By J.D. Pitts
Early on in my career, which spanned nearly two decades working as a humanitarian across the Middle East and North Africa region, I clearly saw the distinct separations of people based on religion, political stance, and socio-economic class, and I knew that to grasp and understand the Arab World meant understanding people from all walks of life.
In Egypt, where I lived for several years in the early 2000s, that meant getting to know devout Muslims and secular Muslims, Coptic Christians and Evangelical Christians, the economically upper-class, middle-class, and lower-class, and those who were pro-regime (Hosni Mubarak at the time), anti-regime, and apathetic towards any regime. This was hard work and took much intentionality, as most of these groups very rarely interact with one another. The religiously devout do not interact with those who are more secular-leaning.
Christians interact with other Christians and live in predominantly Christian neighborhoods, while Muslims interact with other Muslims and live in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. The poor live, work, and play with the poor, and the rich live, work and play with the rich. While there may not be overt disunity amongst these disparate groups, there is very little actual unity. And so when I would hear the same things coming from the mouths of Egyptians from all walks of life, I knew it was time to pay very close attention.
I distinctly remember coming home one afternoon in the Fall of 2008 and telling my wife that revolution was in the air. I had friends and acquaintances from all walks of life — Muslims, Christians, secularists, the economically advantaged upper class, and the forgotten lower class — all of whom were united in expressing a desire to have a say in who led their country. After nearly four decades of despotic rule by Hosni Mubarak, they were fed up and ready for change.
It would take a few more years, but on January 25, 2011, the Egyptian Revolution officially began, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life were united and standing together in Tahrir Square, demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
And just as I thought then, I believe we are now on the cusp of seeing the same thing happen in Iran. But unlike in Egypt, what must happen in Iran is of a much larger scale.
Iran needs a complete and total regime change. Absolutely nothing less will suffice. The Supreme Leader, the President, the Ayatollahs, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are all a package deal, and all must be replaced entirely for the Iranian people to usher in democracy. As has become increasingly clear through the latest round of protests inside the country, which is unprecedented in scale and unity, Iran is absolutely ready for democratic reform. I truly believe that just as the masses helped usher in the Islamic Revolution in 1979, radically changing the country overnight, the masses at this time are ushering in a democratic revolution that will radically change the entire country and potentially the region as a whole if they succeed.
However, the Iranian people likely need outside help for regime change to become a manifest reality, as this is not merely ousting an evil dictator, one man, but replacing an entire network of corrupt people whose ongoing existence would be meaningless at best should the regime be deposed.
Thankfully, the Biden administration has removed the red tape and made it easier for tech companies to provide messaging services and help Iranians stay connected to the internet; this absolutely must continue, if not become more robust.
It also seems that now is not the time to consider reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. For the Iranian government to receive sanctions relief — and a large infusion of cash — while it is brutally cracking down on protestors and violently crushing dissent would be entirely misguided and send the wrong message altogether to both the regime and the Iranian protest movement.
Furthermore, we should be making it absolutely clear that we stand with and support the Iranian protestors, and that the brutal actions of the regime will not go unpunished. We should not be seen as being indifferent toward what is happening. There should be no question at all in the minds of the Islamic Republic’s regime or in the minds of the Iranian protestors whether or not we as a nation support their most basic demands for more freedoms, all the way up to an end to the regime.
Unfortunately, though, the fact of the matter is that the Iranian regime does not have any real reason to believe that there will truly be repercussions for their brutal domestic policies. Time and time again, they have been able to imprison, torture, kill, and massacre huge numbers of their own citizens to quash protest movements with no real consequences for their actions. And time and time again, the protest movements have listened to American presidents say they stand with the Iranian protesters, only to see the regime continue to seemingly go unpunished by Washington regardless of their actions.
The bottom line is that until the United States Government does more than give mere lip service to those who are fighting — and dying — for the chance of having freedom, our credibility will remain low and the Islamic Republic’s regime will continue its brutal domestic policies against its own people. Whether or not this will be the time for the protest movement to succeed and bring about regime change in their country is yet to be seen.
Let us hope and pray that revolution is more than just in the air.
About the Author
J.D. Pitts is Founder and Principal Advisor for Ahlan International, a firm specializing in equipping clients to operate successfully in Arab and Islamic contexts worldwide. Prior to founding Ahlan International, J.D. lived for 15 years in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, and Mauritania. While there, his professional experience included both the education and business sectors, as well as over a decade of deep involvement in humanitarian work ranging from small, grassroots operations to large-scale, UN-managed operations.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.