In the euphoria in the wake of the relatively bloodless revolt in Cairo, where the prospect of a moderate, democratic regime and a peaceful transition remain undimmed and untarnished, the question is posed: Why can’t this model be replicated elsewhere? Can other “security states” become democratic?
The euphoria, unfortunately, may be premature. The army in Egypt may not have been willing to intervene and spill blood but that does not mean that it is willing to renounce its economic and social privileges and go quietly back to the barracks. Indeed, just as the armed forces’ intentions are unclear, so are those of other social classes who comprise Egyptian society: workers, peasants, civil servants, professionals, and students, all of whom still need to be heard as to the kind of government and society they want.
For Egypt, the challenges are very much in the future and the unity of the current phase will inevitably lead to hard bargaining in defining a new and inclusive order.
In Iran, the situation is a little different. An objective appraisal of the situation reveals a society that is deeply polarized—in part deliberately fragmented by the regime’s policies, in part, probably honestly divided on what sort of political/social system it wants and the place of religion in this system. Thus, when Egypt may be leaving the ranks of the “security states,” Iran may be joining them. Now let’s step back and explain how this occurred.
For the last three decades the fragile consensus on the Iranian revolution has been eroding. Fifteen years ago the election of a very popular reformist president signaled as much. A decade ago the opponents of reform (the hardliners and conservatives) started tampering with the electoral system, especially where the legislature was concerned through the Guardian Council.
In 2000, 2002, and 2004, this tampering was evident and undisguised. However it was the blatant rigging of the presidential election in June 2009 that was the last straw. The regime committed political hara-kiri by lying to the populace and then demonstrating its contempt for them by a vicious repression of peaceful demonstrations, whose only slogan was: ”Where is my vote?” In so doing the regime lost the last vestige of legitimacy that it claimed: popular support.
Certainly there are other forms of legitimacy, pale substitutes for the real thing. China can claim a form of “performance legitimacy” from its economic growth and the improvement of the lot of the average Chinese citizen. But this kind of legitimacy is fragile and reversible. And the Iranian regime cannot claim a comparable economic performance.
What the current regime is doing, however, is something more cynical. In light of the divisions within Iran—a rough guess would be something like 70 percent of citizens favor change and 30 percent support the current regime—the regime is targeting its foes and rewarding its constituency. Instead of seeking an inclusive system representative of all tendencies, it is narrowing its base, giving subsidies and privileges to its supporters and squeezing the others. It is thus becoming more dependent on the security and intelligence services and state-sponsored vigilantes/thugs. In short, it is going in exactly the wrong direction compared to Egypt.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul was in Tehran when major demonstrations were held on February 14. He pointedly observed: “We see sometimes when the leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the people’s demands, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands.”
If Iran is to reclaim its position as a serious nation-state, its government cannot avoid listening to all of its people and must stop the pretense that it knows better than them. The record of the past thirty-odd years demonstrates that it emphatically does not.