Tag Archives: Democratization

The Recent Protests in Iran and Their Prospects for Success


February 21, 2011

Last week and yesterday, mass protests broke out across Iran. Originally called by opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi (both of them presidential candidates in Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009), participants ostensibly wanted to show solidarity with the opposition in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries currently in turmoil. The real reason, of course, was to show the Iranian government that the opposition was still strong. 

And they succeeded: Despite security forces’ warning that demonstrators will be stopped, thousands marched in Tehran, Esfahan, Kermanshah, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Mashhad – most of them university students. In response, several members of the Iranian parliament demanded the execution of Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi, and former reformist President Mohammed Khatami for “sedition.” 

Which brings us to the central question: Can the current wave of protests in Iran succeed? 

Notwithstanding the vibrancy of the protests and many Iranians’ frustration with the current government, radical change in the short-run is unlikely. For one thing, a flashpoint to mobilize the people – comparable to allegations of fraud in the presidential elections in 2009 – is missing. Many Iranians sympathize with, and relate to, the plight of other Middle Eastern people rising up against inept autocrats. But other people’s troubles are not enough to cause Iranian tensions to boil over. 

Furthermore, unlike 2009, where dozens of citizens were killed in the post-election protests, this time, the government managed to suppress protests with minimal bloodshed. Sophisticated methods such as deploying riot police around rallying points before the protestors could march, using tear gas and rubber bullets instead of live ammunition, and shutting down internet servers and mobile phone networks prevented the protests from getting out of control. 

To be sure, that is not the end of it because the current anger in Iran goes back to the frustrated hopes in the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. From the 1950s until the Revolution, the Shah had promised to create an egalitarian, prosperous, and democratic Iran. But he delivered anything but equality, prosperity, and democracy to the people of Iran. Thus, the Revolution came with the promise to end inequality, poverty, and oppression.

Thirty-two years later, the Revolution has still not realized that promise. The survival of the Islamic Republic depends on whether its leaders will do something about that.


Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Egypt: “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”*


February 13, 2011

*“Thus always to tyrants,” Brutus had said to Julius Caesar in 44 BC while killing Rome’s savior-turned-dictator. And thus spoke the people of Egypt to their own stabilizer-turned-dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak.

Notwithstanding the title of this post and the historical analogy, it is auspicious that the new Egyptian Revolution spared the lives of so many people (including Mr. Mubarak’s). Great praise is due unto the Egyptian High Command, whose refusal to interfere with (and even tacit support for) the protestors assured that outcome.

But in the million mile march to prosperity and democracy, Egyptians have taken a few small (nevertheless important) steps. Now, they have to create a free and just political and economic system so that their country will never again be ruled by a modern-day pharaoh.

The first thing that Egypt’s current leadership, the Supreme Military Council, can do is to abrogate the 44-year-old emergency law. Briefly suspended in 1980 but in constant effect since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, the state of emergency has been the root of Egypt’s many ills: restricting citizens’ rights, press censorship, and mass arrests. If anything, Mr. Mubarak’s ouster has demonstrated that the emergency law is not worth the paper on which it was written. Citizens did come together and did overthrow the man that the emergency law was supposed to protect.

Next, instead of calling early elections, Egypt should convene a convention of wise men (and women!) to amend the constitution. This convention should include all social groups: representatives of political parties (including the Muslim Brotherhood), labor unions, farmers’ groups, professional associations, business groups, Coptic Christians, and religious scholars from Al-Azhar University (without the ulama’s support, the new system will be in trouble).

Luckily, if the emergency law is abrogated by then, the constitutional convention won’t have too much to do because the letter of the Egyptian constitution is reasonably democratic. Aside from changing articles 73 through 85, which regulate the vast powers of the president, strengthening the language of judiciary regulations (especially getting rid of Article 171 about “State Security Courts”) and freedom of enterprise (which will require changing article 24 that gives the people the right to “control all means of production and direct their surplus in accordance with the development plan laid down by the state”) should have priority. These changes will release the creative energies of Egyptian people who will do a much better job than Egypt’s state-run economy – all the while preserving the constitution’s egalitarian spirit.

Finally, as stated in Article 189 of the Egyptian constitution, the amendments should be taken to a popular referendum. Beyond a legal necessity, a popular referendum will remind the people that the new political order is something they signed up to. When something goes wrong in the future (as they frequently do in every country – political crises, corruption scandals, economic downturns, etc.), Egyptians will know that they were the ones who chose the current political system.

