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 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.

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.

Public space belongs to the people

In democracies, public space belongs to the people. Whenever they feel there are issues to be addressed, they must return to the streets. If people abandon the political space, it will inevitably be filled with power-oriented political organizations that will ultimately re-impose repressive practices.

Despite their many differences from secular to Islamist, political organizations should develop a common commitment to democratic values and the rights of individuals.

Any violation of these principles by the state, against even a single person or group, should be resisted by all.

The unfortunate lesson of the Iranian revolution was that most political organizations did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party, and were pushed aside.

In this first peaceful revolt of the 21st century in an Islamic country, Islamic intellectuals have an important role in identifying, developing, and introducing an Islamic discourse of freedom instead of power so that human dignity and rights are respected and defended for all regardless of religion or gender.

After the Iranian revolution, I protested against the show trials and executions of members of the former regime, arguing that those seeking power begin by violating the rights of those who have committed various crimes, but will ultimately violate the rights of the innocent.

The defense of the rights of all citizens must thus include the members of the old regime who are accused of crime and corruption. If the rights of these people are respected, then one can be sure that the rights of others will as well.

As we have seen (and may see further), those in power will resort to violence in order to impose themselves on society. They do so because they believe that people might compromise freedom in exchange for security, and thus become easy prey for a strong dictator or party.

Don't let revolutionary guards form

In order to neutralize the violence of such groups, any new government must resist the temptation to create its own revolutionary guard. If contemporary Iran is any indication, such organizations can all too easily morph into an econo-military mafia that becomes part and parcel of the new elite. The solution is rather to reorganize the existing forces of security so they are subject to civilian democracy and the rule of law.

The experience of Tunisia has shown that a revolution can succeed in overthrowing despotism without relying on a power-oriented Khomeini. When a social movement is spontaneous and horizontal, it has a far greater chance of achieving its goals.

But social revolution is an experiment, the path of which is strewn with obstacles at every turn. As such, it will require persistent struggle over many years, not just for a few weeks.

How 5 revolutions got their names

Now there is no turning back. That struggle will bring true democracy if those who made the revolution persist. If they fall back, strongmen are waiting in the wings to seize power out of the vacuum. Then, as in Iran, the people will have to start all over again to regain their freedom.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of Iran after the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979. He lives in exile outside Paris.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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