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Arabs and the Iranian upheaval

Hazem Saghieh
9 July 2009

When eastern and central European countries turned from communism to democracy following the collapse of the Berlin wall in November 1989, Arabs found themselves facing a great predicament - one for which they were not prepared. They were not acquainted with the youthful democratic forces that were becoming the leaders of those countries now free of Soviet domination. But, more important, as allies of the former Soviet Union, the Arabs looked at the transformation and the forces behind it with doubt and suspicion.Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

This tendency was reinforced by the fact that the "change" was welcomed by Israel, as well of course as by the west in general. In this context, there were prominent voices in the Arab world who warned against an evil "conspiracy"; and others who spoke of the suspected role of the "Jews". All this increased in turn feelings of aversion and estrangement in east-central Europe itself towards the Arabs.

There was a definite cultural dimension to this complex of attitudes. The prevailing  tendencies of Arab political thought persisted in their allegiance to despotic ways of thinking - whether nationalistic, religious, or class. They turned away from the vibrant and vital emerging ideas from the public squares of Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw that were inflaming the imagination of the rest of the world.

The tragedy culminated when the Arabs sought to justify their stance, naturally by relating everything to the Israel-Palestine issue. But the question of Palestine, with all its principles and values, proved not enough to refine or smarten the Arab bias to totalitarian regimes. Indeed, Arabs behaved and argued as if they preferred to remain in the narrow alleys instead of the wide highway. More significant, they did everything to ensure that they remained in those alleys and lengthened the distance separating them from the highway. In the end, Arabs lost the friendship of states with tens of millions of newly conscious democratic citizens who were preparing to re-enter the arena of history with plenty of enthusiasm. What we, the Arabs, lost was - equally naturally - won by Israel.

Today, something similar is taking place in Arabs' stance towards Iran and the upheaval in the country after the stolen election of 12 June 2009. It is true that Iran had long been repressed and sunk in atrophy, but what is certain is that the events surrounding the election have wrecked the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and put "change" on the Iranian people's agenda. It has become clear that the most regressive sectors of Iranian society are losing their ability to practice hegemony over the most dynamic, young, educated and modern sectors by any means other than crude violence. 

Without falling into determinism, it is most probable that the future is going to belong to the latter groups - if not tomorrow then the day after; not least as  they will be joined by many thousands of professional and skilled Iranians in enforced or voluntarily exile. This prospect is heightened by the deepening of cracks in the Khamenei (and basiji) state's legitimacy - thus enabling the new forces to spread their impact.

There is no sane or rational person who would exchange a promising future for an obsolete past represented by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, only the egoist who sees his cause as the motor of the entire universe - admittedly the western left as well as the Arab world contains not a few such people - would ask 80 million Iranians to meekly accept subjugation by a brute authority that seizes their freedom and appropriates their progress for the sake of upholding his tattered banner.

In any event, it is necessary to challenge the very assumption that Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in any way serve Palestinian and Arab causes or interests. But the weak response to the Iranian tumult especially amid the Arab "radical" environment poses a deeper question: is it really possible to combine the cause of democracy and progress with a system of  "national"-collective priorities  where the struggle with Israel dominates Arab minds and actions?

In fact, to tread such a path is the best gift to fanatical Iranian nationalists who traditionally consider that the Arabs have done nothing throughout history except harm Persia and its culture! Such chauvinists abound among Iranians as much as they do among Arabs. What is happening in Iran is the birth of a modern, progressive, enlightened country led by a young and fearless generation. That is what Arabs should be supporting:  as the Poles say, for your freedom and ours!

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:


"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

" Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

" Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

" How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

" Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

" The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

" Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

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