Decoding demography of protests in Iran

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Ongoing uprising is different in all aspects from any previous revolt

Last week, a new wave of popular uprising hit the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not the first time that Iranian streets are witnessing a mass protest of this scale. The theocratic system of Iran, where a clerical class rules over the country in an authoritarian manner, has faced a serious legitimacy problem for the last couple of decades. As a result, Iranians have always looked for opportunities to express their anger. The establishment, to counteract this, has tried to create safety valves, such as regular elections, in order to ease the angst and desperation of the citizens.

It was just seven months before this uprising that the Islamic Republic held its 12th presidential election, in which the Iranians enthusiastically cast their votes, and President Rouhani won with a clear majority for the second time. Two years earlier, Tehranians voluntarily gathered at Tehran Airport to welcome Rouhani’s foreign minister (Javad Zarif) on his return from Vienna, where he had concluded a nuclear deal with the international community.

Iranians were very hopeful that the nuclear deal could bring prosperity to the country. In reality also, besides sanction reliefs, millions of dollars, which had hitherto been frozen outside, was released. But this money never trickled down to the people. Iranians thought that this money was either being spent for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar Assad in Syria, the Shia militants in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen, or was simply being deposited in the accounts of a number of powerful clergymen in Qom for the purpose of advancing the Shia global project. All these conjectures dangerously became part of the street gossip.

The problem first broke out on Dec. 10, 2017 when President Rouhani submitted his annual budget draft to the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The draft, in fact, looks more like a bankruptcy report. But it opened Iranians’ eyes to where their national wealth had been going. For instance, the budget of Al-Mustafa International University (an institution working for the propagation of Shiism throughout the world, from Indonesia to Burkina Faso and Niger) is more than the combined budgets of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the National Organization for Food and Drug. The bill snuffed out the last glimmer of hope the people had of a likely improvement in their standards of living.

On the other hand, the conservatives were already angry with Rouhani over the latter’s pre-election statements and his consequent victory in the May 2017 presidential election. They were also planning to cash in on the president’s economic failure by exploiting the grievances of the downtrodden layers of the society. For this purpose, the city of Mashhad was a particularly ideal place for two simple reasons:

First, the city is the powerhouse of Ibrahim Raeesi (President Rouhani’s rival in the last presidential election, and the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine), and his father-in-law Hujjat-ul Islam Alam-ul-Huda, (the imam of Friday prayers in Mashhad, and the de facto ruler of the city). Secondly, the city is home to a significant population of poor people. Generally, religious cities lure poor people who depend on alms and donations. In the recent years, the rate of donations and alms has fallen down due to the economic breakdown, and these poor people are now leading an even more miserable life, and thus it has become easier to exploit their grievances.

The conservatives expected that the protests would remain under control and provide them with a pretext to pressure the president. But the protesters soon showed their real intentions when they started demanding the end of the Islamic Republic. By the next day the uprising spread to dozens of other Iranian cities and spiraled out of control.

That said, jumping to any conclusion about the likely outcomes of the uprising might be premature as yet. We can, however, safely ask the following question: What are the most significant aspects of this uprising and how is it different from previous ones? To answer this two-fold question, we would need to decode the demography of the protestors, the nature of the slogans being chanted, and the geographic distribution of the uprising.

As a matter of fact, the ongoing uprising is different in all aspects from any revolt that happened previously. For instance, during the 2009 post-presidential election riots, the majority of the protesters were from the upper-middle class, whose main slogan was “where is my vote?” They were demanding their civil rights. In the current uprising, however, the majority of the protestors are from the “barefoot” class, that is, the downtrodden segment of the society, and their slogan is “where is my money?”, which connotes a demand for their most basic rights.

Also in the current uprising, the protestors are chanting, “Reformist! Principled! The adventure is over!” (Islah talab! Usul garaa! Tamam e majara!), and “Independence, freedom, Iranian Republic!” (Istiqlal, Azadi, Jumhuri e Irani). It means that the protestors have lost their trust in the political reforms championed by the reformist camp within the establishment. It indicates that the protestors no longer see an intra-system solution to their problems and seem to be after a complete restructuring of the political system. Surprisingly, no one is heard uttering “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great), which has remained a key slogan in the Iranian street politics over the last half of the century.

However, the variety of the slogans, ranging from demands for the ‘provision of basic rights’ to demands for ‘the restructuring of the entire political system’, also means that the thresholds of the demands are also different this time, with each being represented by a distinct sub-class. Therefore, the movement is significantly pluralistic in nature. To put it another way, different people with different demands are protesting side by side, and the only factor that seems to bind them together is their demand for change.

The current uprising is highly prevalent in terms of having spread to every corner of the country. More importantly, unlike previous uprisings, this time small, remote and peripheral cities and towns are on the front, because the people of these cities have been more adversely affected by bad economy than the people in mega cities and core areas. It is also to be noted that among the most restive cities are those dominated by non-Persian ethnic groups such as Lurs, Arabs, Kurds, etc.

While the current uprising is the most radical and comprehensive one in the Islamic Republic to date, there are some fundamental issues that can play either negative or positive roles in determining the trajectory of the uprising:

First, the uprising does not have a leader. It can prove as a merit or demerit. Leaders can give direction to the movement and gather the members around defined goals and objectives, and provide them with a future line of action. Nonetheless, in an authoritarian system like that of Iran, it also involves the risk of compromise. Plus, the arrest of the leader can break down the morale of the movement, as in the case of what befell the Green Movement following the arrest of its twin leaders (Mosavi and Karrobi).

Second, although the uprising is widespread in terms of geographical area, the middle class and/or upper class has not joined it fully. The reason perhaps is that this class is still suffering from the trauma of the crackdown in the aftermath of the 2009 election, and also the origins of this protest is a bit doubtful in their eyes; they view it as a conspiracy fabricated by the principled camp to pressure President Rouhani.

Third, the approach of the international community can also play a significant role in boosting the morale of the protestors. During the 2009 protests, one of the slogans was “Obama! Obama! Either with them or with us!” (Obama, Obama! Ya ba oona, y ba maa). But this time President Trump and his cabinet members are all using the social media actively and they are giving open support to the protestors through that channel. It, however, provides the establishment with a pretext to crack down on the protestors easier by labelling them as “agents of the U.S.”

One would need to wait and see how the Iranian authorities would approach the uprising. So far the establishment seems confused. Also, there is no consensus among the ruling elite on how to deal with the issue due to the ongoing power politics between various personalities and political fractions.

Invariably, the Islamic Republic is strong enough to crush the uprising. A regime with vast experience in putting down revolutions in Syria and Yemen can easily suppress an uprising within its own country. But, while the Iranian establishment is very good at suppression, it is very bad at management. There are already indications that it is not ready to face the reality as it is. It is claiming that protestors have taken to the streets on the invitation of foreign countries, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Looking at the nature of the slogans, the demography of the protestors, and the geographic prevalence of the uprising, it is safe to argue that even if the current unrest will not be the end of the Islamic Republic, it will certainly usher in a very challenging era for the regime, because the people, at least theoretically, have come to the conclusion that the solution to their problem does not lie in the current political system, its reform project included. Once a nation has theoretical conviction about what it wants and what it does not, it usually does not take the practical part too long to follow.

 

By Selim Celal

The Turkey-based writer is an expert on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic politics.

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