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Global Viewpoint

Will democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt heed lessons of Iran's revolution?

An exiled former president of Iran explains that an open future for the Arab world could mean the flowering of democracy – or resurgent dictatorship. To keep a new strongman from taking over, certain conditions must be met.

By Abolhassan Bani-Sadr / January 28, 2011


By removing a despot who was the main obstacle to democracy, the Tunisian revolt has immense importance for the Arab and Islamic world. Above all, it has opened up a future which, due to the iron grip of an authoritarian political system backed by European and Arab governments, had been considered closed.

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As we see already from the burgeoning demonstrations in Egypt, it is not lost on others in the region that ousting corrupt autocrats is no longer just an impossible dream. Tunisia’s message to others in the region is that despotism is not a lot in life to which they must submit. That message is spreading fast because the Tunisian democratic movement is legitimately homegrown and not tied to a Western sponsor, as was the case with the US invasion of Iraq.

As I well know from personal experience, however, an open future includes not only the possibility of democracy, but the possibility of resurgent dictatorship in one form or another.

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

In order to achieve democracy and diminish the prospect of a new strongman taking over, certain conditions have to be fulfilled.

Distance from old regimes and elites

First, the movement has to distance itself from the old regime and its elites. Revolutions only happen when the system is thoroughly dismantled and rebuilt. For now, the political and neo-liberal economic structures which supported Ben Ali’s dictatorship, although shaken and fragile, are to a large extent still intact. The same elites are still in charge.

From this perspective, it was a mistake for the movement to enter into negotiations to form a coalition government with the old elites. They can be trusted only when they voluntarily resign and allow themselves to be replaced by others elected by the people.

Second, the entire structure of the despotic regime – the executive, judiciary and legislative branches – should be revolutionized. It would be a mistake to limit the objectives of the movement to simply changing personalities.

The lack of experience on the part of ordinary people should not lead the movement to import elites from the former regime into the new government. My experience of the 1979 Iranian revolution taught me that in any department and ministry there are enough patriotic experts who are not tarnished by their association with the former regime and who are willing to play a constructive role in rebuilding the country. The fact that the existing elites have the lion’s share of the seats in government indicates that there is a serious shortcoming here. This gap has to be filled as soon as possible; otherwise, the elites of the ancien regime will reconstitute their power.

The people in the streets who toppled the regime should not think for a moment that their work is done, and that they can retire to their homes now and leave the rest to political organizations. On the contrary, they must make their presence felt in every corner of the country and at every layer of government, perhaps through the formation of local revolutionary councils.

People should stop looking for leaders to take over, and recognize that everyone can develop leadership skills in practice through taking responsibilities, engaging in debate and working with others in the movement.


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