The “Arab Spring” — Romania, Egypt, and Iran

Screencap from Al Jazeera.

Jacqueline Head has an article on the English language Al Jazeera today that poses the question of whether the Arab world is experiencing an “Arab Spring” comparable to the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989.

It may sound ridiculous, but I consider that 1989 European revolution the most important turning point in my life. I’d never been to Eastern Europe. I was 21 years old. Already fascinated by Eastern Europe, studying German history at UC Santa Cruz, I felt an attachment to the struggles of Eastern Europeans. I also felt quite confident that the Soviet-U.S. struggle would spell the end of humanity. True to my pessimistic nature — and a 21-year-old’s sense of drama — I figured I, like the rest of you sad mopes, had about five to ten years if we were lucky.

A few days before Christmas — 22 December 1989 — I heard the news reports of the slaughter in Timişoara, Romania as the citizens tried to force the dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, from power.

Romania was one of the last holdouts of Communist Europe, and news reports escalated until it was claimed that 64,000 Romanians were slaughtered by the dictator’s regime. I parked my car on El Camino Boulevard and wept. I felt that Romanian president Ceauşescu’s slaughter of his people could conceivably prevent this revolution that promised to undo the nuclear doom hanging over all of us.

It represented something to me. The victory of hate over not love, but life. Theft over honesty. Murder over fairness. It was Bergen-Belsen all over again.

I tended to overstate things when I was 21; I was the dramatic type. Thankfully, much has changed.

It turns out that 64,000 figure in Romania was ridiculously inaccurate. The world did disintegrate, but not in the way I most feared. Read the Wikipedia page of the slaughter that occurred at Timişoara, and it reads like an apologist’s account.

I have no idea how big the body count was at Timişoara. I’ve still never been to Romania. It seems like the body count at Timişoara could have been zero for all I know or care — but in fact, I know it wasn’t. It still represents something.

Whatever misinformation came out of Romania, the sacrifices of Romanians (many of whom were ethnic Hungarians) at Timişoara don’t deserve to be dismissed as unimportant or overstated, any more than the tragedies now occurring in Egypt should be dismissed as an uppity populace the way too many Americans are doing.

Anyone who pretends, at this point, that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is anything better than a dictator is either woefully misinformed, a hopeless ass-licker or possessed of his or her own political agenda. They’re as ludicrous as the hard-liners who still defend Ceauşescu.

Marking a clear end to the Cold War, the European upheaval of 1989 changed the world so radically that nobody — and I mean nobody — ultimately foresaw it. Oh, don’t get me wrong; people saw pieces of the 1989 European revolutions, but nobody guessed that the Eastern Bloc would just plain crumble — paving the way for a 2011 that is politically as different from the world of 1985 as it is from the world of 1938.

To hear Jacqueline Head tell it — and she’s not the only one to voice this idea — the Arab world may be going through revolution of similar proportions. The “ripple effect” is changing the ideological and economic map of the Middle East. Tunisia has a new government. Lebanon is undergoing a major revolution that Nicholas Noe, writing in a New York Times op-ed, posits will torpedo any American dreams of creating a pro-American Middle East. Meanwhile, trying to head Egyptian-style protests off at the pass, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh said he will not be extending his term and will not pass the reins of power to his son. The Jordanian King dismissed his government.

But what are Arabs rebelling against? Do most Americans even have the faintest conception of it? Or do most of us believe that this is an Islamist revolution in the style of Iran’s 1979 revolution — meaning there is the real danger of a rabidly anti-American fundamentalist Islamist regime taking over in Egypt?

‘Cause that’s what all the nut jobs are saying — obsessively, without a lot of understanding to back up their claims. Most sensible Western analysts just seem confused — nobody’s sure what’s going to happen in Egypt.

Meanwhile, I get the distinct sense that the Israelis are trying hard to whip up anti-Islamist paranoia in the West, not merely to prevent the possibility of a doggedly anti-Israeli group seizing power in Egypt, but to strengthen Israel’s strategic position overall on the world stage. Hey, who can blame ’em? Spreading misinformation is one of the many things Israel does damned well, and the Israelis have their own fish to fry.

But in fact, if you’re going to compare the uprisings in Egypt to anything in Iran, the parallels should be to the 1953 coup, where the Shah of Iran (already Iran’s nominal leader) overthrew the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh under the prodding of and with the help of the CIA and British Intelligence for the benefit of private oil interests and in order to secure Iran’s strategic oil reserves to prevent the Soviets from getting them — at least, that was the reasoning in the Eisenhower administration.

In reality, the ’53 coup had more to do with the relationship between Iran’s oil industry and the British, who had secured oil rights that, the Iranians felt, too heavily favored the British. Mosaddegh, a secular socialist and Iranian nationalist, was a national hero and had the broad support of the Iranian people. For Reza-Mohammed Pahlavi, a weak leader with no broad support, to take power was, in the context of the 1953 Iranian political scene, bizarre. So bizarre in fact, that all the way to his death under house arrest, Mosaddegh still seemed rather stunned that it had really happened.

Plenty of Americans have never heard of that 1953 coup, or disregarded as just another one of those dumb third-world coups journalists occasionally refer to — as opposed to the 1979 revolution, which sticks in America’s mind because of the hostage crisis, and because it launched an enduring anti-American regime.

At the time of the 1953 coup, the Shah was Iran’s nominal leader because the Soviets and British invaded Iran in 1941 after his father joined World War II on the side of the Axis. The British and Soviets deposed his father and put him in power, and worked out a strange, mutually wary power-sharing agreement, which was essentially a truce between Soviet communist imperialism and British capitalist imperialism. They glared at each other over Iran for the duration of the war, but the Shah — an indecisive, confused, and well-out-of-his-depth leader — leaned more toward Britain after the war.

