qaedeh and other fundamentalist forces. Democracy has never been their concern and democratic movements are counter productive to their ideology and moral social order.

Iran and the Arab revolt
In terms of the impact of these movements on Iran, such impact is mixed. Originally, Iran welcomed these protests and even characterized them as an “Islamic Awakening” in continuation of the Islamic Revolution. Such a characterization was rejected early by Egyptian and other Arab protesters. In fact, protest leaders went out of their way to emphasize the civic and secular nature of their demands, distancing themselves from political Islam. Iran will also be a major loser, if these countries truly turn democratic and represent the aspirations of their own citizens – a move that will reduce their government reliance on the United States and increase their sensitivity to the Palestinian cause – two causes which have provided room for Iran to win favor among the Arab public at the expense of their autocratic leaders, who had abused the Palestinian cause to divert attention from the suppression of their own citizenry’s rights.

As time passed and no real sign of a rise in political Islam emerged in these protests, Iran slowly shifted its general pronouncements to the specifics of each country. Yemen and Bahrain receive the highest attention in the Iranian media as cases of US support for dictators who are crushing their people. Libya gets covered as a case of colonial intervention but with little sympathy for Qaddafi. The real surprise is Syria. Syrian protests are rarely mentioned in the media within Iran but covered as another case of foreign intervention and manipulation of public grievances by the United States and Israel – a position officially taken by the Syrian government. Egypt and Tunisia are presented as examples of genuine protests against Western supported autocrats and
imperialist-Zionist alliances.

Some in the Iranian opposition were quick to take credit as the pioneer of these movements in the region. In fact, in his latest speech on the Middle East, on May 19, 2011, President Obama connected the Arab spring to events in Iran in the summer of 2009 and considered the protest against the fraudulent presidential election as “the first peaceful protests” in the region. However, though similar in terms of their non-violent, right-conscious, non-ideological, and pragmatic characters, each of these movements has had its own specific causes, forms, and directions, not clearly related to the Iranian situation.

Many view Iran as a regional winner of the changes brought about by the Arab Spring. While this is the case with regard to the disappearance of conflict with Egypt, it does not reflect the broader animosity that developments in Bahrain have created between Iran and Suni Arab countries. In fact, the recent expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council to include Jordan and Morocco, countries far away from the Persian Gulf, along with its political mediation in Yemen, is a response to two new realities emerging as a result of the Arab Spring: (a) the fear of a rise in the power of Shia populations among Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, thus increasing Iranian influence in the region; and (b) the realization that some of the premises upon which the US offered unconditional support to these autocratic rulers have changed and they may need to join forces for reducing their reliance on the security umbrella offered to them by the United States. Furthermore, if Asad falls in Syria, Iran will lose a major ally and a reliable
conduit to Palestinians in Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria has been a major ally of the Islamic Republic throughout its history, even at the risk of alienating her Arab brothers in the region.

Syria and Bahrain are two contradictory sources of trouble for Iran. Iran supports Bahrain’s uprising, yet condemns or is silent about the Syrian uprising. While Iran is accused of interfering in internal affairs of another country, in the case of Bahrain, she is supportive of Asad’s regime against its own people. There are also accusations that Iranian advisors are present in Syria and even aiding the government in the suppression of the uprising. In several videos of events in Syria, protesters are chanting against the Islamic Republic and even burning the Iranian flag.

A lesson Iran might draw from these developments, especially as an implication of what is happening in Libya now and in Iraq earlier, is to remain strong on its current nuclear posture and speed up her program. Countries which have nuclear capabilities have been lived with and countries without can be attacked. In 2003, the US and Britain offered the Libyan leader an incentive to give up his nuclear program in return for better political and economic relationships. Qaddafi’s daughter recently complained that the West had reneged on its promises of cooperation. For governments not friendly to the US and her Western allies, the Western intervention in Libya offers the lesson that if stripped of their military, and possibly nuclear, capabilities, they become an easier target for foreign attack.

6. Quoted in
7. See and (
8. “Arab Countries Youth Population Projection [Chart],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #424, –accessed May 10, 2011.

