Why Could Tunisia Do What Iran Cannot?

01/23/2011 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Farid Aichoune, a Tunisian journalist, wrote of the recent protests that "as in Iran last year, protesters set meeting places and exchanged information using social networks, less controllable, such as Facebook. That's when the movement takes on a scale with calls for a general strike, and especially the termination of the regime" (Le Nouvel Observateur, 13-19 January 2011). The question is, how has this Iranian model, which set an example to the Tunisians, so far failed to achieve its goal of deposing the despot as the Tunisian movement did?

Many reformists would argue the answer lies in the strength and brutality of Iranian security forces. This is wrong. Given the ratio of population in regard to casualties during the unrest, many more Tunisian has been killed than Iranians.

The answer should thus perhaps be sought by identifying the contradictory dynamics created in the movements. The protests in Iran began with a high level of participation, to the extent that in the first week of the protests, in Tehran alone, over three million people turned out. This gradually fizzled out. In Tunisia this pattern was reversed, as the protests started with a relatively low level of participation, but gradually became more widespread.

One way to explain this difference is through examining the leadership of both. The diverse leadership of the protests in Tunisia has been, from beginning to end, located outside of the regime. All its groups and leaders were thus challenging the structure itself. The reverse was true in Iran, where the political movement began as a response to the electoral coup, in which Mousavi (in his own words a conservative reformist, eslaah talabe osoolgeraa, and loyal to the regime and its founder ayatollah Khomeini) was usurped of his vote.

The spontaneous protest to this coup surprised Mousavi and Karoubi, who had not envisaged such public reaction. But their courageous refusal to accept the results and bow to the supreme leader provided demonstrators with the necessary cover to continue their protest. However, as soon as the demonstrators' initial demand of "where is my vote?" moved to challenge the entire regime itself, with new slogans like "death to the principle of Velayate Faqih" (rule of jurist) and "freedom, independence, Iranian republic" became common; these reformist leaders issued warnings against such goals. This disillusioned many of the demonstrators, who wanted to see nothing but the back of the regime. Mousavi and Khomeini went even further by suggesting a return to the "golden age of Khomeini" -- one of the darkest times in Iran's modern history.

Finally, as the people were preparing for another major protest on the anniversary of the electoral coup, Mousavi issued a statement asking them to stay home. He had been informed that the regime was preparing itself for a major massacre, and to prevent this he canceled a demonstration, which he himself had not organized in the first place. Thanks to the recent revelations from Wikileaks, we now know that the reason was interference from Rafsanjani, who suggests that Khamenei is suffering from leukemia, will not last long, and that in order to engineer his own succession needed a period of calm.

Thus, the protests in Tunisia, sparked by the self-immolation of university graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, were like the Iranian movement spontaneous and easily could tap into existing political discontent within Tunisian society. However, unlike Iran, its leadership was not part of an old guard who aimed to reform the system, but was located outside the regime. As much as the leadership of the movement in Iran had every interest to rein in the movement and pull it back from threatening the entire regime, the leaders of the protests in Tunisia had no interest in preserving the regime and every interest in challenging it. We might argue that the Achilles Heel of Iran's movement from day one has been its leadership.

Still, a question remains. Although it was vividly clear that the leadership of the Green movement in Iran did its best to quiet the movement, why have so many Iranians become silent? After all, the movement was initially both spontaneous and horizontally organized. Perhaps it is the fear which, through years, reformist intellectuals have been able to inflict upon many Iranians -- not a fear of the Guards, but the deeper fear of revolution. These intellectuals have crafted and monopolized a narrative of the 1979 revolution which has led many young people to believe that revolution was about fundamentalism, violence and dictatorship. They also have been able to convince the youth that social revolution always necessitates violence and that reform is always nonviolent; hence that nothing good can come out of revolution, and reform is the only way forward.

In order to create such a discourse, they have successfully falsified and manipulated facts about both social revolution in general and the Iranian revolution in particular. Very few Iranian youth, for example, are aware that the deposition of the Shah was followed by nearly thirty months of relative democracy, which came to its final death when a coup was successfully engineered against the new president, who refused to exchange his defense of freedom in return for greater power. All of today's reformists were active in this coup. Their silence can thus be understood, but should not be accepted, as Iranians in their everyday lives are paying an extremely high price for the falsification of the history of their revolution.