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Why Iran is different from Egypt

By Arash Falasiri - posted Monday, 28 February 2011

If one is to compare what happened in Egypt and what is happening in Iran in terms of social disobedience and people's demand for democracy, it is inevitable to consider the differences of the two situations even more than their similarities.

Although Hosni Mubarak's downfall was not, by any means, a low cost event for Egyptians, it seems that Iranians have paid much more since June 2009, but have achieved less. In Iran, the official number of people who were killed during the past twenty months, including the three recently killed protestors, has reached forty four. Also, the number of detained opposition-members has dramatically increased to two thousand. These numbers provided by the Iran regime, however, are seriously challenged by many journalists, backed up by strong evidence. According to Amnesty International andHuman Rights Watch, Iran has the highest rate of execution as well as the highest number of detained journalists; surpassing even China.

Although Iran's government faces a crisis since last presidential election because of the challenge to its legitimacy and though tension is getting worse between the civil society and the state, most Iranians, including opposition leaders, foresee a long struggle before democracy is achieved. On one hand, there are similarities between Mubarak's tactic to suppress protestors and that of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, the Egyptian success in less than a month as opposed to Iranian resistance since 2009 without a significant outcome is evident of the differences between these two cases.


Mubarak's move to cut off the Internet service for a few days is only a small taste for Egyptians of what their counterparts in Iran have experienced for months now. The brutal reaction by the paramilitia, Basij, against protestors in Iran is far beyond that what happened in Egypt. Although these factors might demonstrate some of the differences between what it is called "civil society versus dictators in the region", there are other crucial characteristics that distinguish Iran's conditions from both Egypt and Tunisia. To fully understand the situation one should note that there are both interior and exterior differences that allow Iran's Islamic state to continue its behavior.

As will be noted below, the nature of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran is different from the Egyptian Army. Furthermore, Iran's vast fossil fuel resources provide the state with a superior position from which to reject people's demands for freedom more strongly. The absence of foreign media representatives in Iran assists the Islamic regime to suppress people without the rest of the world witnessing it.

If the above elements are to be conceived as the interior conditions that differentiate the events in Egypt and Iran, the United Nations' sanctions on Iran should be seen as the exterior factors. As I have argued in another article, the UN's sanctions on the Iranian Islamic regime's nuclear ambitions have situated the Iranian civil society in a very fragile position and even have come to the help of the regime's decision makers. Maintenance of its nuclear ambitions is possible for the Islamic regime since Iran has access to the second large resources of gas and third large oil resources in the world.

In order to comprehend one of the major differences between the two countries, it is necessary to consider the dissimilarity between Egyptian Army and Revolutionary Guard in Iran. Although Iran traditionally had a powerful army, immediately after the revolution in 1979, Khomeini decided to confine the Iranian army's power in favor of his new Revolutionary Guards.

It is suggested by many experts that while the Shah invested enormously in the army, he believed that his downfall was due to the army's reluctance and betrayal. Immediately after the Revolution the Islamic regime's ideological apparatus forced Iran's Army to adjust itself to the new structure. However, in Khomeini's perspective, since Army is considered as a secular based entity it was not reliable for defending the Islamic Revolution. Thus, he ordered establishment of a more reliable force to protect the Islamic values, namely the Revolutionary Guard. Its essential mission, though, as Khomeini clearly declared, is to save the Islamic Revolution regardless of any costs.

Although the Revolutionary Guard has always played a significant role throughout the last three decades, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration is known for the total occupation of all socio-political sectors by this militia phenomenon. Ahmadinejad and almost all ministers of his cabinet are members of the Revolutionary Guard, and this gives evidence, as the opposition argues, that Iran is shifting from a theocratic dictatorship to a military one. This change has occurred through strong support from the Supreme Leader whose position and legitimacy have faced enormous criticism during the last few months. Since the emergence of social disobedience and the Green Movement, in June 2009, the Islamic regime increased the budget of the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitia force by two hundred percent.


The oil revenue plays a crucial role in allowing the Iranian Islamic regime to completely ignore the people's demands. This is the same narrative for most of the dictators in the region who do not need tax revenue and therefore have no desire to develop a mutual relationship with the society. Although Mubarak acted in the same way, the Egyptian Army needs to be supported financially by the West. This is clearly not the case for Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Therefore, the Revolutionary Guards react brutally, suppress public demands and easily expel foreign journalists from Iran. This is one of the main reasons for the opposition leaders' claim that the path to democracy in Iran will take longer than that of Egypt. The differences between the two countries, however, do not end here.

The main difference of an exterior nature in this context is the UN's sanctions on Iran. Although it might seem to accomplish the opposite of what they aimed to do, western countries in general, and United States' policy in particular, bestowed on the Islamic regime a unique opportunity to follow its ambitions and continue its brutality. On one hand, they sanctioned Iran in order to influence the Islamic regime's nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, contrary to what the western leaders claim, since these sanctions do not target the real power in Iran - the Supreme Leader and decision makers - their outcomes cause more pressure on people's ordinary lives and produce economic difficulties within the civil society.

Furthermore, the Islamic regime's infringe of human rights has never been seriously discussed by western leaders. These deficiencies have been suggested and articulated by both activists and experts but are ignored thus far by western leaders. Interestingly, the ideological state apparatus of the regime has achieved a unique situation to show its anti-western propaganda even more convincingly to it supporters. At the same time, the opposition movement suffers both from inside suppression and serious ignorance from outside. These are the major differences in the case of Iran and Egypt. However, these differences do not imply that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt will not occur in Iran again.

There are many socio-historical evidences to suggest that what is happening in Iran today is part of a long chain of social movements in a country that experienced two revolutions within a century: the Constitutional Revolution in 1905 and the Islamic one in 1979. During the last two decades, the Reformist Movement was followed by the Student Movement, but both failed to achieve democratic values as a result of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard's extremely repressive reactions. The Green Movement seems to have more potential to bridge between those failed experiences and its democratic goals. On one hand, this movement is more widespread and it includes different social stratums. On the other hand, its insistence on democratic values is the evidence of its democracy-seeking nature. However, such the achievement of democratic values requires that both Iran's civil society and the rest of the world co-operate in a coherent manner. Iran is not Egypt, this is clear as day, and this indicates that the Iranian regime does not need to take heed of the world's concerns nor its own people.

Mubarak, like the Shah in 1979, was willing to stay power as long as possible in power but both interior and exterior situations forced him to accept the reality and thus to step down. So far, this has not been the case in Islamic Iran. Perhaps it is necessary for these two sides to converge and force the fundamentalists of the region into a more fragile condition. This will not happen if the remaining missing link fails to be realized; that is the situation of human rights.

As long as the rest of the world's economy continue to rely on the Middle East's oil and the human right violations are not addressed, the situation will remain the same. The Middle East is not just a source of oil, it is the stage for the realization of many people's dreams and hopes.

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About the Author

Arash Falasiri is studying philosophy at Sydney University and has been journalist for more than 12 years in Iran. Arash also won the national prize of the best journalist of year in 2001.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Arash Falasiri

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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