18 June, 2009

Iranian frustrations

It's easy to get frustrated with the media coverage of the mass protests following the election in Iran. It is often shallow and fragmented, it doesn't give a voice to the full range of Iranian society (with non farsi-speaking reporters relying mostly on english-speaking upper middle class Iranians or even Iranians in exile) and often overstates the role of internet and social media networks like twitter.

But to be honest, it's also increasingly frustrating to follow some of the commentaries in the left-wing blogosphere (please see clarification below), where many dismiss the mass protests in Iran because Mousavi is a CIA-agent and/or a member of the ruling establishment, while the protests are led by students and affluent Iranians, not the poor masses who are often (dubiously) portrayed as supporting Ahmadinejad.

I think this is unfair, perhaps not to Mousavi but certainly to most of his "supporters." As far as I understand, there is at least two struggles going on in Iran right now. One is taking place between different wings of the power elite, and here it is easy to dismiss Mousavi as just another member of the ruling establishment that temporarily stepped into the role of "democratic opposition leader" to gain power.

But before dismissing the protests and echoing the regime's accusations of "US meddling" in the internal affairs of Iran, it is important to acknowledge that the people in the streets are not simply "Mousavi-supporters." They may have voted for Mousavi in the election - that may or may not have been rigged - but (according to most Iranians I spoke to recently) they don't see him as their "leader" or the ideal president. Instead, they voted for him as the only available symbol of opposition to the current system in Iran today.

It's a mistake to assume that Iranians are taking to the streets and risking their lives simply for Mousavi to gain power - even if this is one possible outcome of their actions. Instead, they frame their protest as a desperate revolt against the political system itself. This is the other struggle currently taking place in Iran. One sign that this is a popular movement that isn't strictly controlled from the top is that many took to the streets even as Mousavi called for his supporters to stay at home to "avoid a bloodshed." So while the revolt in Iran certainly isn't a "revolution" - yet - this is not a reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Most importantly, it should not be assumed that the protests, even if they were started by students, cannot spread to include other segments of the population. Yes the Shah was overthrown by a massive general strike, but islamist students played an important role in triggering the wave of mass protests that culminated in the revolution of 1979. Despite the support for Ahmadinejad in poor rural and urban areas, it would be extremely naive to describe him as some kind of champion of social justice, considering - for example - the routine oppression of union activists in Iran.

Iran is not a democracy, after all, and support for Ahmadinejad in the polls is not easily translated into support in the streets (if it was, and he actually won the election, why didn't his supporters take control of Teheran already?) This is why the media wars and blackouts are so important to the regime: If more Iranians come to regard the protests less as part of a power struggle between the ruling elite, and more as a popular revolt against the oppressive political system, anything can happen.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I really hate generalizations and regret using the term "left-wing blogosphere" (a term that is broad enough to include this blog) without providing links to specific posts or blogs. I have tried to correct this, and might as well add that I'm not accusing anyone of endorsing the crackdown on protests in Iran, just questioning the way some people jump from a legitimate criticism of Mousavi or Western media bias to an outright dismissal of the street protests or even endorsement of the Iranian regime as the "elected government."

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