The Iranian government threw its support behind the anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt fairly early in the game. It had similarly endorsed the Tunisian uprising, characterizing both events as signs of an "Islamic awakening" in the Arab world. Like many Americans, the Iranians appeared to analyze developments according to their own ideological biases and wishful thinking, remaining mindful all the while about their effect on the people at home. The government has refused permits for demonstrations of solidarity with Egypt by domestic opposition groups. Today, the opposition opted to emulate the Egyptians rather than simply sympathize with them, and the government answered with tear gas. A new round in the two-year old struggle between government and dissidents may have just begun, or may already be over.
An uprising like Egypt's, which so far looks like a largely nonviolent triumph of "people power," always raises questions about the potential for similar outbreaks in other countries. Optimists like to imagine that people power can triumph everywhere, but episodes like Iran's in 2009, or China's in 1989, are debunking counterexamples. The success of people power always seems to be decided by the character of the regime it confronts. Every time people power appears to succeed, you can argue that the regime didn't do all it could to suppress the masses. Egypt lacked a cadre of fanatical regime loyalists like the Iranian basiji, as well, arguably, as the ideological self-confidence that makes the Iranians and Chinese more willing, apparently, to crush dissent at all costs. The intervention by Mubarak loyalists looks half-assed enough, in retrospect, to justify my feeling that it was more spontaneous than dissidents wanted to believe. It doesn't compare to what the Iranians did to their dissidents.
Do such comparisons require us to revive the distinction, popular in the U.S., between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes? Applying such categories, Mubarak's Egypt was an authoritarian state that was always likely to reform itself despite the ruler's three decades of abuses, while Iran (as an "Islamist" entity) is a totalitarian state and therefore more intractable, inherently less responsive to the will of the streets. Before drawing conclusions about totalitarian states, however, we need to remember the bigger story of 1989. While China crushed its dissidents that year, several European governments just as committed to Marxist Leninism, and thus presumably just as totalitarian as China, succumbed to people power, while another, Romania, removed its Bolshevik ruler by violence. These examples suggest that the character of rulers matters more than the character of a regime. We might still have a Cold War, after all, had Mikhail Gorbachev been a different man. Arguably, Egypt might still have Mubarak were he a different man. At the moment of crisis, some people simply can't give the order to slaughter their own people, while others can. Neither ideology nor religion, I suspect, can predict what any person would do in a similar situation.
Mubarak's fall has inspired some semi-serious envy among those Americans who believe themselves oppressed by an illegitimate regime. For the sake of argument, let's ask whether people power is a legitimate instrument for forcing a delegitimzed President out of office. While answering, it has to be borne in mind that people power by its nature is an extra-constitutional force. The Egyptian dissidents clearly considered their constitution void due to Mubarak's taint. The currently ruling military commission was only fulfilling a dissident demand when they suspended the Egyptian constitution and dissolved the nation's legislature. In the U.S., by contrast, arguments against the legitimacy of this or that President are usually grounded in the Constitution itself. American dissidents, in most cases, claim to act in defense of the Constitution, but that document makes no provision for overthrow by people power, as no such document can. That doesn't mean that dissidents can't put on a general strike or a like campaign with the object of compelling the President to resign, but to the extent that they seek only his resignation on constitutional grounds rather than a complete revolution in government, their actions and motives are subject to constitutional scrutiny. If they appeal to the Constitution against the President, others may determine that the Constitution sides with the President rather than the dissidents. The Egyptian situation was less complicated because the Egyptian dissidents have apparently rejected the whole structure of government, save for the military. In an American scenario, the Constitution provides for impeaching a President who opposes it, or merely commits a "high crime" or misdemeanor. If American dissidents don't challenge the Constitution itself, they may face pressure to defer to a constitutional impeachment process before taking to the streets, though they could certainly take steps to pressure Congress to do its alleged duty. At lower or more local levels of government, of course, dissatisfaction with misrule has a proper channel in the recall process. Whether recall is a reliable constitutional substitute for street-level people power in all cases is a subject for another time.
The funny thing about this theoretical discourse, as some readers may have already decided, is that the most vehement American dissidents against the current government don't usually envision their uprisings in terms of "people power." The way some of them talk, it should have been impossible for the Egyptians to chase Mubarak out of his palace, since all the firepower seemed to be on his side, or the army's. Did anyone in Tahrir Square last Friday have a gun? Did the dissidents win because they drove off the pro-Mubarak camel jockeys with a hail of bullets? It seems not. But this brings us back to my earlier point about the character of a ruler making the crucial difference. For whatever reason, Mubarak finally made firearms unnecessary for his opponents. But wherever a nation has a more determined, ruthless ruler, it's likely that no amount of firearms in the hands of mere dissidents, as opposed to a disciplined revolutionary army, would save their cause or their lives. Any popular uprising is a gamble, armed or unarmed. It all comes down to who you're dealing with. In that case, people power should work in America if people feel a need to try it, because a President would never order troops or cops to fire on the American people....would he?