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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)


Tossing information grenades over Middle Eastern walls Add to ...

The moment when the new politics of the Middle East first revealed its face may well have occurred three years ago when an Iranian Canadian found himself screaming in pain in a fluorescent-lit room shortly after his torturer had repeated, over and over, the angry demand: "Who is Pauly Shore?"

Maziar Bahari, the journalist and filmmaker who had come to Iran to cover the 2009 election, was halfway through his 118 days of solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin prison when the Revolutionary Guards decided to devote a day of pain and humiliation to extracting as much information as possible about his links to the American B-movie comedian.

Those links consisted of Mr. Bahari's membership in the ironic Facebook group The Pauly Shore Alliance. The Guards' senior elite had decided, using the espionage tool known as Google, that this must be some sort of Zionist spy ring. This became a small but brutal part of an elaborate attempt, by all appearances directed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, to use torture and intimidation to prove that the mass democracy uprisings that summer were the work of a small circle of foreign agents. Mr. Bahari was made out to be a linchpin of this plot, until it collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.

Mr. Bahari's ordeal, which he has chronicled in his moving and, at times, very funny book Then They Came for Me, is more than just a random event in Iran's spiral from authoritarianism into totalitarianism. His arrest in June of 2009 was one of the first organized government responses to a wave of grassroots protest movements that would soon sweep across most of the Middle East and North Africa.

Because of Mr. Bahari's superb personal knowledge of Iran's government, he was able to produce an account of exactly how, and why, he was tormented, and the larger context of a fast-changing regime. It offers a number of lessons about the way Middle Eastern politics work.

Regimes will risk everything, including their own survival, to prove that their critics aren't authentic. We can laugh at Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's claim that his country's democracy movement was the product of Israeli-financed al-Qaeda agents putting LSD into the coffee of the nation's youth. Or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's claims that the thousands of people his forces are shooting or imprisoning are part of a conspiracy. But this marks their greatest point of weakness.

The Middle Eastern states were not born as Soviet-style totalitarian governments. They are mostly paternalistic regimes, built on the belief that a majority of the population will naturally be attracted to the great ideas and natural beneficence of the leader. Their legitimacy depends entirely on this sense of paternal respect.

If a sizable group of people become unhappy, they can't be confronted as legitimate domestic voices, because that would undermine the regime's raison d'être. So dissenters must be shown to be outsiders, or actually driven outside, or eliminated - even if this effort undermines legitimacy even further. This, as we've seen over and over again, can tear apart a regime.

Information is a grenade that's hard to toss back over the wall. Iran's Green uprisings were the first to use social media in a significant way. And their bloody aftermath marked the first time a regime used this technology in crushing protests. Bloggers had been locked up before, but Mr. Bahari was among the first in the region to be tortured on the basis of Facebook "likes."

It's become a cliché to say that free-flowing online information is good for democracy activists, but even better for spy agencies and the secret police. This is true to a point. But beyond monitoring people and locking them up, it's actually much harder for authoritarian regimes to use this information to build support for their own cause: It looks forced, it looks fake, and it achieves the opposite of its intended effect.

So the only solution becomes the removal of all information. Both Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Col. Gadhafi shut off Internet access. This week, the Revolutionary Guards began raiding homes across Tehran and removing the backyard satellite dishes Iranians use to get foreign news. "Accessing information," the guards explained, "is the main and most important method used by the enemies of the establishment."

These regimes prefer to respond with bold scripts and big-budget productions. But, as Mr. Bahari says, it resembles the making of Waterworld.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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