Let us hope that the new revolution will produce a different result than the one Egypt had in 1952 when army officers overthrew King Farouk with the promise of prosperity and democracy. In a few years, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser – who had good intentions, it must be said – Egypt became a one-man dictatorship, with tragic results.

“Development through democracy” deserves a real chance in Egypt this time.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Notice to Egypt: Don’t Listen to Turkey, Iran, or Israel


February 8, 2011

Opinion-makers and political leaders in Turkey and Iran are suggesting that Egypt should somehow be inspired by their regimes and foreign policies for its new political order. Turkey appears to be a successful case of a secular democracy in a Muslim-majority country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called upon Egyptian President Mubarak to heed the voice of his people. The subtext: Egypt should join in Ankara’s promotion of open borders and free trade in the Middle East, coupled with a new foreign policy free from Western influence.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran, celebrating its Revolution this week, hints at the same idea with a twist: The new regime in Egypt should stop acting like a “puppet” of the West, heed the voice of its people, and take a firm stand against Israel as it had during the Cold War. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has done just that. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argues that the “Islamic movement” in Egypt may be following Iran’s revolution. Egypt is joining in, or so the idea.

Looking at the situation, the Israeli government is concerned that a government hostile to Israel might come out of the current turmoil. Jerusalem almost sounds as if it prefers everything in Egypt to stay as it is.

The new Egyptian government, to be formed once President Mubarak steps down, is well-advised to be extremely careful about the Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli positions.

For one thing, it would be extremely hard to replicate Turkey’s secularism or Iran’s religious guardianship. And the bigger problem with Turkey and Iran these days is the two governments’ prevalent authoritarianism. It’s a much bigger problem in Iran since the controversial presidential elections of 2009.

Of course, Turkey is not doing substantially better. Mr. Erdoğan takes a “holier-than-thou” attitude but his recent policies aren’t that impressive. For one thing, Mr. Erdoğan is doing his best to secure the support of religiously conservative Turks by deepening the religious-secular divide in Turkey. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has turned to be just as incompetent as any previous Turkish leader when it comes to solving the Kurdish question. Why would Egyptians want to replace one political regime producing an incompetent autocrat for other regimes that produce incompetent autocrats?

As for Israeli concerns, while Egyptian mediation between the Jewish state and HAMAS is a noble undertaking, the new government in Cairo should stop acting like an enabler for Israel’s excesses in Palestine. This is not to suggest (unlike Mr. Khamenei) that Egypt should start saber-rattling with Israel at the earliest convenience. On the contrary, doing the Arab and Muslim world’s bidding against Israel during the Cold War was just as futile as doing Israel’s bidding in the Arab and Muslim world today. Egypt has no use for either alternative.

In the final analysis, in transitioning to a new political order, Egyptian leaders should take nothing into consideration except their country’s advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the motor of Egypt’s current transition is a non-violent populace. Furthermore, the opposition boasts internationally respected figures such as Amr Mousa and Mohammed El-Baradei. Finally, the increase in foreign direct investment in the past few years (it almost reached $10 billion last year) means that international entrepreneurs consider Egypt to be a good place to do business.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s structural weaknesses far outweigh its strengths: state control over the economy; a corrupt bureaucracy (a natural result of the previous problem); lack of upward social mobility (Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak had all come from humble backgrounds and had risen in society through education – no Egyptian born to modest circumstances has similar prospects today); 60 years of authoritarian government and lack of experience in democracy.

Addressing these problems should be at the top of the new Egyptian government’s agenda. Not the concerns of Turkey, Iran, or Israel. If Ankara, Tehran, and Jerusalem want to help Egypt, they can do so by minding their own business.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Protests in Egypt and Lessons from the Iranian Revolution


February 4, 2011

Reports are coming in from Egypt that counter-demonstrators sponsored by the government are attacking protesters demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Furthermore, the Egyptian government is blaming the protesters for disrupting food distribution across Cairo and other major cities, hoping to turn ordinary Egyptians against the protesters.

Historical lessons from the Iranian Revolution show why these, and several other Egyptian government policies, are all very bad ideas.

