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Protests shatter myth of Iran as an island of stability

Last week, on the seventh anniversary of the uprisings that led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia once again witnessed significant anti-government protests, some of which turned violent. This time, the spark that lit the fire was the release of an austerity budget that included a rise in VAT and a price increase for basic goods such as flour and internet access. 
The latest protests in Tunisia follow the major demonstrations in Iran earlier this month, which were against an even wider set of issues, from corruption, unemployment and environmental decay to the radicalism of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. 
These events confirm once again that the Arab uprisings of 2011, while the most dramatic since the struggle for independence from colonial rule, were part of a long-standing sequence of unrest. And the tendency is for them to become more frequent. Among other critical issues, the Middle East has the highest youth unemployment rate of any region in the world; has a youth bulge demographic bomb; is suffering from the decline in oil prices; has seen little progress on institutional reform; and water and environmental problems are becoming ever more pressing.
They also raise questions about the links between demonstrations in Iran, both this month’s and earlier ones, and those in various Arab countries, which experts have tended to view in separation.
Not only Tunisia, but all countries that, post-2011, saw their leaders deposed following major demonstrations or spiralled towards civil war — or both — had experienced significant domestic upheaval over the previous three decades. Stability has mostly been an illusion in many of these police states, strong on coercion but institutionally weak where it really matters for modern, effective states. 
In Tunisia, dozens of protesters were killed during the 1983-84 bread riots. Egypt has also had bread riots, with hundreds of thousands protesting against the end of basic subsidies in 1977. And, only three years before the uprisings that resulted in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, a campaign of civil disobedience mobilized through social media gathered tens of thousands across the country. The issues highlighted by protesters included low salaries, unemployment, poor levels of education and healthcare, corruption and the absence of dignity and freedom. 
In Libya, the 1990s were marked by tribal and Islamist revolts against the rule of the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi, who once promised Caribbean countries that he would buy all their bananas at above market value to break what he saw as a stranglehold by Europe and the US. 
The genocidal tendencies of Syria’s Assad clan were first witnessed in 1982, when Hafez Assad’s Syrian Arab Army laid siege to the predominantly Sunni city of Hama to quell an anti-government uprising that had begun six years earlier. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people were massacred, according to reliable estimates. 
Events across the region confirm once again that the uprisings of 2011, while the most dramatic since the struggle for independence from colonial rule, were part of a long-standing sequence of unrest.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Yemen also has a recent history filled with major anti-government demonstrations that often turned violent, internal conflicts and separatist ambitions as a result of government corruption and poor governance. Protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime were constant in the south from 2005 to 2011. 
Then, of course, there is the singular case of Iraq, which slid into chaos due to the mismanagement that followed the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iraq would have been spared from massive upheaval after 2011 had the invasion never happened. 
The fear of Syria-like chaos and violence remains a powerful dissuading factor against domestic upheaval across the region. While this could work as an incentive for the pursuit of peaceful and orderly change, it is more likely to be used by regimes to stall painful but urgent reforms. In Algeria, for example, tensions between Islamists and the deep state, or le pouvoir, remain in check largely due to the fresh memories of the brutal civil war that killed more than 200,000 people. 
Contrary to what the various widely used, Arab world-related terms — Arab Spring, Arab Uprisings, Arab Awakening — would have it, there is a good case to be made that Iranian protests prior to this latest wave both influenced and were influenced by parallel events in neighbouring Arab countries. 
What is often missed is that significant unrest and protests did not subside with the brutal repression of Iran’s Green Movement of 2009. In February 2011, just days after both Mubarak and Ben Ali were deposed, anti-regime demonstrators were back on the streets across Iran.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei painted the uprisings as an “Islamic awakening.” But the large-scale deployment of security forces in the streets of Iran, the total media blackout on the Arab Spring, and the arrest of key opposition leaders was insufficient to prevent months of upheaval. 
Time and again, the myth of Iran as an island of stability insulated from an increasingly volatile Arab neighborhood is challenged by events on the ground.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science 
Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida