Tunis Not Tehran

Why Tunisians succeeded but Iranians faltered


Tunis Not Tehran
by Ali Vaez

Two weeks ago Friday, in a dramatic turn of events, the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia came to an abrupt end. Images of the popular demonstrations that engulfed the country over the past few weeks bore resemblance to the protests that followed the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. The Green Movement of Iran, however, envisioned but never realized its promised land and succumbed to the repression of the Iranian theocracy. This is despite the similar nature of the two regimes.

Both republics, deemed 'not-free' by Freedom House, refer to universal suffrage for determining the country's political direction. In various masquerade elections in Tunisia, President Ben Ali was repeatedly re-elected with 89 to 100 percent of the votes. In comparison to Tunisia, Iranian elections were more "open" and marked with degrees of pluralism, but the candidates are vetted by the omnipotent Guardian Council that serves as an exclusionary mechanism for those not aligned with the unelected crux of the clerical regime. Both police states are ruled by iron fisted regimes that frequently censor the internet, strong-arm journalists, oppress human rights activists, prosecute opponents, and execute dissidents.

The unprecedented events that shook the already fragile political spheres in Iran and Tunisia had different socio-political causes. In Tunisia, the revolt was sparked by the self-immolation of the 26-year old student-turned street merchant, Mohammed Bouazizi. He instantly became the symbol of the frustration that an entire generation of young Tunisians had endured. Protests spread like wildfire throughout the country. Initially, the protesters' grievances centered on economic issues and reflected people's ire with the rising prices of staples, increasing unemployment and rampant corruption. Over time, the economic demands transmuted into more destabilizing political clamors that called for the removal of the president's grip from power and the prosecution of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, for corruption.

In Iran, however, the uprising had pure political motives. After the government announced the election victory of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with 63 percent of the vote, the opposition accused the government of widespread fraud. The day after the election, spontaneous popular demonstrations broke out across the country. On June 15, 2009, three million demonstrators marched silently on the streets of Tehran, according to the city's conservative mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The wave of protest swept through the country with increasing momentum. The uprising started with the motto "Where is my vote?" which was rapidly transformed into chants of "Death to the dictator," after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Nonetheless, the Tunisian "Jasmine Revolution" and the Iranian "Green Movement" shared striking similarities. In both countries, people from all strata of society partook in the protests, with youth and women at the forefront of the demonstrations. The tragic death of young students, like Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran and Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, fueled the fervor against the oppressive governments. The mobile phones of citizen-journalists, not the professional cameras of Western correspondents, broadcasted the dramatic images of both rebellions. YouTube videos, Facebook pictures and Twitter slogans captured the imagination of millions around the world and served as testaments to the brutality of political orders bereft of mercy. During both movements, approximately 70 people reportedly lost their lives and many more were gravely injured.

The Iranian and Tunisian movements, however, are distinct in three ways. First, the rulers of Iran, comprised of former-revolutionaries who came to power by ousting the Western-backed Pahlavi monarchy, knew well that compromise under pressure only invites more pressure. The Supreme Leader did not show any sign of ceding control and ordered his massive suppression apparatus to nip the Green Movement in the bud. On the ruins of the Shah's regime, the revolutionary leaders of Iran had established a republic of fear. The parallel security organizations and paramilitary squads, with fearsome capacity for cruelty, were designed to keep the Islamic Republic's ship afloat. The guardians of the revolution moved fast to fill the prisons with political activists, shutdown cell phone networks, and expel foreign journalists. Conversely, the Tunisian leader came to power in a bloodless "medical coup" against the aging and senile President Bourguiba in 1987. As the protests erupted, he sacked ministers and promised change. Finally, he recited the Shah's fatal words of "I heard the voice of your revolution" almost verbatim. The pronouncement was the death knell for his reign. Faced with the wrath of a nation, the army abandoned its tyrannical commander-in-chief and sealed his fate.