When protests had broken out in the city of Qom in January 1978, the Shah’s security forces had used lethal force against the protesters, killing a few. The following day, more protesters came out; security forces used lethal force again, killing even more civilians. Although the government was initially able to halt large demonstrations, forty days after the first riots, thousands poured into the street to commemorate the deaths. (Holding a memorial service forty days after someone’s death is a tradition in many Muslim countries.) In what came to be known as “forty-day cycles,” the number of demonstrators – and frequency of demonstrations – increased to the point that not a day went by without a mass protest in Iran in the summer of 1978.

Nevertheless, by August, it seemed that the Shah was still in control of the situation. But then a fire broke at Cinema Rex in the oil town of Abadan on the Persian Gulf on August 19, killing more than 400 people. It would turn out, after the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, that anti-regime militants had started the arson. But so many Iranians were fed up with the Shah and his heavy-handed methods in summer 1978 that they chose to blame his secret police, the SAVAK. The result? More protests and even more killings. In November 1978, the Shah chose General Gholam Reza Azhari to lead a military government and stem the tide. Two months later, the Shah fled Iran.

So, what does all this mean for Egypt?

First of all, it’s a horrible idea to pit one group of citizens against those demanding better living standards and democracy. Soon, the government-sponsored mob just might join the protesters.

Moreover, involving the Egyptian military in the political process is also dangerous. Few militaries are experienced in riot control. Trying to get the military to clamp down on protesters might result in bloodshed, something that Egypt has avoided so far.

To be sure, Egypt is not Iran. But the lesson from the Iranian Revolution is that more blood spilled means people becoming more violent in their resistance to the government. The Shah’s foolish policies had marginalized peaceful reformers and paved the way for uncompromising radicals. In Egypt, the largest political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has not yet responded to the events with violence. But that might change if violence becomes the only viable alternative to the current deadlock.

The lesson from Iran is that President Mubarak should walk away from this mess while his country still has democratic and peaceful alternatives. The Shah of Iran had left his country with none.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


The Protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East


January 31, 2011

The recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate this simple truth: Authoritarian governments that promise socioeconomic development at the expense of democracy become neither developed nor democratic. Some observers (especially former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) point to Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Singapore as successful cases where prioritizing political stability over freedom for the sake of economic growth has worked. But this approach also overlooks closed regimes’ structural problems such as waste, corruption, and poor decision-making in the absence of an effective opposition. For every Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore (which are reasonably democratic today and continue to grow economically), one can point to authoritarian countries that are still underdeveloped: Myanmar, Pakistan, and yes, Tunisia and Egypt.

In the absence of democracy, social turmoil can reverse authoritarian governments’ economic gains. When avenues to express legitimate grievances are closed off (especially free elections), citizens tend to express their anger more violently than they would in a democracy. Furthermore, restricting the opposition actually works against decision-makers in developing countries because it isolates them from much needed feedback, which could lead them to make poor decisions. Thus, democratic processes act as safety valves: if one political party fails to fulfill the people’s expectations, another party can step up to the plate.

Having said all that, how should we see the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the future of democracy in the Middle East? Some commentators remain skeptical – even cynical – about the likelihood of real political change coming to the region. Others seem cautiously optimistic, arguing that the protests may be the birth pangs of popular democracies in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, leaders in the region and around the world have interpreted the Tunisian and Egyptian protests to fit their own needs. Iranian officials have likened the protests to their Islamic Revolution, which is approaching its 32nd anniversary. The Iranian opposition, for its part, compares the events in Tunisia and Egypt to the protests that broke out in the aftermath of Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009. Juggling between his desire to protect a close U.S. ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and peaceful citizens demanding freedom and prosperity, U.S. President Barack Obama called upon the Egyptian government not to use force against the protestors.

Looking at this picture, we need to be realistic about the prospects of democratization in the Middle East. Current democracies in the region (Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey) have too many problems to address. Lebanon and Iraq still cannot overcome sectarian factionalism. Israel, for its part, continues to disenfranchise the nearly 5 million Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. And Turkey’s problems with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of the press are all too well-known.

None of this is to argue that there’s anything inherently undemocratic about Middle Eastern societies. But it is a fact that the struggle for democracy has been reversed in some Middle Eastern countries. Iran is a case in point. In others, such as Turkey, even after sixty years of free elections, democracy can still produce authoritarian governments without genuinely liberal alternatives.

Thus, the only thing we can do is to hope for the best for Tunisia, Egypt, and the Middle East while staying put for less-than-ideal scenarios.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).