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    Middle East
     Nov 10, 2011

Arab Spring confounds Iran's opposition
By Mahan Abedin

A letter addressed to Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda (Renaissance), by former Iranian foreign minister and veteran opposition leader Ebrahim Yazdi reveals the extent to which Iran's opposition, in tandem with the ruling elites, views the Arab Spring from the vantage point of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Issued shortly after al-Nahda's victory in the Tunisian parliamentary elections of late October, in which the Islamist party secured 41% of the vote and 91 out of 217 seats in the national assembly, Yazdi's lectures al-Ghannushi that: "In Muslim countries once a set of despots have been overthrown, another set of despots immediately take their place. This is what happened in Iran."

Continuing with the patronizing tone Yazdi says: "Despite

struggling for fundamental rights, freedom and self-determination, we Muslims from any nationality lack sufficient experience with democracy. We struggle and overthrow dictators but we don't remove tyranny as a mode of governance and a way of life."

Ebrahim Yazdi is the leader of the Iran Freedom Movement, a small Islamic-nationalist grouping that traces its genealogy to the once formidable National Front. The Freedom Movement projects itself as the vanguard of the so-called religious-nationalist current in Iran, a marginal force that is at once supportive and critical of the Islamic Republic.

The Freedom Movement is widely seen as part of the non-official reformist current and hence loosely tied to the so-called Green Movement, which is itself a very loose grouping of disparate entities and individuals, whose only commonality is opposition to the ruling groups in Iran.

Despite the small and inconsequential nature of the Freedom Movement, Yazdi is viewed as a significant opposition figure who has spent the past three decades in and out of prison and other forms of detention.

His open letter to al-Ghannushi can be interpreted as official correspondence by the loyal opposition inside Iran with the triumphant forces of the Arab Spring. On the surface Yazdi's letter is high in rhetoric and low in substance. However, a deeper analysis reveals profound arrogance and ignorance on the part of Iranian opposition leaders, not dissimilar in both style and content to the rhetoric adopted by Iran's rulers.

The letter implicitly sets out the 1979 Iranian revolution as the original model of the various revolutions, semi-revolutions and armed revolts that have broken out across the Arab world since December 2010. It is from this vantage point that Yazdi - who played a key role in the Iranian revolution - sees fit to lecture a leading Arab Islamist and a veteran political activist.

Moreover, Yazdi's letter makes a direct equivalence between Iran's Islamist experience since 1979 and the potential Islamist direction of Arab countries in the wake of the Arab Spring, as evidenced by al-Nahda's significant electoral victory.

On both counts Yazdi has adopted both the rhetoric and the conceptual model of Iran's rulers, albeit for opposing political goals. Iran's rulers claim that the Arab Spring is a delayed result of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Moreover, they have conceptualized the region-wide political convulsions as an "Islamic Awakening", whose underlying ethos and goals are similar to the Islamic Republic.

As the author argued in Embattled Iran on ideological offensive (Asia Times Online, October 21) one of the main problems with the Islamic Awakening discourse is that it lends itself to rhetorical exploitation and grandstanding. Indeed, to underline this point the Basij paramilitary force has set up a website characterizing the Occupy Wall Street movement in America and similar social movements across the Western world as part of the putative Islamic Awakening movement. [1]

Similar to the misconception and misunderstanding of Iran's rulers, Yazdi appears to have the wrong idea about the nature of the Islamist movements that are coming to the fore in the Arab world. More to the point, he appears to have little knowledge about the evolution of these movements since the 1980s and the vast experiences they have accumulated in the process.

Tunisia's al-Nahda party may be an outlier in so far as Tunisia is one of the most socio-politically sophisticated countries in the Arab world. In an interview with the author in late January - only a day before he returned to his homeland following Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's ouster - Rashid al-Ghannushi set out a spirited defense of his innovative ideas, which may be characterized as "liberal" Islamism. [2]

But in so far as Arab Islamists are concerned al-Nahda is a useful case study inasmuch as it is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. The party remains faithful to core Brotherhood ideas and methods, including grassroots Islamization and the gradual ethical, moral and ultimately structural reform of society.

This contrasts with Iran's Islamic revolutionary experience which imposed sudden Islamization on society in the early 1980s without preparing the masses for these sweeping changes. Moreover, the Islamic Revolution completely overthrew the old order and set about creating a new state and a new political society virtually from scratch.

The Muslim Brotherhood in its multitude forms and incarnations fundamentally rejects sweeping political changes and instead of aspiring to overthrow the state, resolves to reform it over a very long period. To summarize, Iran's Islamic revolutionaries are by definition political radicals whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially conservative.

But the differences become wider still considering the recent experience of the Arab Islamist movements, in particular their close association with trade unions and other grassroots associations.

Broadly speaking, the Arab Islamist movements are politically and intellectually committed to democracy. Combined with wider political and strategic dynamics, the notion that these movements would undertake intrusive Islamization and the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic state is simply out of the question.

However, these movements have yet to successfully grapple with their ideological dilemma. The essence of their ideology commits them to the creation of a pan-Islamic state, if not a fully-fledged caliphate. It also commits them to introducing the Islamic sharia as the basis of legislation and the general ordering of state and society.

While these goals are not necessarily inimical to democracy, they are not harmonious with it either. The Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots can legitimately claim to be democratic in spirit once they have resolved this ideological contradiction.

It remains to be seen if Tunisia's al-Nahda can lead the way in this torturous ideological struggle by creating the right political conditions for the efflorescence of debate.

The outcome is likely to be as different to Iran's maximum Islamic model as it will be to Turkey's "Islam-lite" spearheaded by the ruling Justice and Development Party. The Arab world is grappling with a wide range of unique political and socio-economic problems that firmly set it apart from both Iran and Turkey.

If it is problematic for Iran's rulers to appropriate the Arab Spring as an Islamic Awakening, then it is equally problematic for Iran's opposition to model Arab social movements on Iranian ones and claim mutual reciprocity in terms of ideas and methods.

Instead of lecturing Arabs, Iranian rulers and opposition alike would do well to undertake a deeper analysis of the region-wide shift in ideas and political power.

1. See here.
2. See here.

Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.

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