The second difference is that although both movements were spontaneous, amorphous, and had no decisive leader or party at their helm, Tunisian protestors were united in their overriding objective of bringing down President Ben Ali, whereas the Iranian protestors in the Green Movement did not share a unifying objective. Some demanded a recount of the vote, while others sought regime change. In the midst of protests, ideological discords and generational splits, ranging from the intensity of slogans to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, were revealed. The irresolution of Iranian opposition leaders, who chose to abandon street protests in the face of a ruthless crackdown, compounded the incoherence of the movement. Sporadic political statements became the only page in the playbook of the ostensible standard-bearer of the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Prudence replaced persistence and the Green Movement lost momentum. In the words of historian G.M. Tevelyan, the summer of 2009 became, "the turning point at which history failed to turn." The Sisyphean struggle of the Iranian people for democracy had once again come to grief.

Lastly, the Tunisians knew they were alone in their audacious quest for freedom. The West tolerated Ben Ali's autocracy and even portrayed it as a model of economic development and secularism that kept extremists at bay. The reaction of Western capitals and media to the Tunisian upheaval was at best timid. Without the sympathy of Western human rights enthusiasts and democracy promoters, Tunisians had to rely on their own courage and grit. The Iranians, however, were captivated by the global media's extensive coverage of their movement and lost sight of the dark clouds gathering over them. They expected a flurry of international condemnations and pressure from human rights organizations that would collectively compel the regime to retreat. As the storm of the regime's vicious clampdown started, they deserted the streets and hoped for redemption. The hype of the "Twitter Revolution" shifted the battle ground from the real world to the virtual sphere. Capitalizing on this shift, the Iranian regime unleashed its "Cyber Army" to bring down opposition websites, identify protest organizers, and disseminate misinformation. As the tides of the movement ebbed, optimism gave way to disheartening pessimism. By winter, the mirage of the "Iranian Berlin Wall" moment had dissipated.

President Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, and the reverberations of his departure are already being felt across the Arab world. The advent of democracy in Tunisia, however, is far from secured. The fate of the country is now in the hands of former Parliamentary Speaker, Fouad Mebazaa, and Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, both cronies of the deposed president. In Iran, while the opposition faces political limbo, the government is confidently taking the country through "the biggest surgery of its economy in 50 years" by removing governmental subsidies. The Iranian and Tunisian Movements might not augur deep democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa, as the region's tyrants may not be prepared to magically relinquish their old ways. Still, the political stability--and stagnation--that prevailed for a generation has been shaken.

First published in foreignpolicy.com.

Ali Vaez, a former chief correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Switzerland, is an Iranian-born biomedical scientist. He is currently a candidate for a Master of International Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at vaez@jhu.edu


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Nader Vanaki

این مقاله فقط برای درس و مشق آقای واعظ بدرد می خوره

Nader Vanaki

که با اون بتونه فوق لیسانسش رو بگیره که شاید بعد از چند سال بشه عنوان کارشناس مسائل ایران روش گذاشت. این مقایسه های خام و نپخته اصلاً یک پاپاسی هم ارزش نداره که حالا مردم تونس "تونستن" ولی مردم ایران "نتونستن" یکی هم روی این صفحه نیومده بگه گوز رو هیچ موقع با شقیقه مقایسه نمی کنن.


The Differences explained here:

by vildemose on

Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, the Differences





by shushtari on

to boro chekhaye akhoond ro cash con karet be kare iran nabashe.

een cherto perta cheeye akhe.....

akhoondha va pasdaray ke hamashoon see sal peesh aftabeh dozd boodand hala darand irano gharat meekonand....

ye ghadam aghab beran, ye rast meeran jahanam....

order hashonam az engeelesa meegeeran....

hala boro reesheto shoone kon  


I don't think it is going

by Delavar1 on

I don't think it is going to be an  "Islamic Middle east" to be shaped whether in Tunesia or elsewhere in the middle east. The new middle east will be more Democratic. However if an Islamic Middle east terrorist style such as the one in the Republic of Islam is shaped in the middle east, People will experince it and in a matter of 5 to 10 years they will start hating religion just like what happened in Iran . Just a few years after the Islamist terrorist revolution number of Iranis going to the mosque and who pray has decreased singificanly despite all the pressures being exerted by the terrorist regime.

Also if a New middle east similar to the Republic of Islam is esatablished in the region, they will probably seek for advice from IRI and will Import the evil professional rapist Prison guards form the Islamic Republic in Iran to do what they have been doing to political prisoners in Iran for the past 32 dark years of post Islamic revolution.