Ali Akbar Mahdi is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Ohio Wesleyan University, and author of “Sociology of the Iranian Family,” “Teen Life in the Middle East,” and “Iranian Culture, Civil Society, and Concern for Democracy.”  He has co-authored “Culture and Customs of Iran” and “Sociology in Iran” and has written over hundred articles and reviews for scholarly and popular journals. He is a lecturer and frequent guest on Persian television programs.                                            **


By: Firouzeh Afsharnia

Persian Medes Relief - Persepolis

The “Arabesque Festival” was at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and I had stumbled upon one of the exhibitions before its end.  Thank goodness for the patrons of art and culture, who every once in a while, remind us that the East represents other things besides surly unshaven men and existential threats to the nations of earth. Narrated in the subdued authority of a British accent, images whirled about against a simulated star-studded sky, spanning centuries of culture and science from the Middle East through the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, collectively bundled as “Arabesque”: a term that presumably transcends its roots from the Arabian peninsula and now encompasses a wider civilization – many of which refer to themselves Arabs.  The exhibition ended triumphantly with references to Avicenna and Rumi as the houselights gently came up.  I snuggled a bit longer in the grand circular cushions, designed to evoke the exotic sense of nineteenth century Harems, still fuzzy from my meditative state.

I was there with an American friend on a self imposed crash course for her imminent departure to Iran. While there we ran into her friends from Iraq. While she introduced us, I pulled myself together and held out a hand in greeting.
“Where are you from?” Asked Ahmed, the gentleman.
“I’m Persian” I replied as I tried to place his accent.
“Persian? Not Iranian? You are Persian! So then, I guess that makes me Mesopotamian. He chuckled, curling up the corner of his mouth sarcastically, and shook my hand.

The next night I brought up the subject with a good friend. “Can you believe this guy? I introduce myself as Persian and this Iraqi fellow throws a fit!” “Well he’s right!” My friend fired off instantly, clearly a veteran of many discussions on the subject.  “What is this obsession with the Persian empire? We are Iranians. ‘Persian’ is an ethnicity”, he noted. You may be an Iranian of Persian ethnicity, he explained, but there is no such nationality as “Persian”. “The days of the empire are gone”, he said, “It is like calling yourself Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian.”

I was simply startled!  I was being asked to reconfigure an internalized conviction – my own sense of identity, and, there seemed to be a militancy to the debate.  So I thought I might look for the roots of this confusion.

I could discern three parts to the debate; the factual validity of the term “Persia” outside the context of empire; the legitimacy of the use of the term in present tense for other than the ethnic association; and the question of identity. I did some research.   Here is what I found.  Our country has always been known to its own people as “Iran” but to the outside world as “Persia”, mainly because of Greek historians.  The name, “Persia”, is derived from an indo-Aryan group who arrived from what was modern day Fars or Pars into what is now greater Iran and who spread through a process of integration and conquest of other groups and therefore through time it has taken a supra-ethnic character, encompassing a broader meaning.  Since Cyrus of Pars was the first king to unify the territories in 6th Century BC, the empire was also dubbed Persia. Therefore, the term “Persia” may be rooted in an ethnic origin, but through centuries of expansion and assimilation, it has gradually transformed into a national identity.

Iran was “Persia”, not only through the rise and fall of empire, but even after the Islamic invasion and subsequent centuries all the way up to the 20th century.   In 1935 Reza Shah declared to the international community that the country should henceforth be known as Iran – perhaps to better elucidate its “Aryan” lineage – a fact to be weighed in with the nuanced politics of Reza Shah’s alliance with Nazi Germany.  Many Iranian scholars objected on the grounds that a name change would disconnect it from its historical past and disassociate its roots from the thousands of international archival documents by the same name, so in 1949 Mohammad Reza Shah announced that both terms could be used interchangeably. And so they were.

