Why so much praise for the Tunisians?!

So what began as an act of self-immolation mobilized a whole nation in days, resulting in the President of Tunisia fleeing.  All of the sudden North Africa seems to be gripped in chaos.  There have been demonstrations in Algeria and Egypt so far.  Moreover, many scholars of Iranian studies and pundits alike have already begun comparing Tunisia with the Green Movement of Iran.  Some have even gone to praise the Tunisian people for so called toppling their government so swiftly. 

But wait a minute.  There are more differences between the two countries than similarities.  Actually, Tunisia and Iran are both developing countries with authoritarian regimes with populations that are mostly Muslim.  And that is where the similarities end.  To use Tunisia as point of analysis does not make much sense. 

First, nothing has changed in Tunisia so far other than the President fleeing.  The people in power pretty much remain the same.  Tunisia still has the same Prime Minister and the acting President is the President of the Legislature.  The impact of President Ben Ali’s departure remains to be seen.  The Tunisians are at the beginning of the road.  They didn’t even topple their government.  They just forced the President to quit and flee.  So praising them for toppling a crumbling administration should be done with caution.  I applaud them for what they achieved and wish them the best, but the hardest part is yet to come.  The difficult task of reorganizing their government and political system will not be without setbacks.   

Second, there have been some suggestions that Tunisians are more politically advanced than Iranians and the leaders of the Green Movement.  I beg to differ.  Up until independence from French rule in 1957, Tunisia had a long history of foreign rule dating back to Romans.  More recently, they were conquered by Arabs, who changed their language to Arabic and brought Islam.  Since Independence, they have only had TWO presidents including Ben Ali.  They show no signs of political maturity.     

In contrast, Iran has a history of home rule that dates back to more than 2500 years.  While we were invaded and occupied by the Macedonians, Arabs, Moguls, and Afghans, we retained much of our identity including our language.  Our foreign rulers adopted aspects of our culture that they believed to be superior to theirs.  Macedonians adopted our system of appointing local rulers as satraps (governors) in order to better rule their subjects.  Arabs brought Islam to Iran.  I am not here to discuss the dynamics of the Arab conquest, but the Arab dynasties flourished culturally and scientifically because of Persian ingenuity and culture.  Moguls became Muslims after remaining Iran’s rulers for centuries and embraced our culture and literature.   

Additionally, over a century ago our forefathers drafted a constitution despite the difficulties.  We have had a functioning parliament — more or less — ever since.  Our despotic ruler modernized Iran and built a nation around a strong central government at a time when Iran was torn in bits and pieces.  We were the first country that nationalized its oil industry.  The Islamic revolution of 1979 became the greatest revolution of the last century.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not here to defend it.  It has been a bitter experience and our people are still paying a heavy price for it.  But we have been forerunners of progress in our region.  Because of the Iranian experience with an Islamic government, intellectuals in the Islamic world are staying away from advocating such a system of government.  After 31 years, we have arrived at the Green Movement.  With all of our imperfections in the last 100 years or so, we have made progress through experimentation.  But we have done it in a very chaotic way, paying dearly and heavily every step of the way.  We have taken one step forward, two back, one forward again.  At times, we have moved sideways or have just madly spun until exhausted.  But to say that somehow we failed because we could not achieve what the Tunisian did recently is not only foolish.  It is flat out WRONG.  Think about it!

I am not here to offer a solution.  The matters of politics in Iran are very complicated.  The Green Movement has not been perfect.  However, contrary to most preceding movements in Iran it has decided to take the higher road and be nonviolent.  That’s good enough for me — for now.  While we could learn from the experiences of other movements, our solution relies within our own country and our own history.  And definitely not with Tunisia and Tunisians! 


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