The Iranian model
With little freedom of expression and a state-directed economy, Iran is hardly an example to emulate, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*
We need to know more about Iran. It is one of the key countries in the Middle East and the one most likely to get into a confrontation with the US sometime soon. More importantly, it is a country that has had an Islamic government for three decades now and is still going strong. All other Islamic experiments have ground to a halt. Afghanistan was ripped apart by internal divisions, civil war and foreign invasion. Sudan was mauled by a civil war in the south, political divisions in the north and foreign intervention in Darfur. Somalia, after the brief control of the Islamic courts, has once again fallen into the familiar pattern of factional warfare, with Ethiopian intervention on the side.
Only Iran has a workable model of Islamic government. The country is generally stable, despite its ethnic and doctrinal frictions. It is a Shia country whose leaders have opted for velayat-e-faqih, or rule by the top clerics. So it is generally worthy of observation and analysis. Yet we know little about it.
Often, Iran is cast against the backdrop of confrontation between the West and Islam. Sometimes it is perceived through the rivalry between Shias and Sunnis, as in Iraq. But we know little about its nature and its political, economic and social experience. It is common for both moderate and extremist Islamic groups to argue that we've tried socialism and capitalism to little avail. So perhaps it is time to try the Islamic model.
Well, Iran has tried it. And as is the case in all totalitarian regimes, the state ended up controlling all aspects of life. In Iran, the state is the main entrepreneur, the main teacher, and the sole source of information. The government is a labyrinth of immense power, capable of strangulating society and the individual. That's what usually happens when the state gains control over all means of production and distribution. It starts to control not only the public, but also its ideas and way of life.
Truth be told, the Iranian state showed certain flexibility. The government allowed newspapers to be freely published. But it retains the right to close newspapers at will. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the barriers on free speech have become so high that newspapers are shut down faster than they can open. The government's attitude is epitomised by what one of its ministers once said: "The press is involved in a creeping coup against the state," he remarked.
Should a similar situation develop in Egypt, public outrage would be boundless. Not that free speech is the norm here, but our margin of freedom is such that the clock cannot be turned back. In freedom of expression, Iran is not exactly a model of good governance. Iranian researchers often point out that the gap between rich and poor has been steadily widening, despite the state's control of the means of production and distribution. Transparency International ranks Egypt 70th on the list of corrupt countries. Iran is worse. And that's a country that has more oil, better resources, and less population than Egypt.
The Ahmadinejad government does what all totalitarian governments do with the economy. It ridicules the views of economists, prints money to excess, and has plunged the country in runaway inflation -- the worst ever that can happen to the poor. Iran is so bankrupt that it cannot even afford steady investment in oil, its main source of wealth.
When it comes to rotating power among presidents and parliaments, Iran is doing well. Its elections are mostly deemed fair and free. But even this accomplishment is tarnished by the fact that real power lies in the hands of one person for life: the supreme guide of the Iranian revolution. That supreme guide is selected in an exclusive manner and not by public vote.
Now, is the Iranian model something one can really look forward to? Or is it time we admitted that all systems of government, Islamist or not, are run by mortals?
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.