Iran’s Democratic Upsurge

Published on Zmag (Source: Al-Ahram Weekly), by Hamid Dabash, June 25, 2009.

… On the heels of the Lebanese elections, the cause and the march of democracy took an even bolder leap in Iran, and that leap is not because of US promotion of democracy, but in fact is despite and against it. At time of writing, millions of Iranians inside and out of their homeland are angry and heartbroken with the official results. Some go so far as considering what happened a coup d’état. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to question the validity of the official results that have declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the clear winner. The only point of which Iranians can be sure and proud is the extraordinary manifestation of their collective will to participate in their politics. This unprecedented participation neither lends legitimacy to the illegitimate apparatus of the Islamic Republic and its manifestly undemocratic organs nor should be abused by bankrupt oppositional forces outside Iran to denounce and denigrate a glorious page in modern Iranian history. 

Every four years, during presidential elections followed by parliamentary elections, the paradox of the democratic theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran fascinates and baffles the world. During this presidential campaign, Iranians boisterously joined rallies and then stood in long queues to vote under the extended shadow of Israeli warlords threatening a military strike. The propaganda machinery at the disposal of Israel will have the world believe that a populist demagogue like Ahmadinejad is “the dictator” of Iran, as one of their spokesmen in New York, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, once put it. And thus on the model of an Oriental despot he represents a backward people whose fate deserves to be determined by others (the US/ Israel, of course). As the prominent Israeli scholar of Iran, Haggai Ram, one of a handful of courageous Israeli dissidents, has aptly demonstrated in his Iranophobia, Israel’s fixation with Iran has now reached pathological proportions and is a case study of self-delusional hysteria feeding on itself.

The reality of the Iranian polity, as the world has once again been witness to, is vastly different to the picture US/Israel propaganda is feeding the world. A vibrant and restless society is defying all mandated limitations on its will and demanding and exacting its democratic rights. The undemocratic institutions of the Islamic Republic — beginning with the idea of velayat-e faqih, or rule of the cleric, down to the unelected body of the Guardian Council — are not obstacles to democracy in Iran but invitations to democratic assault. What the Iranian electorate, young and old, men and women, seem to be doing is far more important than a mere head on collision with ageing and arcane institutions. They are pushing the limits of their democratic exercises in unfathomable and unstoppable directions. The Internet has connected Iran’s youth to the global context, and they have in turn become the catalyst of discursive and institutional changes beyond the control of the clerical clique in Qom and Tehran.

This is more than anything a battle between generations. Iranian society is changing and fast. The ageing custodians of the Islamic Republic wish to limit what can be said or expected. But the globally geared and wired youth, more than 60 per cent of the electorate, is now radically altering the contours of those limits. They are not merely defying them, but are sublimating them. The red line in Iran is thinning by the hour, for facing it are skilful players exercising their political muscles. It was quite evident in the course of the US presidential election of 2008 that an Internet-savvy Obama outmanoeuvred McCain’s arcane operation. The same is true of Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi’s campaigns, the two reformist candidates, on the one side, and Ahmadinejad’s on the other, with Mohsen Rezai in-between. The social basis of Mousavi’s platform is the urban middle class, the youth, and women. The economic basis of Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery is the rural and urban poor. They are both skilful campaigners in reaching out to their respective constituencies.

The rising demographic tide is against the old revolutionaries. Iranian children born after the revolution in the late 1970s have no active memory of its hopes and furies and could not care less about those who do. Every four years since the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the Iranian electorate has been upping the ante. They voted for Rafsanjani in 1989 and for eight years he rebuilt the economic infrastructure of the country after the war, creating a class of nouveau riche. Then in 1997 they voted for Mohamed Khatami who gave them a modicum of civil society and opened the vista of wide-ranging social reform, and yet did nothing — or very little — to alleviate the poor masses Rafsanjani had left behind. In 2005, those disenfranchised by Rafsanjani’s economic project and indifferent to Khatami’s social and cultural agenda pushed power into the hands of Ahmadinejad. And now, in 2009, a major segment of disaffected voters, in their millions, are investing trust in Mousavi, a former prime minister with impeccable revolutionary credentials, a war hero, and a socialist in his economic projects … (full long text).

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