Resistance is the key word that defines the latest protests in Iran against the Islamic regime. On 13th September 2022, 22 years old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police on the charges of moral indignity. Her crime—was an alleged breach of the prescribed dress code.
Her brother, who had accompanied Amini, was told that she would be detained for an hour, where she would undergo a “briefing class”. However, the security forces in the van tortured and severely beat her. After two hours, she was taken to Tehran’s Kasra Hospital.
After the initial examination, the doctors declared that Amini had “suffered a sudden heart attack” and had died on 16th September.
The Death of Mahsa Amini and the Subsequent Protests in Iran
Since the death of Mahsa Amini, protests have erupted across the country, with women (young and old alike) taking off their headscarves and chanting “death to the dictator”. The slogans of the protest movement tell us a story of how Iranian women seek change. One such slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom”, defines the whole protest. It represents the dire need for Iranian society to treat women as fellow human beings who are free to do as they will. It is a fight against the mandatory hijab imposed on women since the 1979 revolution.
Iranian Revolution of 1979
Iran’s current Islamic regime was established with the Revolution of February 1979. The revolution had set forth a flurry of events that marked the beginning of today’s Iran. The United States had lost a partner in Shah, who the revolutionaries ousted.
Ayatollah Khomeini, who had spearheaded the Islamic revolution, declared at the end of it that it was a time to preserve Islam. In his influential treatise, Islamic Government, published in 1970, Khomeini declared, “The preservation of Islam is even more important than prayer.” He noted that Islam could be preserved only through an Islamic government.
Shadi Hamid, writing for The Atlantic, notes that “In fairness to Khomeini, when he was giving the lectures that would form the core of Islamic Government, he probably hadn’t fully entertained the possibility that, one day, he’d return triumphantly to Tehran and get the chance to implement his ideas.”
Khomeini himself admits that not many expected the regime would survive. He wrote, “people said it would fall within a year.” For Khomeini, the hijab is central to the Iranian revolution. Once, he is reported to have said, “If the Islamic revolution is to have no other result than the veiling of women, then that is enough for the revolution per se.”
Foucault in Iran
Writing from a motel room in Tehran during the revolution, fancying himself a “philosopher-journalist”, Michel Foucault wrote:
It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is most modern and most insane.(Foucault, 1979).
(For a detailed discussion on Foucault and the Iranian revolution, read: Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after Enlightenment, published in 2016 by the University of Minnesota Press.)
Perhaps Foucault was over-deterministic with his optimism about the revolution. Or maybe, as some scholars claim, what transpired over the years in Iran was a hijack of the socialist revolution. At the time of the revolution, it seemed an unexpected revolution—a counter-revolution, as some in the West claim.
Autocracies and the Resilience for Power
Today, such revolutions are a rarity. Moreso, today’s autocrats control too much to give in to revolutions. Forty-three into its founding as an Islamic republic, Iran has changed in ways unimaginable. Iran is a lot more repressive than one would have expected in the late 1970s.
It has discredited all entertainment as propaganda of the West, all dissent as the West’s ploy, and all freedoms are illusory Western anathema. However, today’s Iran has a perfect recipe for a revolutionary change. A new revolution would want a shamble economy, a corrupt political system, and a furious public.
However, there is little hope in how the protest would change anything in Iran. A recent The New York Times essay notes that Iran belongs to “a small club of nations whose systems have proven some of the most durable in the world: those formed out of violent social revolution.”
The Dictator’s Handbook by De Mesquita and Smith
In their book The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith propound their “selectorate theory”.
They note that: every political landscape can be broken down into three groups: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition.
- The nominal selectorate (interchangeables) is everyone that has some legal say in choosing a leader. In a democracy like India, every member can legally vote.
- The real selectorate (influentials) is the people who actually choose their leaders. For instance, in China, it is all the voting members of the Communist Party of China.
- Whereas the winning coalition (essentials) are those, you need to appease as a leader, without whom you cannot sustain.
