Why can Tunisians achieve what Iranians couldn’t?

Ever since Tunisians successfully ousted their dictatorial and kleptocratic President Ben Ali after 23 years of his oppressive rule after just one month of protests in December 2010 and January 2011, people have been asking: “Why can Tunisians achieve what Iranians couldn’t in 2009?”

Not having been to Tunisia (but having been part of the protests in Iran in the summer of 2009) and believing that personal experience is a very underestimated research tool

"Please, feel free to copy us."

international politics, I am reluctant to compare the situation in two quite different countries. But the following are a few thoughts that come to mind:

  • Tunisia is a small country with 10 million people, whereas Iran encompasses a huge area with 76 million people. (This argument will be void however if Egyptians will succeed to oust Hosni Mubarak.)
  • On average, Tunisians might be more and better educated as Iranians. Tunisia has been investing heavily in higher education and is widely credited for good results in this sector. Iran, on the other hand, sees education mainly as a threat to Islamic values and its power and has thus been cracking down on education and academia.
  • Facing large protest in June 2009, the Iranian government did not make the same “mistake” as the Tunisian one: In Iran, no concessions were made, neither political, nor social, nor economical. Concessions by an embattled government seem to embolden the protesters even more.
  • President Ben Ali of Tunisia gave up. After just one month of protests, he decided to pack his gear and start a new life in exile. The Iranian government, in contrast, remained steadfast and it was the bulk of Iranian protesters who gave up very quickly once the crackdown became brutal around 20 June 2009.
  • Tunisia was basically ruled by one clan. In Iran however, the government does have some basis of support, for one among clerics and very religious Muslims, and also among the bloated number of civilian and para-military government employees who see their economic future tied to this particular government.

But one rather embarrassing difference was clarified again these days by the figureheads of the opposition in Iran, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, themselves:

If you are a dictator, that’s the kind of opposition you can live with: “Please Mr Dictator, can we protest a bit?” Do these gentlemen not know that Tunisians and Egyptians did not ask for permission, but have been defying curfews and bravely facing beatings and bullets? Asking a brutal, oppressive regime for permission to protest against it is already embarrassing enough, but then even asking for a guarantee of non-violence from the dictatorship that you wish to oust clearly displays the timidity which is one of the reasons why the Iranian protests crumbled. (In another post I point to an Iranian Nobel laureate as a further prominent example of this disheartenment.)

If there is one generalisable lesson from successful revolutions throughout history and around the world, it is this: Courage is a necessary ingredient. If you are not willing to risk anything, the dictator won’t need to budge.

To those of us who have been looking at Tunis and Cairo with the hope for a revival of the Green Movement in Iran: I am afraid we can stop holding our breath.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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14 Responses to Why can Tunisians achieve what Iranians couldn’t?

  1. John Erickson says:

    Lacking specific knowledge, I’ll ask you, Andreas. How much of a military does Tunisia have? (Yes, I’m the military historian, shame on me for not knowing!) The Iranians have a rather large, and highly politicised, army to control any civil “unrest”. I’m not familiar with Tunisia’s military structure, but Iran has the Revolutionary Guard, tied directly to the clerical leadership of the country, to wield as a suppressive against protest. (If you don’t know, not a problem, I can go look up the Tunisian armies’ stats.) If I recall correctly, Tunisia didn’t suffer the excesses of a character like the late Shah of Iran, who gave his people plenty of reasons to dislike his progressive, pro-US government. These are just 2 points that popped to mind while I read your post. And an excellent write-up of the situation it is – congratulations!

    • antonio says:

      I’m sorry John, you think progress is a reason to dislike a leader? You think educating people by introducing the first Universities and schooling for the mass, providing hospitals and care, improving countries economy is a reason to hate the Pahlavi? It’s the stupid people who opposed it that are in power now. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

    • While I welcome and encourage any discussion about the reasons for the 1979 revolution in Iran (I am actually planning to write a piece soon about why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979), I would ask that the tone remains civil. We can have different experiences, different opinions, different interpretations of events, different knowledge, but we don’t want to use sentences like “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.” Thanks for your understanding!

      And on your substantial point, I think most Iranians agree that in retrospect the Shah’s rule was much more preferable to anything that came afterwards. But it was obviously disliked enough at the time that it warranted a revolution (with most of those taking part not necessarily wishing for an Islamic state).

    • John Erickson says:

      Antonio- I do not think progress is wrong or hateful. But pushing people too fast into that progress can, and did in Iran, cause unrest among the conservative areas of the population. Look at the US – everybody agrees that universal health care (like education of women in Iran) is a good thing. The conservative side of US politics, however, is fighting tooth and nail against implementation of what they are describing as “socialism”. And I think you would agree that the Shah had FAR more wealth than a civil servant in his position should – far more than could be legally, or reasonably, extracted from the public. The poor in Venezuela love Hugo Chavez because he is making their lives better – a noble cause. Yet he is stealing middle and upper class peoples’ properties, and nationalising foreign owned companies. Is this good? Is his constant silencing of dissent (a la Egypt) a noble thing? Not everyone in the world wants the same thing. Western Europe’s level of (or lack of) laws concerning personal rights are seen as blasphemous among many Arab countries.
      Perhaps I should have worded my first post a bit better. I have the advantage of over 4 decades of world affairs studies and life experiences, and I tend to forget from time to time that not everyone I communicate with has those benefits. I will happily debate world views with you, but I would prefer, as Andreas has asked, that we stick to facts, and leave the personal insults to the American TV pundits who often know FAR less than most of us.

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  3. jcdurbant says:

    “But one rather embarrassing difference was clarified again these days by the figureheads of the opposition in Iran, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, themselves:These Iranian opposition leaders have asked the Iranian government for a permission to protest.”(…) If you are a dictator, that’s the kind of opposition you can live with: “Please Mr Dictator, can we protest a bit?”

    Merci, contre toutes les âneries qu’on a pu entendre, de cette nouvelle confirmation de la nature essentiellement bidon du Mouvement vert …


    Pendant que, dans la plus grande indifférence, la vraie révolution qui seule osait crier “Mort à la République islamique” était elle écrasée …


  4. odysiuss says:

    i think Iran have to think of some new strategy than the one taken in summer 2009 , and yes Andreas this argument is void since the Egyptians managed to overthrow Mubarak and they did .
    now ,regarding who has more weapons than who , Tunisia or Iran ?
    i assume both countries are not even close enough to the policized regime in Egypt and yet the people said their word and took a stand for it ,and let this be a clear message to all the dictators in the world.

  5. The idea that Iran opposes education is ridiculous nonsense. Iranians are no far better educated than ever, and literacy rates have skyrocketted since the revolution, and more than 60% of university students are female. There was no “Spring” in Iran because Iran’s government is simply not comparable to Tunisia’s — multiple polls by US organizations showed that the people of Iran had in fact voted for Ahmadinejad, and there was no “election rigging”. That’s why the people in Iran aren’t toppling the regime- they mostly support it. Hard fact to accept.

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  8. Arweelo says:

    Maybe…just maybe, the majority of Iranians are satisfied with their goverment and only want some refom and not a collapse of their gov’t.

    I know, with the propaganda the West spews and the complaints of the Shah-loving Iranians this is hard to believe, but try talking to normal everyday Iranians and see what they want. They want reform, NOT a revolution. They already had their revolution 30 yrs ago before the Arab world.

  9. Arweelo says:

    ” That’s why the people in Iran aren’t toppling the regime- they mostly support it. Hard fact to accept.”

    It is very hard for most Westerners to accept.

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