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The advantage of not understanding politics

The Arab uprisings have proved very different in type to those in Iran, in terms of the scale, scope, both their conscious constituents and their beneficiaries, dynamics and social roots.
Ahmad Alehossein
19 March 2011

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped initiate Egypt’s revolution with a Facebook page memorializing a victim of the regime’s violence gave a very interesting speech at TEDxCairo in March 2011.

Up until the very last minutes of the speech, whatever Wael says can be said about Iran too – from the systemic corruption, to poverty, inequality, people’s feelings and their grievances, and the use of internet to expose the regime’s atrocities, etc. However, as an Iranian, throughout the speech you would keep asking yourself why the same results have not been achieved in Iran. We have been travelling the same path for two years even to the extent that it became tenable to talk of ‘Iran’s fourth revolution’ in a matter of a century!

But at the very last minutes in his conclusion, he states something that must partly explain the difference. He says: “we’re gonna win because we don't understand politics. We’re gonna win because we don't play their dirty games. We’re gonna win because we don't have an agenda". Wael here is raising a point that deserves specific attention when we aim to explain the differences between the Iranian and Egyptian cases.

I believe this points to one of the most decisive reasons why the pro-democracy (or the Green) movement in Iran has not been successful yet. The movement has even declined both in numbers and the level of solidarity. Taking Wael’s idea, I would like to suggest that the movement has not won since it has strategically tried to "understand politics" and to play its "dirty game”. Among the indicators of such strategy have been: participation in a highly controlled election, followed by the "where is my vote" campaigns, occasional protests, giving far too much weight to opposition leaders, tuning its actions to the requirements of party politics, framing its grievances based on the social values of the highly educated middle class, avoiding a language that would be understood by the working class, relying on political pressure groups, and adopting an incremental approach to bringing about democratic change, based on dualistic conceptions of freedom, such as Fareed Zakaria's imaginary notion of "illiberal democracy" vs. "liberal autocracy".

Just as a very small but still important element, one may simply refer to the movement’s name, i.e. ‘Green Movement’, that corresponds to the favored colour of a presidential candidate, Mousavi, symbolizing his sacred dynasty. The secular forces participating in the movement pragmatically made up and added more meanings to the symbolizing color, because they hoped it would show the world that another colour revolution was about to take place.

But, what are the colour revolutions after all? They are mostly changes of regime led by opposition political parties against the ruling elite by pursuing the establishment of a minimal liberal democratic reform. The reforms these so-called progressive parties have pushed for have, in practice, been significantly oriented towards securing the interests of their friends in the  internationalized elite in competition with the more endogenous (or nationalist) totalitarian elite. Though the latter group might have been dependent on the support of the newly emerging poles of global capitalism, e.g. Russia or China, they have relied on anti-globalist sentiments.

Many of these revolutions (in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan for instance) did initially achieve victory through highly contentious elections, but failed to stay in power or lost their popular support as they proved themselves incompetent to their supporters in dealing with many social problems; especially the problems that are rooted in the liberalization and the internationalization of their economy, as well as deep-seated corruption among factional groups. When you serve the interest of an internationalized group of the elite and create further inequality in your country by taking up economic liberalization policies, you will certainly lose the support of your populations. This has been the case in many third world societies and even in some developed ones (France, the Netherlands, the UK, and now Ireland) which have given rise to far right or nationalist-populist forces.

In fact, Iran had this kind of quasi-colour revolution in 1996 when Khatami surprisingly won the election. Although the event was not identified as a colour-type revolution, the reformist political forces proved themselves incapable of providing people with even a feasible level of freedom, democracy and justice. The result was the Ahmadi Nejad’s slim victory in the 2005 election  - a populist gesture in the absence of a good turnout.

The Green Movement has been in large part a concerted attempt by the reformist forces who aimed to regain power, in association with marginalized political forces, backed up by an advocacy network of the international elite. The network believed that by playing the dirty game of politics and pragmatically helping the Reformists within, they could witness a more effective colour revolution that would wishfully end up with the whole regime changed. This is not to question the very honest sacrifices that many young men and women have been making so far in the streets and the detention centres to realize their dreams. However, unfortunately, these sacrifices have been made in a context where the rules of the game had already been set up by major political forces.

Being able to predict almost every move by their opponents, the regime has proved itself much cleverer than its opponents have. Playing the game on the narrow terrain of politics rather in the broader ground of society where 10 million people live below the ‘absolute poverty line’, the movement has never been able to mobilize the masses (except on the very early days after the disputed election in 2009) and communicate its messages beyond its social bases, as Egyptian activists like Wael did.

The Arab uprisings have shown themselves to be different in type to those in Iran, in terms of the scale, scope, both conscious constituents and their beneficiaries, dynamics, and social roots.

However, the critical question, which is worth re-thinking, is whether the Iranian regime will survive the current regional transformations without facing serious new challenges. Will the regime’s self-confidence last long enough for the dust to settle? Only compare Ahmadi-Nejad’s economic reform plans with those of the Shah (with a focus on his land reform) which started a few years after the 1953 Coup, backed by the Imperial forces. The reform was an attempt to weaken the power of an old traditional feudal elite as a structural obstacle to Iran’s modernization, and to regain his popularity that was badly damaged due to the Coup.

Similar to the Shah’s economic plans, Ahmadi Nejad’s radical reforms have taken a populist approach in order to buy the support and the loyalty of Iranian lower classes that is most needed after the last disputed 2009 election in order to neutralize the threat of the Green movement. However, as in the case of the Shah’s land reform, Ahmadi Nejad’s plans run the risk of politicizing the working and the lower middle classes, especially when inflation starts to regain its momentum, and domestic production loses its capacity to catch up with skyrocketing energy costs.

The new Persian year, starting this April, could be a very difficult time for the regime. The recent rebound in oil prices, caused by the Middle Eastern crises and the Japanese Tsunami, seems to be a promising opportunity for the Iranian regime in terms of its capacity to deal with its economic problems. However, as past experience shows, money is not all you need to solve the social issues, especially when it is in corrupt hands. Contingent injections of cash into a malfunctioning system can cause turbulences and cyclones of inflation followed by stagnation and rising levels of unemployment. If the regime fails to deal with the coming economic cyclones effectively, a new generation of surprising uprisings similar to those in the Arab world, can also be expected. 

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