Iran, Turkey, and the Non-Arab Street

PRINCETON – To Western eyes, Middle East politics have again been stood on their head. Iran’s theocratic mullahs allowed the election of Hassan Rowhani, a man who announced in his first speech as President-elect that his victory is “the victory of wisdom, moderation, and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.”

Iranians, apparently surprised that the candidate whom a majority of them had backed (over six harder-line candidates) had won, poured into the streets and hailed a victory “for the people.” To be sure, it was a carefully controlled election: all candidates who might actually have challenged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority were disqualified in advance. But, within those limits, the government allowed the people’s votes to be counted.

Next door, in Turkey, the West’s favorite Islamic democrat, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was using bulldozers, tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets to clear central Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park of peaceful protesters who would not bend to his will. Erdoğan’s theory of government seems to be that, because he was elected by a majority of Turks who still support him, anyone who opposes him is a terrorist or a pawn of sinister foreign forces. He appears to see no room for legitimate opposition, for the idea that today’s majority can be tomorrow’s minority and that the rules of the game must allow both to be heard.

Four years ago, when hundreds of thousands of young Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran to protest outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, the Iranian government shot at them with live rounds. The protests were brutally repressed, with participants rounded up, imprisoned, and reportedly raped and tortured, damaging the regime’s standing not only among Iranians, but also among the millions of young Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa who would soon rise up to demand their social and political rights.