What are the lessons of the Arab uprisings for Iran’s protests?

In this photo, by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, students attend an anti-government protest Saturday inside Tehran University. (AP)
In this photo, by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, students attend an anti-government protest Saturday inside Tehran University. (AP)

The protests that have broken out across Iran in recent days have generated remarkable excitement about the possibility of revolutionary change. The demonstrations, the largest since the crushing of the 2009 Green Movement, have surprised virtually all observers. They erupted in peripheral areas rather than in Tehran, and have been dominated by working- and lower-class Iranians rather than by the urban, educated middle class that drove the 2009 demonstrations. The slogans in these protests have notably featured revolutionary rather than reformist slogans.

Seasoned observers of Iran have been stunned by the ferocity, speed and scope of these protests. It is important to recognize that much remains uncertain about them, including their real size, endurance, leadership and political aspirations. Analysis and punditry anticipating rapid regime collapse are running well ahead of events on the ground, or of what might usually be expected of the ability of the Iranian state to handle the challenge.

While this enthusiasm may partly be wishful thinking, it is also clearly shaped by the experience of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Nobody expected that wave of popular mobilization, either, despite the manifest accumulation of economic and political grievances, and few expected the overthrow of deeply entrenched autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. A wide range of scholars have spent the past seven years writing about the Arab uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath. How valuable is such a comparison? And what lessons might be drawn from the 2011 Arab experience?

Here are some initial lessons from the Arab uprisings:

1. Revolutionary moments have their own logic … but they don’t last

The sudden eruption of mass mobilization is often unpredictable. In the Arab case, as in Iran, grievances had mounted over many years: economic decline, failed governance, corrupt elites, elite infighting, overweening militaries and unpopular foreign policies. Repeated efforts by activists to trigger mass protest had repeatedly failed in the face of the seemingly overwhelming power of the security state. The sudden success of the uprisings surprised the activists as much as anyone else.

Mobilization spread rapidly within and across countries, with protesters in distant Yemen and Syria inspired by images from Tunisia and Egypt on Al Jazeera and Facebook. It was the regional scope of the Arab uprisings as much as their powerful calls for freedom and social justice that made them appear to be on the right side of history. So far in Iran, there is no sign of any diffusion of these new protests beyond the country, despite the intense scrutiny and media interest. Instead, the protests have unfolded amid intense regional proxy wars and mounting calls for the Trump administration to tear up the Iran nuclear deal and more aggressively confront Tehran.

The successful mobilization in Tunisia and then Egypt created new political realities, as people suddenly saw the possibility for political change that previously seemed utterly unrealistic.

During revolutionary moments, the usual rules of politics seem to be suspended. Large numbers of previously politically quiescent people come into the streets; longtime rivals form alliances as they fight together; long-entrenched elites suddenly feel uncertain about their prospects for survival. During these moments, intentions, expectations and aspirations can rapidly shift: What began as an economic protest can become a demand for regime change; what began as a call for elections can turn into demands for revolutionary change.

Protesters are racing the clock, though. Uprisings gain power from the unexpected, massive shock to the system. In Tunisia and Egypt, huge crowds stayed in the streets, creating irresistible pressures, which forced long-ruling presidents from power in less than three weeks. But it is difficult to sustain mobilization indefinitely. Initial optimism fades, nonviolence is difficult to keep up, differences in political aspirations emerge, and the power advantages of the state take their toll. Protesters have a relatively narrow window in which to make the regime’s survival appear impossible, to persuade the middle class and elites to support their cause, and to force an endgame.

Regimes thus have every incentive to wait out the deluge and survive by any means necessary. Almost every Arab regime that withstood that initial onslaught of popular mobilization in 2011 stayed in power. Bahrain’s regime survived through externally backed, massive, violent repression and a follow-on campaign of sectarian reprisals. Jordan’s and Morocco’s kings navigated popular demands through constitutional reforms, co-optation and selective repression. Syria’s regime waged a brutal war against its challengers, with Iran’s help. The lessons will not be lost on Iran’s regime, which, like every other regime in the Middle East, prioritizes its own survival over all else.

