Iran, Egypt Caught in the Churning of a Mideast Democracy Wave


The aftershocks of last week’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak continued to reverberate Monday, not only in Egypt but all the way across the Middle East to Iran. And it was the democratic challenge to Iran’s leaders by crowds on Tehran’s streets, reported to number tens of thousands, that the Obama Administration chose to emphasize. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed U.S. support for the Iranian demonstrators: “We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunities that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize,” she said in Washington.

Since bidding farewell to stalwart U.S. ally Mubarak last Friday, the Administration has insistently pressed the issue of democracy in Iran — less so in other places, where challenges to long-standing U.S. allies such as Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Algeria’s military-based regime and Bahrain’s monarchy have also continued to gather steam. (See TIME’s complete coverage of Egypt.)

Needless to say, while the Obama Administration is hoping Iran will be the next domino to fall to a democratic rebellion, the regime in Tehran would prefer it to be Bahrain, which plays host to the key U.S. naval facility in the Gulf. Thousands of Bahraini protesters clashed with police across the country Monday, and opposition activists vowed to return to the streets for a second “day of rage” on Tuesday. While the country’s Sunni monarchy is a key U.S. ally, Iran can be expected to support the challenge of the country’s 70% Shi’ite majority for greater democracy.

While the challenge of reform confronts governments across the region, indications from Egypt and Iran have suggested that bread-and-butter class politics could have a decisive role in determining the political fates of both countries. Iran’s opposition green movement has taken its neighbors’ democratic uprisings as a cue to reassert itself in public, after a year in which repression by the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had largely kept opponents off the streets. In a Facebook-circulated memorandum titled “How to Protest with Awareness,” Iranian opposition activists said that the goal of their Feb. 14 protest was to demonstrate that the green movement was still alive, and to show their “alliance with the people of Egypt and Tunisia in rejecting dictatorship.” That language represents not only a heartfelt solidarity against authoritarian regimes, but also a kind of political jujitsu, since the regime itself has hailed the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that overthrew U.S. allies. (See pictures of 2009 student protests in Iran.)

The Facebook memo also spelled out specific measures intended to counter some of the police tactics previously used against protesters. Instead of calling on supporters to gather in a single square or street — which can be commandeered by the authorities to prevent a crowd from forming — the memo recommended gathering spontaneously in neighborhoods across the city, starting small and moving along side streets until protesters have mustered a crowd large enough to take over main streets or squares. It also shared protest tips from Tunisian activists that have since gone viral in Middle East youth opposition networks, such as advice on wearing hooded sweatshirts and carrying lemon juice to counteract tear gas, using crash helmets and pan lids to shield protesters from rocks and rubber bullets, and using spray-paint to blind police visors and windscreens.

But the green movement remains hamstrung by its own strategic limitations. Its nonviolent mass demonstrations have limited impact on a government that is both willing to use force to suppress them and is unconcerned by international reproach. The movement also faces a problem in defining its goals: its leaders, such as former presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, hail from the political elite of the Islamic Republic, and are dedicated to reforming the system rather than abolishing it. That may be a popular goal, but it’s not one for which many of the green movement’s mostly middle-class followers are willing to risk their lives. But if the movement was to call for an end to the Islamic Republic and the principle of clerical rule, that would split the opposition and play into the hands of Ahmadinejad. (Comment on this story.)

What could change the dynamic in Iran is the mounting sense of economic grievance among the country’s working class, particularly since the government ended fuel subsidies in an economy squeezed by international sanctions. If cost-of-living pressure makes working-class Iranians more inclined to take to the streets to challenge the regime, that could change Iran’s political calculus — as it did in Egypt, where the outbreak of massive labor strikes early last week gave the protest movement the critical mass that forced Mubarak to stand down on Feb. 11.

If strikes by Egyptian workers demanding pay raises in the face of rampant food inflation added momentum to the effort to topple President Mubarak, his departure has done nothing to bring the rolling wave of industrial action to a halt. Monday’s protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square highlighted the fact that Egyptians’ newfound sense of freedom — and the morale-boosting victory of their protests against Mubarak — has bolstered labor militancy. Hours after the military had on Monday cleared the square of the last of the democracy protesters that had camped out there for most of the past three weeks, thousands more Egyptians flooded back in — but this time they were public-sector employees, even disgruntled policemen, taking advantage of the new climate to demand pay raises. Transport, bank and tourism employees remained on strike, joined by steel, oil and gas workers, all flexing their collective muscle to bring their wages in line with rising food prices.

The challenge of restoring stability facing Egypt’s new military rulers is growing more complex by the day. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — to which Mubarak ceded power — issued a statement Monday urging Egyptians to return to work, warning that strikes “damage the security of the country.” But even if it were inclined to vent its impatience through more forceful tactics, getting striking workers back on the job in thousands of workplaces across Egypt is infinitely more difficult than clearing them off the streets. Negotiation and persuasion remain the order of the day, and the military council met Monday with representatives of the youth movement that drove the 18-day rebellion against Mubarak, assuring its leaders of their commitment to democracy. The military leadership promised a referendum on a new constitution within two months, but forging a new political consensus that could restore stability will take some time.

In Yemen, meanwhile, students marched Monday to demand the resignation of President Saleh, who just two weeks ago promised not to stand for re-election in 2013. The focus of Monday’s demonstration was to demand the release of seven students detained in a similar protest on Sunday. The crowd of some 4,000 included lawyers and other activists, who urged Saleh to follow Mubarak’s example and step down. They marched to Tahrir Square in Sana’a, hoping to reprise the success seen in the Egyptian plaza of the same name. But when they got there, they found that it had already been occupied by some 1,000 pro-government demonstrators loudly chanting support for Saleh. A number of people on both sides of the divide were injured in the clash of sticks and stones that followed. The readiness of the police to forcefully disperse protesters — and the substantial number of Saleh backers ready to fight — suggested that Yemen will not be repeating the Egyptian example anytime soon.

Still, whether viewed from Washington, Tehran or Cairo, there’s little doubt that the Middle East’s winter of discontent has remade the region’s political landscape in ways that will force all stakeholders to reassess long-held assumptions. As President Obama said last Friday, “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place.” For those in power, however, the making of history, while awe-inspiring, can nonetheless produce some uncomfortable surprises.

By Tony Karon