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Arabs largely silent on Iran election and unrest

Key Arab nations have kept silent about Iran's political upheaval, possibly reluctant to antagonize the powerful nation that sponsors such militant groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iranian women living in Turkey show  support Tuesday for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, during a protest against the Iranian presidential election results, near the Iranian embassy in Ankara.Burhan Ozbilici, Stf / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Key Arab nations have kept silent about Iran's political upheaval, possibly reluctant to antagonize the powerful nation that sponsors such militant groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.

But there are signs the young and reform-minded have been inspired by the mass protests that followed the disputed election.

"It makes me feel so jealous," said Abdelmonem Ibrahim, a young pro-reform Brotherhood activist in Egypt.

The scenes of hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran provide a stark contrast to Arab countries such as U.S. ally Egypt, where widespread allegations of election fraud to ensure victory by ruling parties are greeted with complaints but little action.

Small protests in Egypt by democracy advocates after parliament and presidential elections in 2005 were quickly silenced by security forces and never caught on with the broader populace. The Egyptian reform movement — which combines secular activists with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — has largely been silent since.

"We are amazed at the organization and the speed with which the (Iranian) movement has been functioning. In Egypt, you can count the number of activists on your hand," Ibrahim told the Associated Press.

'Will the Arab world follow?'
One Egyptian blogger, who writes anonymously under the user name "Louza," posted a picture of a demonstration in Tehran, adding, "Sigh, will the Arab world follow?"

Iran elections are controlled by the country's ruling clerics, who can throw out candidates they don't approve of. Still, the voting has historically been among the most free in the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes prevail. U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia holds no elections at all, while some like Syria hold tightly controlled votes in which the outcome is never in doubt. Lebanon and Kuwait — which both held parliament elections that saw unexpected results recently — are among the few exceptions.

"Even though they are run by an authoritarian regime, (Iran) still allows for a good amount of liberalism and freedom," said Gamal Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian secular reform activist.

In contrast, he said, activism in Egypt has been "put in a freezer" because "the regime doesn't allow for the space to express any sort of opposition."

"I think the new generation of activists will definitely be inspired by what they see on the Iranian street. What's happening in Iran isn't happening on Mars," he told AP. "So Egyptian activists will feel they can replicate it in their own country."

Still, there has not been as much wall-to-wall coverage of the Iranian uproar in Arab media or Arab activists' blogs as there has been in the West — for a number of reasons.

Some not convinced by fraud claims
Some are not convinced by claims of fraud in the election results showing a victory for hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is popular among some in the Arab world for his tough stance against the United States and Israel. Even among Arab critics of Ahmadinejad, some don't believe his rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is a true reformer and they note that Iran's unelected supreme leader holds the real power.

Meanwhile, Arab governments — even ones that are fiercely critical of Iranian influence in the region — have remained silent, apparently afraid of angering the powerful Persian nation.

"The Arabs don't want to go out on a limb against the Iranian government. They don't want to be upfront," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "It's part of this pattern of being nice to Iran and encouraging the U.S. or somebody else to be not nice."

"They are afraid of Iran and don't want to antagonize it themselves," he added. "The easiest target for Iran are the Gulf Arabs."

Tehran is a key player in the Middle East and has played a major role in the divisions splitting the Arab world. It is the main backer of Hezbollah, Hamas and — according to the U.S. — Shiite extremists in Iraq. It's also a close ally of Syria.

Its foes — mainly Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are deeply worried that Iran is seeking to fuel Islamic radicalism, empower Shiite minorities in the Arab world and establish itself as a regional superpower by getting involved in crises they believe are none of its business, such as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and inter-Palestinian fighting.

Careful not to annoy Iran
But at the same time, those countries have been careful not to annoy Iran and have, at least in public, voiced opposition to any military strike against it. Their silence today is part of the pattern they have followed for the past few years, according to analysts.

Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said Arabs want "somebody else to fight their battles on their behalf."

"So nobody expressed any position on the Iranian elections because they think that the Americans and the Europeans will do it for them," he said. "This is a very negative approach, especially with regional political issues."

Since Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner on Saturday, several Arab countries have sent congratulatory telegrams. Others, however, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, have remained silent. Saudi officials have said the kingdom does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries.

Gulf nations — always worried about the biggest military power in the vital area — may be happy to see Iran tied up in its domestic affairs. "This is not bad because it weakens the rigid Iranian approach to the countries around the region," Saudi analyst Dawood al-Shirian said.

Still, Gulf states do not want to see a violent power struggle in Iran for "fear of the unrest spilling over," said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.