Contrary to those who fault the usage of the term by drawing parallels with the Ottoman Empire, even in 1935 the boundaries of Persia and Iran were identical.  No empire was lost and none gained. The political territory ascribed to both remained intact, and well into the twentieth century the name Persia appeared on maps describing modern day Iran.  In fact it was not until the 1979 revolution put an existential spin on the identity of those who were either repulsed by the notion of Islamisation, or infused with a new sense of national fervor, that the term even became a point of contention.

As a foreign student in 1975, placing a call to Tehran involved a 24-hour notice to the international operator.  “Where?”  The voice on the other end often insisted? Even then, the US operators easier recognized “Persia” over “Iran”, which they often confused with “Iraq”. Thankfully, the confusion was soon cleared up by one monumental event that lasted 444 days at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. The “hostage crisis” succeeded in searing the term “Iran” into the psyche of an astonished world, albeit now attached to the words: “Islamic Republic of ”. This prompted a flurry of evasive maneuvers by the diaspora to escape the unsolicited stigma of “terrorists”, “fundamentalists” and “mullahs”. Some went so far as to call themselves “Greeks” and “Italians” which seems crazy in retrospect – until you are reminded of the fringe population of white uninformed middle Americans with loaded shotguns and NRA memberships out to exercise their patriotic duty. In those days “Persian” was a safe haven, especially for those who had grown up referring to themselves as such. The term was a comfortable cocoon, reminiscent of times gone-by, where rare hand-loomed rugs and fine caviar formed our national narrative while the Shah was received at places like Elysees Palace and the White House, versus dusty men with menacing looks, wielding their fists in angry chants with a white-turbaned mullah looking-on approvingly from a photograph mounted on a pole.

To negate the historical context and the interchangeable use of “Persia” and “Iran” is to break with centuries of history and thousands of historical references in multitudes of documents across world archives. It is to recreate a modern day republic without a past. To call oneself Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian is to seek to obfuscate the reality of a diminished territory by clinging to a defunct mother empire, but Persia refers to the same landmass as Iran with precisely the same boundaries. “Persian” is a reference in use during the lifespan of at least two generations which are still alive, and who grew up with the term as their identity.  Which brings us to the real issue of the debate – identity.

This discussion is a philosophical one – the revolution triggered a debate over a national sense of self.  What is it to be an Iranian, and how to reconcile the sudden rupture with the secular West with what some saw as the second Arab invasion. As a nation of distinct character wedged in between diverse neighbors in a strategic location, Iranians have fiercely protected their identity in the face of assimilation or expansionary forces; political, economical and cultural. The Greeks dubbed us with the name that was to endure through centuries, the Turks, Afghans, Mongols and other invading forces have tried to subdue us; Arabs sought to assimilate and integrate us and the big powers of the twentieth century have fought for hegemony and control of our political life and natural resources. Still, we stand with a unique identity in a sea of turmoil.

Ironically however, the intensity of the debate over terminology highlights the extent to which we still do in fact define ourselves by how others perceive us. To demonstrate this, let us consider that the Greeks, for example, may have named us “Persia” – but they themselves are known by the Latin name given to them by the Romans. The same Romans who are responsible for the name “Germany” attributed to a country known to its own people as “Deutschland” – both labels remain in use over centuries and are rooted in historical and irreversible events.  To internalize these events in the 21st century as an existential threat is to give validity to forces that have long ceased to exist. It is to remain haunted by the ghosts of legacies we wish to be free of.

To arrive at the point where the Greeks are content to be simultaneously Younan and Ellada; and Germany, Allemagne and Deutschland; and Egypt as Misr is to acknowledge mere historical facts.  Labels void of existential threats to a sense of identity — to most, referring simply to a geographic location all the while maintaining the historical continuum intact.  Whether or not one might personally choose to adopt the nuances of the label is a prerogative that may or may not have universal use.

Incidentally — to those insisting that Persian is only a reference to ethnicity, I wonder whether henceforth we should be talking about Iranian carpets, Iranian cats and …..the Iranian Gulf.

Firouzeh Afsharnia is a writer and blogger who has contributed to online publications such as The Daily Beast and the Levantine Review. She is a frequent traveler, political enthusiast and satirical commentator of global events. She has overseen elections as an international observer from the Carter Center and blogs at


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