Dictators all over the world have been watching Iran for lessons learned. Will the crackdown crush the opposition? Will the streets win out? Is there, perhaps, a Green or Orange or Velvet Revolution of some sort waiting to challenge them, too? They know that somewhere buried in their young and restive populations are the seeds of such a thing. And they also know just how tenuous their power will become if they have to face massive, measured, relentless demonstrations of the kind that changed the face of Iran last week.
The Arab regimes in the neighborhood, which are almost all presidential dynasties or monarchies, appear especially confused by the spectacle of vast passive resistance. It's the one kind of challenge they've never had to face. There's no history of, nor particular respect for the ways of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in a culture where honor is vital and violence is considered the best way to uphold it. The new Iranian revolution, if by some chance it wins out, could change all that.
"I hate to say it," says a political activist in Jordan who asked not to be named specifically saying this, "but the Persians are always out in front of the Arabs, whether they are making Islamic revolution or this passive resistance." Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Bahrain, and even the Palestinian struggle with Israel could be transformed by what U.S. President Barack Obama called "a peaceful and determined insistence" on civil and human rights.
But a defeat of the street in Iran will shoot down such hopes. So the mass-market media in most of the Arab world have carried relatively limited coverage of the demonstrations against the allegedly rigged Iranian elections. Most leaders have even congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president that they love to hate in private, on his reelection victory.
The most telling reactions, however, come from those governments that are, or used to be (and perhaps still wish they were) totalitarian. Cuban television broadcast extensive reports on Ahmadinejad's victory, nothing on the protests. And Moscow? Julia Ioffe noted on The New Republic's Web site, "This just doesn't look like a rigged election to Russians, because Russians don't rig their elections; they engineer them."
And then there are the Chinese. The specter of Tiananmen still haunts the Beijing leadership after 20 years, and the idea of a replay fueled this time by the Internet and cell phones clearly horrifies the old guard. So last week, with littler fanfare but a pervasive impact, propaganda authorities issued an emergency notice telling Chinese newspapers and Web sites to cut back their coverage of events in Iran. According to the South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong, major portals like Sina.com dropped the news agencies' video and deleted comments, replacing them with material from the official People's Daily and Xinhua news service. Beijing must have been nervous.
Yet, for the moment at least, it would seem the totalitarians past and present are winning. Passive resistance is being smashed in Iran, and that may signal the success, once again, of something much more insidious and repressive than mere dictatorship.
"Totalitarian" is, in fact, one of those words that's been applied so often to so many governments that it doesn't seem to mean much any more. But back in the middle of the 20th century, when George Orwell wrote the bleak, iconic novel 1984, he had a profound sense of the evil that men did when they sought to control every aspect of a nation's and a people's life. For those who have the chance to see it, there is a dramatization called George Orwell—A Celebration playing in London just now. And parts of it, especially the interrogation-indoctrination scene from the closing pages of the novel, bring home this point like nothing else I've seen recently—except the videos out of Iran. Day by day, even as less and less news leaks past the human censors and inhuman digital filters, we can see still make out the shadowy outlines of a new totalitarian state aborning. And this is something new.
Perhaps you thought this was always true in Iran, but it wasn't, quite. The reign of terror that followed the revolution 30 years ago had come to seem a fading nightmare. The regime, even under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had become one that could accommodate many views. It was restrictive and sometimes capricious, but it allowed most people to breathe and get on with their lives. When right-wing American pundits anxious to discredit Muslims everywhere talked about "Islamofascism," the Iranian reality tended to give the lie to their arguments, not confirm them. Now, sadly, all that is changing.
"In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement," says the state interrogator in the 1984 Ministry of Love, which is the ministry of hate. The message is beaten into the society until all resistance, even mental resistance, is broken. As the protagonist of Orwell's novel finally surrenders, he lets himself believe that "Freedom is slavery," that "two and two make five," if the state tells him so, and that "God is Power." He learns to love Big Brother.
That was the kind of love, based on lies and fear, that the old totalitarian governments learned to expect from their populations. That is the kind of love the leaders of Iran's government seem to want from their people today. No wonder the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans are cheering them on.