In a dispirited Middle East, Iran’s election is the single beacon of hope

Iranian Diplomacy- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

In the six years since the Arab Spring, the situation in the Middle East has never been as disappointing. The last stroke of bludgeon on the frail democracy in the region came last month.

The outcome of the April 16 referendum in Turkey was devastating not only for the people of the country but also for the entire region. Erdogan not only weakened the opposition’s campaign by imposing restrictions on their media through pressure and intimidation, but also spent a massive load of money, illegally, alongside populist means to achieve an extremely fragile victory in the election, one that makes him a more authoritarian leader and pushes Turkey to the season of darkness. The horrifying point is that serious claims are made regarding an organized election fraud in favor of Erdogan. He is the same leader less than a decade ago anticipated to turn into a brilliant example of the possibility to establish democracy in the Middle East. Now, all those hopes have collapsed. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, once considered the architects of democracy and security in the region, have devoured everything, behaving in a way that makes it clear for every observer that Turkey’s future will be even darker.

According to figures published on April 2 by Turkish Interior Ministry, 113,260 people have been arrested since the violent July coup attempt, of whom 47,115 individuals have been put on trial. Democracy in Turkey is knocked off, like a lamb on the altar. It is not only democracy, which is sacrificed under Erdogan’s rule. Security is also taking its last breaths. In 2016, eighteen cases of bomb blast occurred in the country, leaving 400 killed, and 1900 wounded.

We vividly remember the headline of Rania Abouzeid’s 9/11 article, published in the Time over Erdogan’s visit to Cairo, seven months after democrats secured a win against Hosni Mubarak: “Why Turkey’s Erdogan Is Greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt?” Thousands of people in Cairo had welcomed Erdogan and listened to his speech for freedom and democracy. Abouzeid had called Erdogan a hero on the Arab streets.

Egyptians that came into the streets to welcome the then ‘hero’ and today’s ‘dictator’, closely but hopelessly follow the decline of their hopes in the country’s political scene after the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, having little time to mourn for the knife stabbed by the former ‘rock star’ behind optimists in Egypt and the Middle East. It is estimated that about 40 thousand people have been prosecuted for political reasons by the el-Sisi government since 2015. Not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also other opposition groups have been hit. The socialist Bread and Freedom Party has claimed that security authorities have not allowed them to register officially.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the most reputed political activist in Egypt, is sentenced to 5-year imprisonment and April 6 Youth Movement, the main group in anti-Mubarak rallies, is banned in the country. Only in the first half of 2016, there have been 303 cases in which liberty of expression was violated, either through arrests or through censorship. There have been 13 and 8 successful terrorist operations, in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In the first five months of 2017, six fatal operations have taken place.

This is the status quo is the two countries that have been the biggest hopes in the Middle East in terms of peace, rationalism, security, fight against violence, and dictatorship. What can one say about Libya and Syria? Or Iraq? In the horribly wide gap between powerful forces and the central government, the two countries bring to mind the worst times of the twentieth century. A dread similar to civil wars of Spain, Cambodia, or Lebanon is overwhelming these countries: they began with pro-democracy uprisings and landed in their ruins. There is almost no short- or middle-term prospects for the establishment of the slightest amount of stability and sociopolitical security in any of the two.

The elite in the two have lost their agency to resolve the deadly crises. Powerful international and regional actors have also failed to find a solution for the insanity and blood. Violence has demonstrated itself in any form possible in these countries, rendering media helpless in moving the world audience against them. We have seen the body of Alan Kurdi on the Mediterranean shores, soldiers with their heart taken out of their chests and eaten, women who walked from Aleppo to Hungary with their children in their arms, being beaten on the way. We have seen all. Casualty figures of the Syrian war have turned into tedious numbers.

The petromonarchies of the Persian Gulf are still silencing any voice of dissidence. The Saudi house is still in control of the country’s power and wealth, ruling over its people as primitively as possible, with a political structure more horrible than those of Persia or Ottoman Turkey in the 19th century. Weird puppet shows, under the name of reforms, surface every now and then in Kuwait, coldly welcome in North America and Western Europe to soothe their suffering conscience, but everyone knows that everything is as was in the past. Rulers in the UAE and Qatar are even not willing to compromise in the face of these puppet shows. Saudi Arabia, the anti-democracy monster, has turned into a vicious dragon raving the Middle East in blood.

Unrelenting bombings has turned Yemen into a scorched land, a hapless country waiting for the worst famine and human catastrophe of the last one hundred years to come. King Salman, reminiscent of the half-crazy kings of the ancient world, shares power with Mohammed bin Salman, who never has enough of killing: they never withdraw from their unrighteous ways. In Jordan and Morocco who had deceitfully shrugged the breeze of the Arab Spring, with empty promises of reform never realized, the same authoritarianism that was in the air before 2011 still continues to dominate.

Thus is the situation in the Middle East today. Turkish and Egyptian leaders are now believed to be traitors. Leaders in Libya, Syria, and Iraq are up to their knees in their people’s blood, looking in vain for a solution to cease their civil wars. The sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf have empowered the totalitarian rule, hiring mercenaries from Sudan and Somali for the massacre of people in Yemen. Bahrain is increasingly moving away from reform, and closer to deplorable dictatorship. Daesh is roaring on in every country, slaughtering innocent people.

In a sharp contrast, Iran under the Rouhani administration has turned into the only country in the Middle East still treading the path to democracy and security since 2013. While presidents, prime ministers, and kings of the regions have taken their countries to the edge of darkness, Iran, its president, and foreign minister Javad Zarif speak of peace and peaceful coexistence.

Even though Rouhani has failed to realize some of his promises of a political opening, it can be said that he has improved the situation. Liberty of women, of the press, of NGOs, of dialogue between opposing parties, and of the Internet have all improved in comparison with the past. There has been almost no terrorist operation against the civilians and citizens. Iran’s economic growth has improved and one can see in the midst of this election that the Iranian youth are aspiring for a more peaceful life, much more enthusiastically than the youth in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We have dramatically replaced the 2011 Turkey, with Rouhani and Zarif becoming the new rock stars of peace and democracy in the Middle East. Fears and hopes over Rouhani’s reelection is not limited to Iran’s civil society: political and civil activists in Middle East capitals and metropolises are are looking forward to Rouhani’s reelection, so that the only beacon of hope in the Middle East does not fade.

Iran’s seems to be in a historical turning point. The outcome of this year’s election is determining not only for our political future, but for the whole region. At the moment, Iran is the only country wherein reforms and security are real possibilities. The Middle East needs an example to prove that it is still possible to continue the quest for prosperity and democracy, and to avoid a bloodbath in this region. Iran is the only inspiring case, with Rouhani and Zarif the only leaders in the Middle East that speak out loud about peaceful coexistence, free elections, and freedom of expression. One can feel they have faith in these notions and will not betray such beliefs as did Erdogan and el-Sisi.

The people in the Middle East wonder if this promising situation will continue. Will Iranians let a moderate administration out of office in such a critical moment with political romanticism and indifference toward the future? Or will they opt for a rational choice, keeping hopes alive for gradual, sustainable reforms in the Middle East?

The Middle East fervor regarding Iran is quite similar to the excitement Europe experienced during the recent French election. Not only could the French election determine the country’s future, it would potentially direct Europe’s future too. Rouhani is now playing Macron’s part. He might not be as appealing and young, but he has become the last hope for Middle Eastern youth for the election of a president advocating freedom and political development through a peaceful process.