'Reflections on Democracy'
by NADER HASHEMI
29 Jan 2010 02:14
[ analysis ] Struggles for democracy generally require three critical ingredients for success: effective and incorruptible leadership, a strategy for mass mobilization and a sense of hope that engenders sacrifice. Last year at this time, none of these existed in Iran. The clerical oligarchy was firmly in control, the Reform movement was in disarray and political apathy reigned supreme. Today, eight months after the disputed presidential election, all three key ingredients are now firmly in place. Defying expectations, Iran's Green Movement (Jonbesh-e Sabz-e Iran) soldiers on in the face of an authoritarian regime whose brutal suppression has failed to intimidate or subdue it. Whether this movement will be triumphant is unknown but what is clear is that an indigenous movement for democracy has delivered a major blow to the Islamic Republic: Iranian politics henceforth will never be the same. How did these three elements come together?
Understanding the origins and the defiant posture of the leadership of the Green Movement requires returning to an event in August 2000 that marked a critical denouement for the reformist-conservative struggle in Iran. At this time, the Reform Movement was in its prime, winning landslide elections at the presidential, municipal and most recently the parliamentary level. Hope for democratic change was in the air as Reformers captured all of the key democratically-contested institutions of the state in quick succession, to the shock and bewilderment of their conservative rivals.
The first item on the legislative agenda of reform-dominated 6th parliament (2000-2004) was to overturn an illiberal press law passed in the final days of the outgoing hard-line parliament. The print media in Iran had flourished during President Khatami's first term and quickly became a bastion of support for pro-democracy activists. Courageous journalists and editors were breaking political taboos by transcending the narrow ideological confines of Iran's post-revolutionary elite consensus. A public sphere was created whereby Iranian society was in full scale debate -- to the mortification of the ruling clerical establishment -- about the relationship between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy and the moral basis of legitimate political authority.
As parliamentary debate on the press law began with the eyes of the nation upon it, the speaker suddenly intervened to halt the proceedings. He announced that he had just received an important summons from the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei demanding that the existing (illiberal) press law not be revised and that all debate on this topic cease immediately. Khamenei's letter -- which angry MPs forced the speaker to read into the parliamentary record -- specifically warned that "should the enemies of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity and the faith of the people....The current [press] law ... has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and [therefore], its amendment and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country and the system."
Scuffles and fistfights broke out among rival members of parliament. Several deputies walked out in protest as chaos soon enveloped the parliamentary chamber. The speaker tried to restore calm by reminding everyone that the Supreme Leader's actions were legally permissible. "Our constitution has the elements of the absolute rule of the supreme clerical leader [velayat-e motlagh faghih] and you all know this and approve of this. We are all duty-bound to abide by it." The speaker at the time was Mehdi Karoubi, a 2009 Reformist presidential candidate and today one of the courageous leaders of the Green Movement, famous for exposing a policy of systematic rape in Iranian prisons. His defiance of Khamenei today, in contrast to his deference nine years ago, is worth noting.
After the June 2009 election, and following a week of demonstrations that brought three million people into the streets of Tehran, Khamenei delivered his much anticipated Friday sermon. He publicly endorsed Ahmadinejad as president, declared the election to be free and fair on balance and then went a step further. Similar to his August 2000 intervention, he forcefully demanded a halt to all debate on the topic, declaring the issue resolved while threatening the opposition with violence if their defiance persisted. This time, however, the senior leadership of the reform movement stood firm and boldly defied the explicit wishes of the Supreme Leader. This marked a critical turning point in the relationship between reformers and the Islamic Republican establishment. Their disobedience inspired millions of Iranians and provided Iran's democratic forces with the internal leadership it desperately sought and previously lacked.
By all measures, the leadership of the Green Movement comprised of the troika of Mir Hossein Mousavi (former Prime Minister), Mehdi Karoubi (former Speaker of Parliament) and Mohammad Khatami (former President), can be characterized as relatively mild and measured in their speeches and political statements. All remain loyal to the Islamic Republic, its current constitution and the political theology of Ayatollah Khomeini, albeit emphasizing a democratic and humanistic reading of this legacy. Nonetheless, despite repeated warnings from the Supreme Leader and a growing chorus of hard-line opinion demanding their arrest -- and more recently their execution -- the leadership continues its defiance of established power and its steadfast support for the civil and human rights of their fellow citizens. The future of the Green Movement and any hope for an eventual democratic transition in Iran will be dependent on the ongoing resistance of these leaders.
The strategy of mass mobilization and street protests has at best a tenuous link to Iran's Green leadership. It has been accurately reported that leaders are responding to and being led by society and not the opposite. In his most recent statement to the nation, (No. 17, January 1, 2010), Mousavi explicitly acknowledged the point that protests are occurring not because he has called people into the streets but rather due to the prevalence of "widespread social and civil networks that were formed during and after the election through the people themselves and which continue to self generate." This fascinating development suggests the extent to which the Green Movement has penetrated key sectors of Iranian society based on the existence of underground networks of activists scattered in major cities who rely on the internet and mobile phone technology to spread their message. This also explains why the movement has been hard to crush, notwithstanding the best efforts of the regime.
And finally there is the issue of hope. In a recent in-depth report on the state of human rights Iran after the June election, Amnesty International noted that "human rights violations in Iran are now as bad as at any time in the past 20 years." To date, the Islamic Republic has imprisoned almost every leading opposition figure, human and civil rights activist, student leader and dissident journalist. In fact, it is hard to think of the name of prominent Iranian pro-democracy activist that the regime has not arrested. In its desperation, it even picked up the sister of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, an apolitical figure, with the sole intention of intimidating her more famous sibling.
Yet notwithstanding this repressive atmosphere replete with show trials, torture, rape, death and threats of mass executions, Iranians who sympathize with the Green Movement today are experiencing a deep sense of hope, cautious optimism and at times exhilaration about the prospects of a better future. There is a general appreciation that a transition to democracy will not emerge without significant sacrifice and a long-term commitment to oppositional activity. A rejection of violent revolution and a commitment to a strategy of nonviolence resistance by necessity demands patience, prudence and time. In the words, this is not sprint but a marathon.
A realization that there are no quick fixes to the problem of political authoritarianism in Iran is informed by the fact that the Iranian regime, despite being shaken and confused, remains firmly in control of the key institutions of violence, the administration of justice and economic production (largely oil). Evidence that this control has weakened is shaky at best. Moreover, the Iranian regime, in part due to its control over the media, retains significant support in rural and poorer areas of the country including a core group of loyal devotees who dominate the upper echelons of the security forces, many of whom believe that Ali Khamenei is God's representative on earth.
The next stage of confrontation is set for early February and the date could not be more symbolic -- the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Expectations are for a similar repetition of defiant street protests, a harsh government crackdown and then a wave of mass arrests. Meanwhile Iran's Green Movement continues its nonviolent resistance. Its future success will depend on whether the three key ingredients for democratic change -- effective leadership, a strategy for mass mobilization and hope -- remain in place and grow stronger with time.
Nader Hashemi is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies.