We are politically starved and they are our heroes. We long for an end to the 40-year-old dictatorship and they long for freedom. We wish for return and they clamor for bread. We are the Iranians in exile yearning for change and they the Iranians inside the homeland paying with their lives on the streets.
The protests that began in Iran’s second city Mashhad on December 28, likely instigated by supporters of Ebrahim Raisi, a politician caught in fierce rivalry with President Hassan Rouhani, grew and spread across the country with unusual rapidity. It seems the only thing Iran’s leaders cannot do forever is silence the people. Chants against the president quickly moved on to slogans against the dictatorship as a whole, including the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. As of writing, more than 21 people have been killed and hundreds arrested.
Seven years have passed since the “Arab Spring,” and this time it’s the Iranian diaspora holding its breath. The last occasion for such hope was the eruption of the Green Movement in 2009, which began with charges of electoral fraud and reformists asking, “Where is my vote?” The countrywide demonstrations continued for months, until activists were killed and imprisoned and leading figures placed under house arrest. But the movement did not manage to mobilize large sections of Iranian society. The cries were for democracy, not for bread. This is the main difference between the two moments of protest: where the Green Movement had its base in the middle classes, this time the demonstrators have come primarily from the working classes in provincial towns. Tehran has not been the epicenter.
If the government has been taken by surprise, however, there are few indications that these protests could gather the force required to disassemble the machinery known as the Islamic Republic. In his recent book Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford University Press, 2017), Asef Bayat, professor of sociology and Middle East studies, offers a spot-on analysis of the differences between Iran in the 1970s and the current historical conjuncture, which gave us the Arab Spring’s high hopes and disastrous outcomes.
In the last decade under the shah, a political opposition flourished that included everything from leftist intellectuals and student movements to revolutionary mullahs, despite the best efforts of the secret police, whereas recent years have seen no comparable organization. In Egypt in January 2011, the nascent ideas about how to seize power and what to do with it didn’t come to much in terms of political change. Plans and movements for the seizure of the state were in abundance in Iran — and indeed Latin America and other radicalized parts of the global south — in the 1970s, but few and far between in the Arab World in the early 2000s. Hence, to give a brief summary of Bayat’s complex argument, Egypt’s military could blow away the 2011 revolution like a house of straw. Bayat shows how revolution in anti-revolutionary times is all but impossible.
Indeed, attempts to forge organized social forces in Iran over the past few decades — from workers, students and women’s movements — have all been nipped in the bud. Sanctions and the threat of military attack have given the government the perfect excuse for repression: You’re in cahoots with the enemy. (This is why cheers from Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are so devastating.) In the 1970s, a panoply of groups wanted to topple the shah and create a more just and free social order; over the past week the slogans on the Iranian streets — from proto-socialist mullahs’ and capitalists’ “Give us back our bread” to ultra-nationalist “We are the Aryan race, we don’t worship Arabs” — also display a remarkable ideological span. This could be an asset, but also a fatal weakness.
In hindsight, we know that the horizontal, leaderless revolts of the Arab Spring mostly failed to hollow out the deep state. The counter-revolution triumphed. As of yet, it is too early to tell if spring might arrive in Iran. If so, it will only survive if Iranians succeed where Egyptians failed: in building organized counter-power, with leaderships, programs, strategies, ideology. Without such weapons, the Islamic Republic will win again.