Thursday 05 December 2019
Shortly after the 2017 Iranian presidential elections, the streets of 75 Iranian cities witnessed demonstrations. The same people who voted are protesting, especially in poor areas, but why? Rouhani was re-elected in August 2017 with 23.5 million votes (Iranian election, 2017), or 57% of the votes. Four months later, protests erupted, voicing dissatisfaction and rejection of the regime. Demonstrators in Qum, as in other regions, were chanting to the return of the Bahlawi family. There are three “axes of revolution” that formed a major building block to this uprising: deviation from the revolution principles, the rising voice of the youth and the regime’s failing conflict management tactics.
Betraying the Principles of the Islamic Revolution
Between 1979 and 1989, The Islamic revolution in Iran promoted Islamization of social justice in Istikbar which was against western capitalism and principles. The Iranian revolution prided itself as an advocate of poor Muslims or the Mustazafeen. These were the principles that made the regime popular in some part of Islamic world, especially amongst the Shia. However, the Iranian government deviated from its founding principles. This deviation went through three major stages (Rafiee, 2018).
The first stage of the deviation was triggered by the start of the privatization efforts and the hostile media towards it. The first development plan was passed under Rafsanjani in the 1990s. This was followed by privatization. The revolutionary guards became the main beneficiary of such privatization. This led to social injustice where a sector of the population gained vast wealth. The Iranian media at the time was critical of privatization. For example, Kihan, a large newspaper, criticized privatization and accused that after the privatization these institutions will not remain loyal to the revolution. The Excessive life style of the rich has been the focus of the newspaper attacks in the 1990s.
The second stage of the deviation was characterized by media embracement of the rich lifestyle. By 2005, New-liberalism policies led to privatization of many institution that “belonged to the public” during the revolution. Since then, the media has shifted focus from criticizing the rich to praising the rich after 2005. The focus is on the rich but less on religion. For example, TV Plus is the most famous TV program in Iran. Its main focus is on Tehran fashion week, luxury houses, glamour of consumerism and the life of the rich.
The third stages came to light during the 2012 protests. The main focus here was on the middle class. The regime was convinced that the middle class is important to their survivors. Further, the focus on the rich has seen a spike in businesses constructed to help them achieve their lavish lifestyle. In recent years, bigger stores have been constructed. There are two groups of shoppers: ones that cannot fill their shopping carts, and struggle to buy their needs, and another class that buys everything in the market, and don’t pay with money, they pay with vouchers. The rich enjoys health care insurance, shopping vouchers, approved loans, higher salaries (Faraji, 2018). The ideology of the Islamic republic has shifted from focusing on the poor to praising the middle and upper classes for support.
The Rising Voice of the Youth
It is not surprising to see counties with more student population have more protests. Iranian youth between the age of 15-25 stands currently at 12 million and is increasing (index Mundi, 2018). This generation did not witness the Islamic revolution, nor the Iran-Iraq war. They are millennia born in the internet age and their aspirations are on par with their peers around the world. They use telegram social network, which has 40 million users in Iran (Kadivar & Sotoudeh, 2018).
Iranian youth are frustrated by the hypocrisy of the regime on its spending-cuts domestically and the uncontrolled spending-spree regionally in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Their main concerns are social justice, unemployment and the dissatisfaction with the political process which resulted in broken promises. These protestors are not traitors, they come from a new generation who want change. Change for a better life, a better future, echoing the movements of the youth elsewhere in the region.
In Qum, the most sacred city in Iran, around 1000-2000 protests mainly students gathered in the Shaheed square chanted slogans against the government calling for the return of the previous queen. Their chants cited Injustice, Inequality, and Deep anger against the Ulama amongst all social classes.
One of the reasons that fueled these protests was the 2017 labor law that set the minimum wage of 9.8 million riyals for the non-skilled labor (Faraji, 2018). Educated graduates struggle to find work lower than this amount. Unemployment rate in the country has reached 24%. In the meantime, those who have government connections, and less qualification (high school certificate) can easily get a 20 million riyal salary. The youth have had enough of government neglect, social injustice, and indifference to internal issues.
The Failing Conflict Management Tactics
Iranian regime, since 1979 have been using Government Conflict management approaches (Ehsani & Keshavarzian, 2018) to domestic issues. In this approach, the government resorts to one or more of the following practices:
o The use of selective violence by the security forces
o Elite negotiation (almost informal, behind closed doors), used a lot by Khomeini.
o The Use of election. Iran is not a democracy but acts as an electoral government, and when elites could not solve differences, election is used to diffuse the situation.
o The use of essential machinery of state ministry, financial institutions, education, infrastructure, and electricity to show that the regime cared about people, and their needs. The institution of the government played a major role in the government survival.
The regime’s conflict management tactics are failing. These failures are the result of social, economic and political situation. The main social causes of this failure are government malpractices, ignoring poverty and increasing inequality, increased election-rift with citizens and incomplete social contract. Economically the fall in oil revenue have cut government spending, as well as the shortage of agrictlultral products caused by climate adversary with the lowest year of rain. Politically, American sanctions have helped isolate Iran and impact the crumbling economy.
Over time, a deep division in the government organizations was formed on local and foreign issues. Elite negotiation has been impacted by a new breed of regime-linked rich class who consider themselves elite and thus the elite-landscape has widen and negotiation became less and less effective in resolving differences. With rising and contesting domestic social issues the state was supposed to channel the aspiration of the masses to prosperity, or so did Rouhani promise, but Rouhani did not achieve this promise in his first term. Election, which was seen in the past as a conflict management practice has created more division between Iranian citizens and its government. All these broken promises has fueled in the anger that the state does not care about the people.
In conclusion the combination of external and internal pressure will keep the demonstrations alive until the regime’s change. Externally, with the sustained economic sanctions led by the U.S, prosperous youth in neighboring countries (UAE as an example), and containment strategy in conflict zones in the region (such as Yemen), the regime is not able to sustain its image internally. The internal erosion of the regime have reached a point of no return. The disparities between the haves and the don’t haves, between slogans and actions, between the principles and the realities, between the youth and the old guards of the revolution, is only going to fuel more demonstrations and lead to the fall of a regime in the near future without a need of outside intervention.