2. Protesters have to attract broader support to win

The Arab uprisings generated their enormous power by bringing vast numbers of non-activists into the streets. In Egypt, for instance, young activists had been protesting in creative ways for a decade before 2011, but on their own they could not pose a serious threat to the state. Iran resembles Egypt in its history of protest and activism, as well as its robust and pugnacious media, more than it does those Arab countries, which ruthlessly policed all forms of public politics. As in Egypt, Iran’s protests have revealed little about the extent of popular grievances that was not already widely understood by Iranians. The impact of these Iranian protests could come instead through changing the expectations about the possibility of victory.

There’s evidence of shock about the scale of the protests and a recalculation of the realm of the possible, but it is less clear whether and which new constituencies are joining the challenge. The Iranian protests are impressive in their geographical spread but seem to be quite small numerically compared with the early Arab uprisings (or the 2009 Iranian Green Movement) and peripheral.

In Tunisia, protests started in the neglected south, but moved quickly into the capital and gained the support of powerful civil-society organizations. Thus far, the Iranian protests appear to be leaderless, concentrated among youth and the lower and working classes, alienated from formal politics, and detached from established civil society. This poses a challenge to Iranian reformists and civil-society activists, who are uncertain about the identity and aspirations of these new protesters.

3. The choices of the military are usually decisive

An enormous amount of research on the Arab uprisings has focused on the divergent reactions of various militaries. In Tunisia and Egypt, the military facilitated the departure of the president, while in Yemen the military fractured to set in motion months of political paralysis, and in Libya civil war erupted almost from the start.

In most other Arab uprising cases, however, the military remained loyal and intact. While violence is growing in Iran as the protesters clash with security forces, there are few signs at this point of any real dissension or defection among Iranian security forces. As Iran scholar Karim Sadjapour said, “The Iranian regime’s vast coercive apparatus, as far as we can tell, remains cohesive, committed, and very well-practiced in repression.” Should the regime opt to escalate its repressive force, it enjoys an overwhelming advantage — and few international constraints on using it.

The Iranian regime will attempt to calibrate its repressive violence to deter new protests without angering nonmobilized constituencies. As activist and writer Maryam Nayeb Yazdi has suggested, the regime’s choices on repression are shaped by the type and extent of the challenge. This poses particular political problems for President Hassan Rouhani. As scholar Ali Kadivar wrote: “In his 2017 campaign, Rouhani vocally criticized hard-liners for their authoritarian methods. He lambasted his hard-liner rivals for their repression of opposition, criticized the judiciary for violating the constitution and demanded the Revolutionary Guard stay out of politics.” Those commitments will be tested in the coming days, with Rouhani’s political rivals ready to take advantage.

As for the protesters, they too must make difficult decisions about violence, especially if the demonstrations lose momentum or regime repression increases. Better-organized and disciplined movements are more capable of sustaining nonviolent campaigns over time. The leaderless Iranian protests seem more likely to be open to escalation on the ground, regardless of any strategic decisions. The more protesters use violence, the easier it will be for the regime to justify unleashing its repressive machinery.

4. Social media is a mixed blessing

The rapid proliferation of protest videos from Iran echoes one of the more emblematic features of the Arab uprisings, as well as global trends in contentious politics. Smartphones, ubiquitous video, Telegram and social media have facilitated sudden, rapid, unexpected protest mobilization almost everywhere in the world. They enable coordination and diffusion of protest methods and slogans within a country and allow protesters to get their messages out to the international community.

But social media is rife with pathologies for protest movements as well. Social media’s tendency toward ideological and partisan clustering creates information bubbles, which can be empowering in the short term but drive polarization later. What’s more, social media can convey highly misleading impressions of events, especially where there are few journalists on the ground to offer reality checks.

5. What about U.S. policy?

The Arab uprisings posed a sharp challenge to U.S. foreign policy by forcing a reckoning between rhetorical support for democracy and long-standing alliances with dictators. Supporting a democracy movement that targeted an ally required genuinely tough choices. The Iranian protests pose no such test. Nothing could be easier for Washington than to rhetorically support and seek to exploit domestic upheaval against an adversary. That rhetoric doesn’t matter all that much.

The millions of Egyptians in the streets in 2011 were not waiting on President Barack Obama’s guidance, and Iranian protesters are not making decisions today based on a presidential tweet. But the lessons of the Arab uprisings for Iran should include a healthy dose of humility about the ability of the United States to control or shape events, and an understanding of the full scale of potential outcomes, both negative and positive.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Program and the co-director of the Blogs and Bullets project at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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