Interview: Egypt and Tunisia won’t follow Iran

A lot of people are wondering what will happen next in the Middle East, as new governments emerge in Egypt and Tunisia and other countries face social uprisings. Alarmingly, some have expressed fears that we may see a repeat of Iran-1979.

To get some expert perspective, I spoke to Misagh Parsa, a professor at Dartmouth College. Originally from Iran, Dr. Parsa is an authority on the sociology of modern revolutions. He is the author of the book Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution and has taught a course on 20th century revolutions at Dartmouth for a number of years.

Parsa believes there are fundamental differences between the Arab revolutions of 2011 and the Iranian revolution of 1979. The prospect of fundamentalist groups taking power and creating new Islamic republics is negligible. Moreover, the Islamic Republic in Iran is more fragile than many people in the West realize. The hardliners who run the country will almost certainly lose power if they don’t make dramatic reforms.

Below are some key (paraphrased) excerpts from my interview with Dr. Parsa:

  • There are several differences between Egypt/Tunisia-2011 and Iran-1979. First, the Egyptians and Tunisians were able to organize secularly to protest against the regimes, partly due to the networking opportunities afforded by social media. The Iranian revolutionaries of 1979 had to rally through the mosques because these were the only channels of communication that the Shah’s regime did not dominate.
  • As a result, it was the clergy that dictated the revolution in Iran (and truly, only a small faction of the clergy, led by Ayatollah Khomeini). Khomeini was the leader and he made vague promises about liberty and democracy that turned out to be lies.
  • Today, people have access to more information via social media and other channels. It would be hard for Islamic groups to manipulate the Arab revolutions. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood is not nearly as fundamentalist as were the Iranian clerics.

I asked Dr. Parsa if Iran is ripe for another revolution. “If the regime does not change drastically, it will be overthrown, although it is impossible to predict the timing,” he said, adding the government is deeply unpopular and its “Islamic Republic” ideology is completely discredited. A survey in 2000 reported that 75% of Iranians (and 86% of young people) do not say their daily prayers! These are incredible numbers.

Parsa also stressed economic factors helped fuel this year’s uprisings. Across the region, people have stood up, not in support of ideologies, but in protest of economic conditions that have made their lives more difficult in the last few years. Rising food prices have placed a lot of pressure on the budgets of low-income families. The global recession has resulted in declines in exports and of remittances from expatriate workers. Finally, foreign capital inflows to many Middle East countries fell in the last few years.

So, rather than speculate on the possibility of new Islamic republics, it seems the more compelling question for now is how well the new governments will be at implementing reforms to make their economies more competitive. Although the focus now will be on political transitions, the economic circumstances in these countries suggest it won’t be long before new governments fall under pressure to deliver the goods.

Written by David Gates for Emerging Markets Blog

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