Tunis? Iran?

by IRI on

بابا حالتون خوشه؟ ایران قدرت بزرگ منطقست، اونایی که نیم وجبیرو با ما مقایسه می‌کنن خودشون نیم وجبن.

جمهوریه اسلامی ایران دنیارو با سیاستش روی کار گذشته داره منطقه هم یاد میگیره. شما مثلا درین میگین که کاش ایران هم مس تونیس "انقلاب" میشد؟
مردم ایران به ریش شما که حسرت تونیس رو میخورین میخنده.

اینم از مصر شما:
سکولار هست؟ بله
با آمریکا هست؟ بله
با اسراییل هست؟ بله
ارتشش از غرب میخوره؟ بله
مردمش آبجو، شراب، دیسکو دارن؟ بله
مردمش کشته، دستگیر، و کتک خوردن؟ چه جورم
آهان؟ پس اینا که مثل ایرنیای کالیفرنیایی خیلی‌ باید راضی‌ باشن. خنده داره

کم کم دستگیرتون می‌شه دنیا دست کیه ؛)
تونس هم هنوز مونده صبر داشته باشید
زمان با ایران است. شما عقب موندین.


Iran is a complex country

by Rea on

Any comparison with Tunisia is meaningless. Ignorant, rather.

@MRX, the truth is somewhere btwn your comment and that of simitenbiri. IMHO.



by abbasgolikhan on

the 1979 of Iran has just arrived to the Arab lands. just like iranian oil nationalization and other movements that started in our beloved land but was shut down by the emperors of the time.


Jonny Dollar

by Mehrban on

Please post your article in the News section of the site also.  It may get more traffic there.    


May be because

by MRX1 on

they didn't take a break and go on a roof top and shout allah o akbar!

(3000 years of history and that's the best they could come up with!)

may be becuase they didnt tell their enmey 6 weeks in advance where and when they are going to gather!

may be they didn't have creeps like opium fested  mousavi and karoubi as their leader (what a joke),

may be just may be they care more about their society than we do and many many other reasons.....

Also thanks to IRI the country is becomming more poarized and balkanized day by day. When Kurdestan shut down becuase of nasty executions by the regime, no body else supported them, when Azarbijan protested, no noise came  from any body, when Tehran is in protest other places didn't react....

Bottom line: majority of people in Iran belong to hezbe bad, which ever way the wind blows they follow it.


Are we kidding ourselves?

by simitenbiri on

The fact is there are great divisions within the Iran that only a long term, grass root, democratic change can bring some sense of unity.

The fault lines runs all over the country in different levels. Any small political change or power vacuum  brings up the religious lines, ethnic divide and cultural time gap. The green movement was concentrated in north of Tehran. There was no single demonstration south of the city, nor was any major movement out of the capital.  

The engine of all major movements in modern Iran, for the last 120 years, has been  Tabriz and Azerbaijan in general, but in this case Turks were taking the back seat. Their alienation with political movement started in 2006 when no support was shown to the huge rallies and demonstration against insult printed in the government run newspaper, "Iran". The overseas Iranian media was a culprit in this silence too.

Kurds have been fighting for years for their basic national rights, and only support they have received from the intelligentsia of Fars nationalists is the story of Aryans and Medians, and how close they are to perfect Aryans.

Arabs sitting on the riches of the Iran, suffering the worst condition of living in the region, are target of hates and insults, just for being borne as Arab.  

Iranian Sunni Moslems, Bahaiis, Darawish, Alavies or Ahl-i-Hagh along with Christians and Jews have not heard any words of their right for worship from the leadership of the green movement.

I am not familiar with Tunis to draw any conclusion or comparison, however it is amazing how some are ignoring the facts regarding the  political fault lines in Iran, and no effort to mend it, while waiting for the tremor.  

gitdoun ver.2.0

funny but true !!

by gitdoun ver.2.0 on

LOOL @ " they (mullahs ) know this is their last stand, and next stop is hell "      ~ i agree !

Jonny Dollar

Was this article inspired by Dr. Delkhasteh's Huffington Post's

by Jonny Dollar on

article? I know the contents is not exactly the same. I like this article:



Tunis is now a FREE country! - yeah, right

by Mehdi on

Only a demented retard would believe that! In other words only a revolutionary subversive would want us to believe.