In the case of democracies, the winning coalitions are pretty big.
But, as De Mesquita and Smith note, the trick is in keeping such coalitions small.
Rules for Social and Political Control
De Mesquita and Smith write: “Rule 1: Keep the coalition as small as possible” to stay in power indefinitely. In North Korea, the winning coalition is minimal—reduced to a bunch of military generals and princely elites.
Likewise in China, the same—a bunch of PRC executive council members. In the case of Iran, too, such coalitions are restricted to a small group of influential people close to Khomeini. That is why it is easy for them to sustain, even without popular support.
In today’s autocracies, they do not necessarily need the support of the general public to be in power; they need the support of a winning coalition.
This winning coalition in societies like Iran includes elites (in the religious ranks, top leadership in the army, a repressive police mechanism, and some politicians who can be easily replaced by one another).
Because such autocratic societies sustain on the logic of appeasing and keeping the small coalition happy, these regimes sustain (with or without popular support).
Endgame for the Protests in Iran 2022
So, what is the endgame in protests such as these?
Or, asked differently, how do we expect any meaningful change in Iran posts these protests?
While the winning coalition in Iran is small, the political institution’s power is diffused into other tightly knit institutions, with an invisible “big brother” in Khomeini. Therefore, it is difficult to expect a political change anytime soon.
Even if one political leader resigns due to this protest, another will be replaced. Moreover, there is no—space for—alternative political imaginations in societies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. Therefore, we cannot expect one political elite to replace the other with different political visions.
It isn’t easy to envision a political transformation in such societies as Iran. At the same time, some may be optimistic about the current Iranian protests’ ability to reshape Iranian society.
Some may even point to the Arab Spring, where autocrats—such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen—were displaced by mass uprisings. Such a change is desirable in Iran; however, expecting it to happen is far-fetched.
Expectations of Social Change in Iran
Iran is in the midst of an unprecedented protest spearheaded by women. These protests represent a “cultural counter-revolution” to the Iranian revolution of 1979. While mainstream global media has termed the protests the feminist revolution in Iran, the chances of anything coming out of these protests in Iran remain bleak. It is evident in the 2019 October protests in Iran, which were said to be bigger and bloodier than the present, violent revolutionary guards quelled that.
Similarly, in 2009, thousands of protesters took to the streets shouting, “where is my vote?” in the face of the rigged presidential election in favour of an official candidate. At that time, the military quelled the protests in Iran by imprisoning, torturing and killing the protesters. In all these years since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the only successful revolution was the Iranian revolution of 1979. Now, why was the Iranian revolution in 1979 successful? And why would 2009, 2019, and 2022 (likely) revolutions not be so?
How Should we assess social movements?
One may point to the essential requirement of a revolution: Leadership. The leadership would further have an alternative vision for society. In the 1979 revolution, both existed. In the subsequent protest movements, even when there was a bleak vision of what they did not want, there was no “what they wanted” in the form of an alternative.
This is also due to the lack of leadership with an alternative vision for Iran. If a group leadership claims an alternative vision, they would be identified, tortured and killed outright. Therefore, spontaneous public protests had not found any success, even when they were able to accrue media attention and make headlines worldwide.
While it is too early to dismiss the protests as leading to any revolutionary change, it is clear that the government will not sit quietly. The security forces have cracked down on protests violently. More than 200 people were reportedly killed, although the numbers may be much higher than reported.
Conclusion: Protests in Iran
Despite violent protests, the protests continue across the country. This shows the resolve of the Iranian public for a chance in the face of the violent crackdown. At this point, this protest has two possible outcomes: The government will successfully mobilise their armed forces, police, and revolutionary guards against the protesters, and the demonstrations will be quelled.
The protesters will protest in Iran indefinitely, and the government will be toppled (this is highly unlikely). If this happens, chaos will follow without clear leadership and an alternative political vision.
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