Mohammed Mosaddeq, on the other hand, was an Iranian nationalist and wasn’t interested in letting his nation be a pawn in the Great Game between Britain and Russia, or in handing over its oil resources to the British without benefit to the Iranian people. Did that mean he leaned more toward the Soviets than the British? If that’s what the Eisenhower administration thought, it was a weak-ass argument — an excuse at best. If Mosaddeq was playing footsie with the Soviets, it was for the sake of practicality, pluralism, and Realpolitik. In the eyes of U.S. foreign policy, that was a hanging offense in 1953. But the REAL reason Mosaddeq was overthrown was because private British petroleum magnates wanted to hold on to their sweetheart deal to get Iran’s oil, and the U.S. wanted to establish itself as the de facto partner, rather than the British.

After the coup, Iran slipped from British hands and remained essentially a U.S. satellite state. The British, as well as the Soviets, were outmaneuvered by Uncle Sam. And as for the Iranian people? No one but Mosaddeq seemed to give a damn about them.

Controlled by the corrupt government of the Shah, Iran remained a subservient flavor of U.S. satellite state until 1979, when a coalition of different groups overthrew the Shah. It was only after the revolution that Khomeni and his supporters seized power. This was fueled partly by a series of American diplomatic blunders, like having way too few analysts on Iran and too few embassy staff who spoke Farsi. Worse, the U.S. was so focused on outmaneuvering the Soviets in Iran that neither nation could maintain its relationship with Iran’s moderate elements.

In the case of Egypt, though, it’s not a matter of a democratically elected government being overthrown, because Egypt is not a real democracy. Nobody can reasonably blame the U.S. directly for any slaughter that occurred today in Egypt, or over the 30 years Mubarak’ been in power. The United States didn’t put Mubarak in power.

But the U.S. has supported Mubarak over the years. And it’s only after the protests reached a fever pitch — and Mubarak’s suppression of them reached catastrophic levels — that the U.S. finally pulled its support We’re showing up so late to the Democracy Party that virtually nothing the U.S. says is going to be taken seriously by the citizens of the Arab world. The U.S. has blown it — again.

Guess what? When it comes to fomenting world democracy, we blew it in Egypt just like we blew it in Tunisia — a close U.S. ally pinned between Libya and Algeria, both famously anti-American. We blew it just like we blew it in Morocco, a close U.S. and NATO ally that’s hugely corrupt, and still fighting an internationally-ignored war on its southern border against the breakaway region of Western Sahara, which is supported by Algeria.

Many Americans also don’t realize that, much like the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, the entire Arab world has long tottered under the weight of corruption and dictatorship. In fact, Americans seem to think that “fundamentalist” regimes like the one in Iran are the greater of potential evils, with America’s “allies” in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan representing an acceptable alternative.

If you pull your camera a bit and include the rest of the region, things get even uglier. Pakistan, now the most important U.S. collaborator in the Afghan war, isn’t just one of the most corrupt nations on the planet in terms of fleecing and robbing its citizens; it also stole nuclear weapons technology from Europe and then sold it to North Korea, Libya, and — wait for it — Iran. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are all chiefly Islamic nations, U.S. allies, and horribly corrupt. Let’s not even get started on the “most favored nation” China which, among its many other sins, blatantly oppresses the significant Islamic Turkic minority in its Eastern regions like Xinjiang.

The list goes on. Clearly, viewed from an Arab or Islamic perspective, if the U.S. is going to accuse Iran of being undemocratic and dangerous, it has a lot to answer for.

But as former CIA agent Bob Baer points out in his great book The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower, in Iran you won’t get sentenced to 40 lashes for naming a teddy bear Mohammed, the way someone did in Sudan, a nation that’s received $6 billion in U.S. aid since 2005. According to Baer, Iran’s religious-extremist parties typically receive less than 10% of the vote in regional elections — far less than in Turkey, which is a member of NATO.

That’s not to say that Iran is an awesome place. Positively giddy that the United States fought the war it couldn’t win, Iran is now essentially in the process of taking de facto control of its neighbor Iraq, the only other large nation with a Shia majority, and over the next 10 or 20 years will surely use it to build an empire. And even beyond its empire building, to anyone with humanist politics like mine, Iran is a nightmare. It’s been fighting a terrorist proxy war against Israel for years. The state still occasionally engages in judicial beheading. The Bahá’í faith and other religious minority groups are suppressed, and apostasy by Muslims can be punished by death. It’s probably seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran is unquestionably a police state.

But so are Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are U.S. “allies.” In the Arab world and elsewhere, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to corruption and repression so extreme that it leaves us completely unable to justifiably occupy the high ground.

In these days of everybody-gets-a-say, too many U.S. citizens see the Arab world in terms of black and white. Fanatic, anti-American Islamists are bad. American allies are good. But viewed from outside the American bubble, too many American allies are just as evil as their anti-American counterparts.

The crowds that burned U.S. flags in Iran in 1979 didn’t burn them for the same reasons that Al Qaeda attacked the U.S.S. Cole, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. They burned U.S. flags because the U.S. supported the Shah.

Every time anti-American Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism triumph politically, it’s not a victory for Islamists or a defeat for the United States. It’s a disaster for democracy, pluralism, and freedom.

But if the alternative for the Egyptians (or the Pakistanis, or the Tunisians) is an anti-democratic, repressive, and corrupt dictatorship, how the hell does the U.S. expect to win and keep the hearts and minds of anybody — even its own citizens?

Possibly related posts: