«The Beginning of the Post-Islamist Era»

Interview with Abbas Djavadi
May 29. 2011, interviewed by Erik Siegl, HBF Prague, for the German Heinrich Boell-Stiftung

Mr. Djavadi, a lot has been said about the importance of new media for the “Arab Spring”. However, these are “only” tools for people to mobilise themselves. What were the factors that in your view emboldened people to engage in such massive uprisings against authoritarianism?

I would not speculate with fashionable theories that Facebook triggered the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Let me say that communication tools in general have played a big role, no doubt. On the other hand, we should not overestimate their importance. In Syria, some regions have been completely disconnected from the mobile phone network since the beginning of the revolt. Mobile phones are owned by about 90% of population and are far more important than social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Social networking plays an even more marginal role in Libya. The driving force behind the uprisings is the bold and frustrated young generation, not the technology. In Iran internet is quite wide-spread, though with limited speed, but there is no revolution yet because of filtering, censorship and fear of repression.
Back to your question – nobody has a single explanation for that. Local factors in revolts clearly vary from country to country and we must consider them on a case-by-case basis rather than making far-reaching generalisations. Let’s take Egypt as an example – some speculate that Mubarak’s age and his ailing health played a major role. The regime’s affinity with the West was a factor; the West could put pressure on the regime and persuade Mubarak not to crush the revolution by force. In this sense, authoritarians open to the West seem to be more prone to change under internal pressure. In Egypt the army played the decisive role, but this is not likely in Iran or Syria, where it is in a subordinate position.

Recently you wrote in your commentary that events in Iran in 2009 and now the uprisings in Arab countries might have heralded the beginning of an era of “post-Islamism”. Could you explain what you meant by that, please?

The demands raised by the people in the streets have nothing to do with the Islamist movements which were so fashionable 20-30 years ago. Accountability of the government, basic rights, freedom of speech, free media and the right to elect and depose leaders democratically are driving the protests. The groups that may come to power will probably be sympathetic towards Islamic values, but I am of the opinion that today’s Islamists in Egypt are not the same as those of 30 years ago in Iran. Also Turkey and the “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) have served as a certain model in terms of the political transformation of Islamist parties.

Do you also see a link between the “Green Movement” in Iran and the “Arab Spring”? The Iranian regime seems to have a solid and more broadly based structure of power, unlike Syria and Libya. Is there any chance for positive change?

Right, the Iranian ruling system is not tribal or ethnically based; it enjoys some support all over the country. Different bodies and repressive forces support and control each other. If the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, died tomorrow, it would not bring the end of the regime. It might cause a certain crisis, but the power system would probably produce a new Supreme Leader. In this sense, events in Libya, Syria or Egypt don’t have an immediate effect on Iran.
It is also important that, contrary to the official statements, the Iranian regime cannot refer to the Arab uprisings as “Islam-inspired uprisings”, as they have nothing to do with religion. Here, again, I see a certain difference with Iran. The leaders of the Green Movement referred to the Islamic republic and called for its revival as they tried to garner support from part of the establishment. Change cannot come from outside, and the opposition is weak and faces brutal repression. Pressure for change is more likely to come from parts of the establishment and the middle class in larger cities or from ethnic groups like Azeris and Kurds.

Most Arab states are likely to face a continuing social and economic downturn given demographic developments, declining oil revenues, the impacts of climate change on food production and rising commodity prices. What should the West do to assist reforms and overcome the structural deficiencies of Arab societies?

Firstly, there have to be basic preconditions in place like more accountability and openness in the Arab countries towards the outside world. That would make foreign investment (not only from the West) possible, which in the mid-term is needed more than assistance. This means not only desperately needed jobs and money, but also the transfer of know-how and the movement of people in both directions. This brings more benefits than Western aid. Education and free media are the areas where the West has much to offer in terms of assistance. Countries without oil or gas are, in my view, in a better position to adapt, because they are more urgently forced towards structural change due to the lack of other options. Turkey clearly demonstrates that they can make it. The Turkish economy was more or less a closed economy 30 years ago, with no major foreign investments or exports. Today it is the sixth-largest economy in Europe, with half of its exports going to the highly competitive EU market.

Given your post as Associate Director for several national RFE/RL broadcasting services, how is the current situation affecting your plans? Do you plan further expansion in the region beyond the existing Persian and Iraqi programmes?

RFE/RL is under one umbrella with Voice of America, which covers the Arab countries extensively. At the moment, there is no such plan but this is matter for the US Congress to debate and decide. It is more crucial to overcome the jamming / blocking of our broadcasting in many countries in the region, where autocratic governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated in blocking independent news. We are working closely and effectively under the umbrella of the BBG to circumvent this censorship, blocking, and jamming.

You just attended a conference on Turkey and its role in the Middle East, organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and PSSI. The current Turkish elite claims that Turkey could be seen as a “role model” for democratisation in the region. Is this a reality or a self-proclamation?

Turks themselves like to be seen as an example for their eastern neighbours. Of course, they like to exaggerate their role – not only the current Prime Minister but also the opposition and the media. In my view, the question of whether or not Turkey is a role model is not as important as the discussion suggests. Anyway, in order to answer the question we should ask: How economically strong is Turkey? How good are its universities, state hospitals and justice system? How free are its media? For somebody coming from Iraq, Iran or Syria, it is impressive that leaders are elected freely without being threatened or killed. In saying this I am not suggesting that there is a “European model” in Turkey. From Europe’s perspective there is much to criticise about present-day Turkey. But looking from the other side it is a modernising Muslim country which clearly looks like an inspiration or example.

What are the (June 12) parliamentary elections in Turkey about? Are there real reform issues at stake or is it just about the power struggle between the AKP and the opposition?

Like many others, I expect the AKP to win again and govern for a third term, I would guess with 40% of votes. They are in a fortunate position as the opposition is not really a challenger or alternative in terms of its formulated reform policy. This has led to a “leaning back” approach and even some authoritarian tendencies on the part of the AKP vis-à-vis the media and civil society. Two things are important in my view: I am very concerned about the ever-increasing divide in the society on secularism, and the Kurdish issue. The government has done nothing serious to resolve these matters, and the Kurdish issue may become even more urgent, as the American pull-out from Iraq is likely to strengthen the disintegrating tendencies there.

Thank you for the interview!

This interview was conducted by Erik Siegl, from the Heinrich Böll Foundation Prague. The Czech version of this interview will appear in June edition of the monthly «International Politics».

Heinrich Boell Stiftung