In Tunisia, a small, homogeneous state on the southern Mediterranean, a popular uprising forced the overthrow of a long-ruling dictator in early 2011. Ruthless repression of mass protests failed. In just one month, Tunisians ousted an entrenched authoritarian regime.
In Iran, a mass uprising that lasted six months was brutally suppressed. The Green Movement of 2009 never became a “Green Revolution.” Instead, an entrenched authoritarian regime reasserted its authority. The regime’s violent repression succeeded. The opposition was broken, and the regime has since tightened its grip on power.
Four factors help explain the success of mass protests in Tunisia and their failure in Iran.
First, the most decisive factor was the Tunisian army’s refusal to shoot. Its defection signaled a fatal crack in the ruling coalition. On its own, the military’s role was probably sufficient to bring about the fall of President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali. The breakdown of authoritarian regimes has historically been due to splits within a ruling coalition—as in Iran’s own revolution in 1979 against the monarchy.
The military is critical to an authoritarian regime’s survival, but it is most likely to defect when the costs—whether to the army’s reputation, its cohesion, or its ability to shape events later on—are too high to justify its continued loyalty.
In Iran, the military lacked the motive of the Tunisian army. Iran’s forces, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, are more invested economically and politically in the power structure, so stood to lose far more than Tunisia’s army. As a result, Tehran’s tools of repression remained intact in the face of popular protests. The massive presence of the Basij paramilitary forces, who are under the Revolutionary Guards’ control, gave the theocracy’s hardliners a reliable instrument of coercion which it used without hesitation against unarmed and peaceful protestors
Second, in Tunisia, political power and control over the economy had become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the ruling family. Its greed and corruption, excessive even by local standards, alienated social groups that had benefitted from Tunisia’s liberal economy and ties to the West. The erosion of support among these critical groups left Ben Ali and his family isolated and vulnerable as protests escalated.
In Tunis, Ben Ali’s tight grip on political power amplified his vulnerability. No alternative power centers existed to aid Ben Ali or ensure the government’s survival once he fled. In his 23 years in power, Ben Ali had undermined the instruments he might otherwise have relied on to retain his grip on power.
In Tehran, the diffusion of political power and decision-making among multiple institutions provided the flexibility needed to squelch challenges from below. The size and scale of Iran’s economy has also made it harder for any individual or clique to dominate opportunities for corruption or rent-seeking, ensuring that a broader range of Iranian social groups has a vested interest in the regime’s survival.
And the regime, however it might be viewed in the West, retains significant popular support among some segments of Iranian society, especially the poor and marginal who continue to view it as a source of opportunities, employment, and social benefits.
Third, Tunisia and Iran have different ideological contexts. Tunisian politics were distinctly secular; religion was relegated to the private domain. Iranian politics merged state and mosque, tapping into the legitimacy of Islam.
In Iran, the regime’s ability to label the Green Movement an enemy of the Islamic revolution posed a formidable challenge to the movement’s leadership. Opposition leaders were forced to affirm their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and their identity as reformers appealing for limited change. Strategically, their decision to brand the Green Movement as the loyal opposition may have been necessary. But asking followers to risk their lives in the name of modest reforms is not a formula likely to generate mass support.
In Tunisia, the regime had long abandoned any clear ideological orientation. In an infamous speech just days before his ouster, Ben Ali acknowledged that the economic and social grievances behind Tunisia’s uprising were legitimate. The opposition’s goals were also clear and unambiguous—Ben Ali’s removal from power. Notably, protests were not driven by an explicit ideology, either secular or Islamist. Indeed, the disparate opposition gave little attention to what might happen if it succeeded.
The Tunisian opposition’s disorganization and ideological incoherence may well have worked to its advantage. During his quarter-century rule, Ben Ali had earlier crushed Islamists and repressed dissent, so protestors were not hampered by their association with any known opposition figures. Had the Tunisian opposition been dominated by Islamists, for instance, the army may well have defended the regime. The very effectiveness with which Ben Ali’s regime hollowed out political space gave Tunisian protestors advantages that their counterparts in Iran lacked.
Finally, scale may also account for the differences. It may have simply been easier to ignite collective action in a country, such as Tunisia, that is small, homogenous, and narrowly controlled from a single center than in a country, like Iran, that is large, diverse, and diffusely governed by a fragmented political elite.
Steven Heydemann is vice-president of USIP's Grant and Fellowship Program and a specialist on the comparative politics and political economy of the Middle East.