John Hughes

Will Arab world’s freedom wave reach Iran or China?

Both Beijing and Tehran are reacting defensively, seeking to silence pro-democracy protesters and retain totalitarian control.

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Is the democracy movement sweeping through the Middle East a purely Arab phenomenon or could it reach dictatorships in non-Arab lands?

That possibility clearly worries the two nations most consequential to the United States: China (for its burgeoning economy and military buildup) and Iran (for its potential nuclear threat). Both are reacting defensively, seeking to silence pro-democracy protesters and retain totalitarian control.

China has used Internet firewalls to censor news of the pro-democracy turmoil in the Middle East. But technology has made international borders porous. So Chinese citizens have deftly maneuvered around banned social media sites like Twitter to demonstrate for change in a nation whose communist government is obdurate in thwarting it. Thus in late February they went national with a call for a “Jasmine Revolution,” beginning in major Chinese cities, to be followed with nonviolent processions and marches each Sunday thereafter.

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If government incompetence and corruption were two of the protesters’ targets, the government showed that the efficiency of its security forces in preventing such demonstrations remains undiminished. Legions of police were on the streets to stop crowds assembling. Plainclothes officers arrested protest planners, prevented others from leaving their homes, and warned Chinese journalists against covering the protests. Foreign journalists were similarly warned to stay away from “no reporting” zones. Some had their homes and offices staked out to inhibit their movement.

But a Chinese government made nervous by the democracy tsunami in the Arab world may also be planning to temper coercion with incentives and economic reforms. The latest five-year plan seeks to increase wages and improve living conditions, not only for the peasant farmers who scratch a living from the soil, but also for the emerging middle class, which has become more vocal in its concerns over quality-of-life issues.

The Islamic, but non-Arab, nation of Iran has been dealing harshly with Iranian citizens emboldened by events in the Arab world to seek political change in their country. Skirmishes have taken place in cities like Mashhad, Shiraz, Kermanshah, and Isfahan as well as in the capital, Tehran. Al Jazeera reports that security forces in Tehran have used tear gas, pepper spray, and batons against protesters, sending dozens to the hospital.

Demonstrators were particularly angered by the disappearance of the two main opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who, reports suggest, are under house arrest or in prison.

The Paris-based People’s Mojahedin Organization, an antigovernment force of exiled Iranian dissidents with sources inside Iran, reported that the regime planned to mobilize 15,000 members of the Basij paramilitary forces to suppress demonstrations in Tehran. These are the motorcycle-riding, baton-wielding government agents who have been captured on TV in earlier rallies slashing at protesters.

Ironically, the Tehran regime initially praised Egyptian pro-democracy crowds whose efforts toppled the Mubarak regime. But when Iranians started chanting “Death to the Dictator” and burning pictures of their own “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei, the ruling regime returned to brutal suppression of the Iranian freedom-seekers.

People-powered democratic revolts – do they last?

With the end of the cold war, the world saw the most sweeping wave of democratization in our times. By the 1990s, about half of the world’s population lived in a democracy of some sort. But in the past few years there has been a disappointing decline in global democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which tracks these movements, has pointed to entrenched authoritarianism in the Middle East, in much of the former Soviet Union, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in some of Latin America.

Dare we hope that what is taking place in the Arab world will trigger a new wave of freedom in nations beyond, where dictatorial regimes hold their peoples in bondage?

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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