Last week a young woman named Mahsa Amini killed by the Iranian morality police in Tehran after she was caught for inappropriately wearing her headscarf, or hijab. Her murder sparked a series of protests in the capital Tehran, as well as cities across the country, including Kerman, Mashhad and Shiraz, driven by people sharing videos and photos of the incident, the protests that followed, and the predictable crackdown by security forces as well as plainclothes called heavies Basij. How big are the protests, and are they likely to be a threat to the survival of Iran’s authoritarian regime? Here’s everything you need to know:
What are the protests about?
The killing of 22-year-old Amini is the obvious cause of the protests. In classic authoritarian fashion, the authorities tried to blame her death on a heart attack, with state media releasing videos purporting to show her collapsing during her arrest. But photographs from the hospital show the young woman bleeding from her ear, and other officials have argued that she died of blunt force trauma to the head. The immediate protests, which included women burning their hijabs and crowds chanting “death to the dictator” – a provocation unimaginable in authoritarian Iran – led the country’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, to apologize catch directly with the grieving family of Amini. “Your daughter and all Iranian girls are my own family, and the feeling I have about this incident is like losing one of my own family,” Raisi told the family, promising an investigation into the incident . His words did not disturb anyone.
The sequence of events recalls the killing of a young Egyptian man named Khaled Said in 2010, or the event that started the Arab Spring in 2010 – the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia after being prevented by the police on selling fruit and vegetables without authorisation. permission. The rebellion and the individual arbitrary exercise of authoritarian violence quickly turned into a wider spasm of frustration with the regime itself. Bloated security sectors are notorious for regularly abusing the citizenry, which has few meaningful civil rights or civil liberties to use against the state. And Iran’s protective policies against women have long been a source of tension, especially in big cities where people tend to be more liberal and less accepting of the Islamic Republic’s ideological underpinnings.
Unlike the massive protest movement that emerged after the 2009 presidential election, the controversial Green Movement, protesters are explicitly calling for an end to the regime. Just as the Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and others tired of oppression around the Arab world chanted “The people demand the fall of the regime,” the Iranians are facing a dominant challenge to the country’s theocracy on the streets. Raisi’s address to the United Nations on Wednesday made no mention of the protests, while the elderly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was also silent on the matter.
How resilient is Iranian authoritarianism?
The Iranian dictatorship is now older than most of the people living in the country, and after more than 43 years, it is clear that the regime will not be overthrown without blood. Iran’s system of government, which consists of a legislature and an elected president (although there are severe restrictions on who can run), has co-opted legions of potential dissidents into the system itself, while preserving its inherently dark authority structure and circular. Basically, all roads lead back to the Supreme Leader and his hand-picked Council of Guardians. Elected officials operate under the illusion of independence, which can be withdrawn at any time when policy conflicts with the official regime.
But in recent years this structure has not been enough to put an end to major protests. Successful authoritarian rule depends on a combination of threatened repression, prosperity and stability. But despite strong economic growth this year, Iran’s isolation from the global economy has still left young people in particular with reduced life expectancies. The World Bank estimates that almost a third of the country’s young people are not working, in school, or in another form of employment training. The result is waves of popular unrest that are coming more and more often. The regime was forced to rely on blunt coercion, a tactic that alienates the population the more often it is deployed. After the 2009 protests, thousands of Green Movement leaders and activists were arrested, and dissident leaders were given show trials. But the government carefully calibrated the violence, as Borzou Daragahi wrote, thereby “avoiding too much international attention and public wrath.”
What is the bottom line?
If you were a gambler, you would bet on the regime weathering these protests with a combination of repression and concessions. That’s what happened in every street mobilization in the past – the well-funded and gargantuan security forces restore order and protesters return to their homes with little to show for their efforts. But because the regime has clamped down on Internet access sites and social media, and because journalists cannot work freely in Iran, it is difficult to know exactly the extent of the protests. Political scientists have found that in order for street uprisings to succeed, the dissidents must somehow sway the elites, persuading security forces not to unleash violence in order to maintain the status quo and forcing a negotiated transition process on reluctant rulers. There is no evidence yet that this is still happening in Iran, where the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps wields extraordinary political and economic power.
One last problem for authorities in Tehran: Amini was from Iranian Kurdistan, where protests are fierce. At least 7 protesters have already been killed in the region. The country’s Kurdish minority has long rebelled against Tehran, and this incident could spark a wider uprising against the regime, one that has not only ideological but ethnic dimensions. religious too. And while Khamenei and his enforcers may be able to fight a one-front battle against defenseless protesters, the government’s efforts to complicate the uprising could add to the region’s resolve.
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