First of all, just because some idiot left and another moron took his place does NOT mean that anything has changed at all.

As we say in Persian, "Gar nashashi shab deraz ask."

Secondly, I don't know much about Tunis but I doubt that the writer knows much either. But I looked at the map, and Tunis is right under Europe. I am amazed that they haven't improved a lot more and a lot faster before. But personally, with little knowledge I have about Tunis, this was not a "revolution." I think it was just a small change that was already about take place anyway. Otherwise why was there any attempt by their regime to stop it? 




the only difference

by shushtari on

is that the mullahs will kill, rape, burn, and pillage until they are exterminated......they are not human enough to 'pick up and leave' since they are hated and despised for 32 years.....they know this is their last stand, and next stop is hell


otherwise, iran would have been a true democracy by now 


The Green movement never represented the majority of Iranians

by Shutruk on


I don't know about this "jasmine revolution", but the Green movement never represented the majority of Iranians inside Iran.

You can deny it all you like, but 85% of Iranians voted in June 2009 and 62% for Ahmadinejad. The ones who protested the will of the majority can hardly claim to be the ones seeking democracy.

Iranians were given the opportunity to change the leadership but they chose to keep Ahmadi. This has to be respected.



never mind the morning....

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Even the day is still young! both on green and "jasmine"  versions of uprisings against two seemingly different yet essentially identical dictatorships. one islamist, the other "western". 

BTW, where did the "jasmine" come from? I thought that issue was lack of bread, jobs, decent homes, education, medicine, you know, these basic things which normally dont bother the "intellecuals"!


"Personal business must yield to collective interest."


The morning is still young!

by Examiner on

As the evidence enumerated in this article makes abundantly clear, and contrary to Vaez’s own proposition, the comparison between the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution” and Iran’s Green Movement led post-election protests is quite superficial, and mainly geared toward disparaging the Green Movement. Statements such as, “Prudence replaced persistence and the Green Movement lost momentum”; or, “As the storm of the regime's vicious clampdown started, they deserted the streets and hoped for redemption”, merely reflect the author’s unwarranted “envisioned but never realized” expectation of a prompt regime change, rather than the reality on the ground.

A much more apt comparison would have been between the 2010-11 Tunisia and the 1978-9 Iran. One can only hope though that Tunisian experiment with revolutionary change will produce a democratic outcome. The Jasmine Revolution is still in its embryonic stage, and it is difficult to predict what it will look like a month – let alone a year - from now. 



by afshinazad on

1- Didn't have the religion army

2-didn't have the snipers of sepah pasdaran3- Didn’t take the break on movement. (Movement is not a job to take the break or call in sick)4- They didn't rely on selected days to come out on streets.  5- They didn't have a leader to negotiate with regime for political power.6- Didn’t have the Mousavi as a leader who is loyal to regimes founder or the Golden years of Khomeini.7- They had a blessing of American and Iranian didn't have any support.8- They didn't have a lobbyist in Washington DC.9- Tunisian people didn't betray own people by reporting them to official.10- Tunisian didn't have to rely on politician to dictate the movement. and mnay more reason.

Be my guest compare Iran with Tunisia any way you can, As long as we don't have a clear set of goal and not hungry enough to reach our dream, it is going to be hard to motivate the people to start all over. every movement needs spark and as long as I could see unfortunately our people have no emotion any more, 100 execution in less than a month and killing each other on street and they say because one person in Tunisia putting himself in fire was the reason of uprising, Since last two year we have had a 12 people killed themselves by flame of fire, 77 people killed in air plane crash and many more other incidents, Isn't enough to spark the nation against the regime. I wish I was more optimists, but what I see with my own eyes doesn't give me a lot of hope. Iran is completely different case than any other countries and it is hard sometimes figure out who is really who and how could one nation with such a level of educated people could have so many idiots as well.

Treason in our society is beyond my imagination and as long as people getting paid and they could finish their daily transaction really doesn’t care about politic nor they care about fellow country man and women. Every year I go Iran and witness bickering and complaining behind the doors but no action what so ever, I am talking about poor people to rich people and every ones word is god help us and seems their imaginary god is going to do anything and people still don’t understand the fiction and reality of the life, God is absentee owner and don’t care what you think or what you do.