What’s going on with the furious protests in Iran?


protesters. Illustrated | Getty Images

Last week a young woman named Mahsa Amini is killed by the Iranian vice squad in Tehran after she was arrested for incorrectly wearing her headscarf, or hijab. Her murder sparked a growing number of protests in the capital, Tehran, as well as in cities across the country, including Kerman, Mashhad and Shiraz, driven by people sharing videos and photos of the incident, the ensuing protests and the predictable crackdown by security forces. and obese in plain clothes, known as: basij. How big are the protests and do they threaten the survival of Iran’s authoritarian regime? Here’s everything you need to know:

What are the protests about?

The murder of 22-year-old Amini is the clear direct cause of the protests. In classic authoritarian fashion, authorities tried to attribute her death to a heart attack, with state media releasing videos claiming she collapsed during her arrest. But photos from the hospital show the young woman bleeding from her ear, and other officials have claimed she died of severe head trauma. The immediate eruption of protests, including women burning their hijabs and crowds chanting “death to the dictator” – an almost unimaginable provocation in authoritarian Iran – prompted the country’s hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi to join the to apologize to Amini’s grieving family. “Your daughter and all Iranian girls are my own children, and my feeling about this incident is like losing one of my own loved ones,” Raisi told the family, promising an investigation into the incident. His words did not reassure anyone.

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The sequence of events is reminiscent of the 2010 murder of a young Egyptian man named Khaled Said or the event that kicked off the Arab Spring in 2010 – the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia after police stopped him from selling fruit and vegetables without a permit. Outrage and disgust at a single arbitrary exercise of authoritarian violence quickly turned into a wider wave of frustration with the regime itself. Inflated security sectors are known for routinely abusing the citizens, who have little meaningful civil rights or civil liberties to use against the state. And Iran’s repressive policies against women have been a long-standing source of tension, especially in the big cities where people are more liberal and less accepting of the Islamic Republic’s ideological foundations.

Unlike the massive protest movement that emerged in the wake of the controversial 2009 presidential election, the Green Movement, protesters are explicitly calling for an end to the regime. Just as Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and others tired of oppression in the Arab world chanted “The people demand the fall of the regime,” Iranians suddenly begin to challenge the country’s theocracy in the streets. Raisi’s speech to the United Nations on Wednesday made no mention of the protests, and senior Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also remained silent on the matter.

How resilient is Iranian authoritarianism?

Iran’s dictatorship is now older than most people living in the country, and after more than 43 years, it is clear that the regime will not be ousted bloodlessly. The Iranian system of government, which has an elected legislature and president (albeit with strict restrictions on who can run), successfully co-opts legions of would-be dissidents into the system itself, all while maintaining its dark, ingenious, circular authority structure. Essentially, all roads lead back to the Supreme Leader and his hand-picked Guardian Council. Elected officials operate under the illusion of autonomy, which can be revoked at any time if policies conflict with official regime dictate.

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Yet, in recent years, this structure has been insufficient to stave off mass protests. Successful authoritarian rule depends on a mixture of threatened repression, prosperity and stability. But despite strong economic growth this year, Iran’s isolation from the global economy has still left mostly young people with diminished life prospects. The World Bank estimates that nearly a third of the country’s youth are out of work, out of school or other form of job training. This has led to waves of popular unrest that seem to be coming more and more. The regime has been forced to rely on blunt coercion, a tactic that alienates the population the more it is used. After the 2009 protests, thousands of Green Movement leaders and activists were arrested and dissident leaders faced show trials. Still, the government has carefully calibrated the violence, as Borzou Daragahi writes, “avoiding too much international attention and the utter anger of the public.”

What’s the bottom line?

If you were a gambler, you would bet that the regime will endure these protests with a combination of repression and concessions. That’s what has happened in every previous street mobilization: the well-funded and massive security forces restore order and protesters return to their homes with little to show for their efforts. But because the regime has restricted access to the Internet and social media sites, and because journalists cannot operate freely in Iran, it is difficult to know exactly how big the protests have become. Political scientists have found that for a street uprising to succeed, the dissidents must somehow splinter the regime’s elites, convince the security forces not to unleash violence in order to maintain the status quo, and initiate a negotiated transition process. to unwilling rulers. There is no evidence yet that this is happening in Iran, where the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards exercise extraordinary political and economic power.

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One final problem for the authorities in Tehran: Amini came from Iranian Kurdistan, where the protests are fierce. At least 7 protesters have already been killed in the region. The country’s Kurdish minority has long been annoyed by Tehran’s rule, and this incident could spark a wider uprising against the regime, one that has not only ideological but also ethno-religious features. And while Khamenei and his enforcers may be able to wage a one-sided fight against defenseless protesters, adding a breakaway region could complicate the government’s efforts to put down the insurgency.

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