Iran Election Guide

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Protest Special: Why Tunisia Can But Iran Can't (Eshraghi)

Ali Reza Eshraghi writes for Mianeh:

The surprising rapidity with which Tunisians unseated President Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali has been watched keenly in Iran, not least by the political opposition known as the Green Movement.

As Iranian blogs and Facebook messages abound with the punning phrase, “Tounes tounes, Iran na-tounes” –-- meaning “Tunisia could, Iran couldn’t” --- there has also been sober reflection on why this was the case; why the massive protests that followed the disputed presidential election of June 2009 came to nothing in the end.

At the same time as economic hardship sparked riots in Tunisia, Iran remained almost eerily calm in the wake of increases in the cost of fuel, bread, water, gas and other essentials, as the Ahmadinejad administration launched a programme of cuts to Iran’s large and costly system of subsidies. (See: Muted Response to Iranian Subsidy Cuts.) [Editor's Note: For a brief alternative to this point of view, see the opening entry in our updates today.]

The Bolivian government began a similar subsidy-elimination programme at around at the same time as Iran, but was rapidly forced to retreat in the face of wide-scale protests.

The lack of protests surprised even the Iranian government, which had stationed police on the streets in anticipation of trouble. In Tehran, the hub of the 2009 demonstrations, people simple began economising. The only visible public reaction took the form of long queues at ATM machines as people rushed to withdraw the money the government had placed in their accounts as partial compensation for the subsidy cuts.

Aspects of the Tunisian uprising are strongly reminiscent of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Both countries had secular, western-backed governments at the time, and both revolutions occurred when the United States had a Democrat president who was concerned about human rights issues.

Tunisia’s revolution also resembles the Iranian Constitutional Revolution which began in 1905 and was the first of its kind in the Middle East.

The Constitutional Revolution was sparked by the public flogging of bazaar merchants accused of hiking sugar prices. In Tunisia, the protests took off after Mohamed Bouazizi, a college graduate who had turned to street vending because he could not find other work, set himself on fire in protest when the police confiscated his cart.

There are many valid comparisons to be drawn between the economic situations in Iran and Tunisia as motors for protest.

In Iran, the situation is arguably worse on all fronts. For a start, economic sanctions have made life harder for both ordinary citizens and the private sector.

The economic growth rate is close to zero, compared with Tunisia’s, estimated at over three per cent for 2010. If Tunisian inflation stood at about 3.5 per cent, consumer prices in Iran have been rising at double-digit rates for the past several years. The central bank in Tehran claims a rate of just under ten per cent for 2010, although parliamentary researchers disagree; and in any case, inflation is likely to rise even faster as price subsidies come to an end this year.

Official figures from Tehran suggest that the unemployment rate, at about 15 per cent of the working-age population, is roughly similar to conditions in Tunisia, although unofficial Iranian sources say the figure is much higher.

Finally, the percentage of Iranians living under the poverty line is between 18 and 25 per cent, compared with 7.4 per cent of Tunisians, and there are plenty of university graduates like Bouazizi doing any work they can find – in the Iranian context, typically driving taxis.

Another important difference is that unlike the unpopular Ben Ali, President Ahmadinejad draws significant voter support from the poorer sections of society. At the very least, his administration can count on the backing of five million people who are Basiji volunteers and their family members. Even Green Movement leaders who insist the 2009 poll was rigged accept that Ahmadinejad won between 30 and 40 per cent of the vote.

During the 2009 election campaign, all of Ahmadinejad’s rivals attacked him on the economic front. Opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi accused him of distorting economic statistics so much and of having a poorer grasp of inflation than his, Karroubi’s, own mother.

Yet Green Movement leaders were unable to translate their concerns into the kind of language that persuade ordinary voters to back them in large numbers.

The truth is that many of the mothers Karroubi joked about actually voted for Ahmadinejad. This was not because they were misled; they simply looked at the way things were and decided their best interests lay in government cash handouts rather than in promises of structural change.

In the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, there have been only a handful of localised urban protests over economic matters, and they have never spread. Every once in a while, there is news of a strike over unpaid wages at some plant, but not once – even at the height of the 2009 post-election protests – did industrial unrest escalate into nationwide strikes. (See Opposition Fails to Organise Strikes.)

Last year, the influential merchant class of the Tehran bazaar stopped work in protest at taxation changes, but once again there were no public expressions of sympathy from other groups.

Even a recent “political” suicide in Iran, that of a man who set himself on fire outside parliament in 2008 in protest at his inability to find work, passed largely unnoticed – in stark contrast to Bouzizi’s death. The talk in the Iranian media centred on whether the man really was a veteran of the war with Iraq as he claimed, or a drug addict.

The nature of leadership and the complexity of the state system differ sharply from Tunisia to Iran.

The initial violent crackdown on protests in Tunisia mirrored the Iranian authorities’ actions after the 2009 election; and the figure of 70 deaths is roughly comparable with the number the Green Movement claimed then. But while Iranian leaders showed (and still show) that they have the resolve to crush their opponents, President Ben Ali began retreating step by step, dismissing Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, then apologising for the bloodshed. Before fleeing the country, he told protesters, “I understand you!” – words that recall the Shah’s words prior to fleeing Iran in 1979, “I have heard the sound of your revolution.”

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