While the whole world witnesses how Muammar al-Gaddafi resists his people’s demand for freedom, his brutal reaction may become a formula for other dictators in the region dealing with a similar situation. Although the peoples’ movement for democracy in the middle east creates hope for new order in the region, it seems that success in toppling Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak does not guarantee success in ousting other dictators in the region. While what happened in Tunisia and Egypt was not, by any means, a small achievement, the brutal response by Gaddafi demonstrates the cruelty which determined leaders of autocratic states are capable. Gaddafi’s decision to eliminate all opposition and to bomb those cities that are no longer under his control does not only escalate violence in Libya, but establishes a precedent to be followed by other fundamentalist regimes like Iran.
Although there are clear differences between the regimes in Iran and Libya, there are common political and economic facts that link the two countries. Their access to huge resources of oil and gas, the establishment of an fundamentalist-ideological state and the state promotion of anti-western propaganda are important features that Libya and Iran share. In addition, the essential roles of Libya’s Army and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are similar. Their economic independence allows both Iran and Libya to act viciously against their people’s quest for freedom and to demonstrate apathy towards international laws. Both states share other ambitions, too. The nuclear program in Iran started after Libya attempted to start their own. As a result, ike Libya in the past, Iran is now facing UN sanctions.
Mubarak’s government was considered to be a dictatorship, but the Egyptian Army’s dependence on western financial support led the military to shift its allegiance toward the protesters. This is clearly not the case for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and some parts of the Libyan Army. Their financial independence together with their ideological apparatus assist them to implement the infamous “iron fist” strategy. Its essential mission, as Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared, is to save the Islamic Revolution regardless of any costs. Due to this disregard for consequences, the leaders of fundamentalist regimes like Iran and Libya react with absolute brutality and easily expel foreign journalists from their countries as a message to domestic and international audiences. While Gaddafi calls the protesters “addicted” and “rats” who are influenced by foreigners, one can find the same narrative in Iran, whose Supreme Leader called the Green Movement a “virus” sent by the west.
Oil revenue plays a crucial role in allowing these two regimes to completely ignore the people’s demands for democracy. This is the same old story in a region where most of the dictators do not need tax revenue and therefore do not feel compelled to develop a mutual relationship with the civil society. As many researchers have correlated, the despotism of these dictators varies with the extent that the economies in their countries rely on oil. The world’s demand for fossil fuels offers them a unique opportunity both to suppress their people and to ignore international laws and agreements. The fact that Gaddafi dares to do whatever he wills to his people proves that the west’s need for Libya’s energy resources is so strong that they will depend on a “mad man”, let alone a strongman, to serve their perceived interests.
The real danger of Gaddafi’s decisions is not only what he does to Libya. The implication of his message for dictators in the region is another threatening consequence of his decisions. Gaddafi’s resistance even at the cost of Libya’s division might become a turning point, disrupting the clear trajectory of the middle east revolutions and revealing to his fellow despots an alternative to stepping down. When a “mad man” decides to eliminate the voice of the people, and the rest of the world, due of their oil demands, is incapable of doing anything other than holding meeting after meeting, no one should be surprised by the emergence of radical authoritarian “mad men” elsewhere in the middle east. Thus far, hundreds of people have been killed in Libya. The possibility of civil war is not far-fetched and the tribal society of Libya is on the brink of serious rupture.
Iran also faces series difficulties. Although its government claims that the number of people who were killed during the past twenty months, including four protesters killed this month, has reached forty-five, opposition websites and Human Rights Watch have challenged this number. According to Amnesty International, Iran has the highest rate of execution as well as the highest number of detained journalists in the world, surpassing even China. Meanwhile the Iranian government declared last week that forty-eight prisons are under construction throughout the country.
In terms of relying on extreme authoritarian structures, Iran’s situation is similar to that of Gaddafi’s government and army. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, comprised of members of the Revolutionary Guard, is known for its penetration of all socio-political sectors, evidencing, as the opposition argues, that Iran is shifting from a theocratic to a military dictatorship. Since the emergence of social disobedience and the Green Movement in June 2009, the Islamic regime has increased the budget of the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitia force by two hundred percent. This has come about with the total support of the Supreme Leader whose position and legitimacy have faced enormous criticism during the last few months.
As a reply to his prime minister in 1972 the last Shah of Iran said: “The west needs our oil. They also prefer to deal with the supreme power of this country to make the situation more stable. Thus, save your position at whatever it costs. No one complains except the domestic oppositions and everyone knows what the conclusion is.” Almost forty years later it seems that there cannot be any validity to such an assumption.
Mubarak, like the Shah in 1979, was willing to stay in power as long as possible, but both interior and exterior situations forced him to accept the reality and thus leave office. So far, this has been neither the case in Islamic Iran nor in Libya. Iran and Libya are united in their determination to suppress the opposition and their indifference to international consternation. It is necessary for the rest of the world to take Gaddafi’s brutality seriously and through this experience put in place procedures to limit the power of regimes to violently suppress dissent, as there is the potential that the region will see many more “mad men”. If the recent rhetoric of the threat posed by fundamentalism is based on even a grain of truth, it is the world’s mission to support civilians who fight for their dignity and freedom. In order to achieve democracy in the middle east, it is necessary for both domestic and international opposition to authoritarianism to converge and force the fundamentalists of the region to retreat.
As long as the rest of the world’s economy continues 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. Now is the time to stand against the twenty-first century’s Nero.