Background - 30.09.2022 - 00:00
30 September 2022. On 4 January 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable trader from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, passed away. Two weeks earlier, he had set himself on fire out of desperation after the police had arbitrarily confiscated his stall and deprived him of his livelihood. The news of his death turned out to be the spark in the powder keg of smouldering discontent over a corrupt and incompetent, but all-powerful state authority. Protests spread like wildfire, prompting the hated dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee ten days later. Thus began the ’Arab Spring‘, and with it the hope for an end to oppression.
The current protests serve like a prism that bundles the anger coming from various different sources.
On 16 September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a student from the Kurdish provinces in Iran, passed away. On a visit to family in Tehran, she was arrested by the Guidance Patrol – the morality police – for a dress code violation. A picture of her abused body was shared on social media, initially sparking demonstrations in her home region. Quickly, however, the protests spread to all provinces. Those who have seen the images of women burning their headscarves cannot help but sense their anger and determination to end the oppression.
But will they succeed? The first thing to note is that there is a new quality to these protests. There have been repeated demonstrations before, against electoral fraud, rampant inflation, water shortages, corruption or the overbearing nature of the state authorities. Yet these were mostly local or limited to certain sections of the population: They were centred around individual concerns. The current protests serve more like a prism that bundles the anger coming from various different sources. Women and men alike have taken to the streets, old and young, middle class and workers, liberals and conservatives, Persians, Kurds and Azeris. Even in the religious stronghold of Mashhad, birthplace of the revolutionary leader Khamenei, a police station was set ablaze. One reason for the broad support of the protests is a general identification with the victim: "Mahsa Amini could have been our daughter, too."
The basis of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is irrevocably broken.
Today, it can be said with certainty that the basis of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is irrevocably broken. Previously, protests were linked to specific concerns, but now it's about the system as such. Iran has a relatively young and well-educated population with few prospects in the labour market, while well-connected individuals flaunt their (sometimes obscene) wealth. The younger generation no longer has any connection to the revolution. The digital natives do not want to be told how to live by old men, and they certainly do not want to be bullied by an incompetent state power. The fact that their protest is supported by many who previously shared the values of the revolution, which also promised national self-determination, marks a turning point. Pushing this genie back into the bottle is a futile effort.
But what can this spirit actually achieve? One thing is clear: There is no way the regime will give in. While it has been pursuing a harder line for some time now, the uprising has hit the regime at an unfavourable time. Revolutionary leader Khamenei (83) is frail. Not just since he underwent emergency surgery three weeks ago, the question of his succession has been virulent. Nominally, the council of experts, led by a 95-year-old ayatollah, must propose and elect a successor. Yet in fact, the issue is being decided in a shadowy tussle between the various positions of power within the state. In the current climate, this is hardly acceptable to the population. With the threat (and use) of violence, various other reprisals, an interruption of the Internet and other measures, the regime will try to stifle the uprising. It needs this mix of measures because a critical mass has probably already been reached, so violent suppression alone will no longer suffice.
Yet the uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq in 2019 also brought such a critical mass onto the streets – in Lebanon, around a quarter of the population. But to wage such a campaign successfully, supporting power is needed – support from the military, the security services or other parts of a ’deep state’, from relevant actors in business and finance, or from an influential foreign power. In Tunisia, the insurgents were able to mobilise social forces, especially the trade unions. In addition to this, parts of the power structure withdrew their trust in Ben Ali, which ultimately left him with no other option than to flee to Saudi Arabia with his entourage. Because there were viable social structures, it was subsequently possible to integrate both the army and the security services as well as the Muslim Brotherhood into a democratic system, albeit a shaky one – the future of which, however, is now questionable after President Saied's self-coup.
The insurgents in Lebanon could not count on any supporting power when, after a brief moment of shock, the power cartel closed ranks and simply ignored both the protests and the appeals from abroad. Not even the explosion in the port of Beirut changed anything.
Although voices around former President Khatami and individual clerics expressed their support, the insurgents in Iran also lack any supporting force. There are no alternative social structures that they could use and no opposition that is united to any reasonable degree.
The population is presented with a choice between plague and cholera – with dictatorship being the lesser of two evils.
It is part of the script of every autocratic or dictatorial government to eliminate such alternative structures in order to present the regime as the only guarantor of a reasonably stable statehood: dictatorship or anarchy as the only alternatives. The population is presented with a choice between plague and cholera – with dictatorship being the lesser of two evils. Even many who suffered under the brutal dictatorships of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Assads in Syria prefer them to the power vacuum that followed, which was and is characterised by barely restrained violence.
Even if frictions were to arise within the power structure, for example, in a power struggle over Khamenei's succession, this would hardly lead to an opening. The more likely outcome would be something like a military dictatorship by the Revolutionary Guards. The sanctions have noticeably strengthened their position within the economy, as they control smuggling. They were once very aptly described as a business conglomerate armed to the teeth. Tightening existing sanctions or establishing new ones would therefore primarily affect the population, not the power structure.
So what remains to be done? There are in fact no good options. Even moral support for the uprising, with the best of intentions, is rather cynical given the current circumstances. What remains is the idea of ’change through rapprochement’ that the JCPOA nuclear agreement embodies. The JCPOA was built on the hope that the economic opening of the country would make the middle class better off, which might then lead them to press for political reforms. That hope may be naive, but it is not entirely implausible given Iran's complex civilisational history, high level of education and merchant tradition. The bad news is that this window is closed for the time being.
So the hope remains that, presumably only under a successor to Khamenei, there will once again be an opening up and movement towards reform. This cannot, per se, be ruled out, but will the population be satisfied with it?
The situation leaves us with a paradox described by Antonio Gramsci: The old is dying, the new cannot yet be born. It is the time of crisis, of the "fenomeni morbosi."
Dr. Andreas Böhm is Director of the Center for Philanthropy at the University of St.Gallen and lecturer in the Master Programme of International Law.
Picture: keystone / AP Philippos Christou