For 18 days, the world watched Egypt’s revolution live on television, following every surge of protest, every incremental escalation of people power.
And for one day this week, when the fervor inspired by Egypt’s example seized Tehran, the world did just the opposite. No satellite images like those of Tahrir Square showed Enghelab Square. No foreign reporters poured through Tehran’s airport. No networks vied for the most exhaustive coverage.
Instead, outsiders foraged through YouTube fragments and Facebooksnippets to divine what was happening. The narrative was disjointed, as those who disrupted it intended it to be. A reader wrote to ask me why there no moving pictures to confirm a revival, however fleeting, of the protest that flowed from Iran’s disputed 2009 election and was then brutally crushed.
The answer was simple: news cameras were barred; news gatherers were barred from the protests and punished by the removal of news media credentials as the Iranian authorities deployed their armory of controls: the Internet slowed; plainclothes security officials on motorcycles beat and intimidated protesters; the Parliament bayed for opposition leaders to be executed.
The differences in coverage, though, reflected another distinction relating to the way regimes interact with the world beyond their borders and to the choices confronting them in the face of the region’s rage, illuminating how Western patronage, once a font of support for some leaders, may now unravel the very regimes it once held in place.
“For years, Arab rulers told their Western patrons not to worry about their subjects, as though they were obedient, if sometimes unruly, children and these patrons were only too happy to follow their advice,” Adam Shatz, a senior editor, wrote in the London Review of Books.
But once the new wave of Arab wrath, starting in Tunisia, built a tsunami on the Nile, Washington reluctantly concluded that its patronage of President Hosni Mubarak placed it on the wrong side of history. The Obama administration shifted, and Mr. Mubarak’s fate was sealed.
For three decades, as the bedrock of a regional policy shielding Israel, Mr. Mubarak secured America’s favor and was rewarded in many ways — from tolerance of his undemocratic rule to the $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid to Cairo’s military.
That largess, too, turned to leverage: Egypt’s generals insisted from the outset that they would not order their troops to use force against protesters, in effect emboldening the uprising against their political boss.
By contrast, Tehran’s often fractious rulers have no comparable patron — indeed, they draw power themselves as sponsors of groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon — and so they may, and do, act with impunity.