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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Democracy in Iran 12.VI.2009 11:54
Iran is a strange beast. Over the past weeks, it's seen expressions of political dissent that would be unthinkable in any of the various dictatorships - American-sponsored or otherwise - that dot the Arab world, including the one I'm writing from. On the other hand, it's not exactly a democracy either; hundreds upon hundreds of names were dismissed from the electoral rolls, and every candidate here has ties to the revolutionary establishment of the 1980s - except Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, Iran's Guardian Council issues edicts at whim, but on the other the Islamic Republic has a species of checks and balances, which have meant that never in its history has it really been able to speak in one voice, much as the three branches of the American government can rarely be said to do so. The elections aren't exactly free, but they aren't exactly undemocratic. In short, the Islamic Republic has an unelected government - but every few years, the people have the chance to elect an opposition.

In spite of the censorship and random jailings, of all the countries I've visited Iranians were freest with their political opinions - it would sometimes take me seconds for a taxi driver to tell me what he hates about the current government. Iran is, above all, a proud and cultured nation - its poets form a major part of the national psyche, and the Persian Empire is a source of pride, rather than being dismissed as an irrelevance of the jahiliyya, the 'time of ignorance' before the advent of Islam. Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric once tapped into this strong nationalistic current - as did Khomeini's thirty years ago - but now that he is seen as an embarrassment, the proud of the country are turning their backs on him.

Much like the recent Lebanese election, the Western media is viewing this one through a Western prism - as some sort of referendum of isolationism and Islamism vs. internationalism and secularism. One thing I never read about - and one that was extremely prominent during my visit to the country - was the rural/urban divide, for which one of the best parallels is the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Ahmadinejad has followed much the same path, positioning himself as a champion of poor against the corrupt urban elite which has been at or near the centres of power since the revolution. His religious views have little impact in the countryside, where most women wear the hijab anyway, and his alleged mismanagement of the economy hasn't negatively affected those who wer shut out from prosperity in the first place.

I was in Iran on al-Quds day - the last Friday of Ramadan, devoted by Imam Khomeini to the liberation of Jerusalem - and found myself caught in a demonstration of thousands in Isfahan's gorgeous Naksh-e-Jahan, shouting marg bar Amrika! marg bar Israil! - Death to America, Death to Israel. Except this was anything but an expression of the popular will; the government forced anyone in a union to attend or be fired, but I did speak to many genuine Ahmadinejad supporters there - invariably, it turned out, bused in from the countryside by the regime because the more educated, less conservative urbanites are embarrassed by such a spectacle. And, like many pluralistic societies, Iranian political opinion doesn't lend itself to easy categorisation; two girls we met were very conservative; they supported the Ayatollahs and criticised girls wearing bad hijab or holding their boyfriend's hands in public. But they didn't support Ahmadinejad - because when Iranians see him, they see what the rest of the word sees: that he's an embarrassing populist simpleton.

And in here comes another difference - in Yemen, no woman would ever spontaneously come up to a strange man to talk to him, let alone about Politics, and this holds true to a greater and lesser extent in the Arab world. Iran is famed as a bastion of women's oppression, and it is hardly innocent on the subject - volunteer militiamen go around on Thursday nights harassing and humiliating women behaving 'immodestly' (why Thursdays? Because while no one knows when the 12th Imam, awaited by all Shi'a since his occultation, will return to earth, it's known that it will be on a Friday, and the Islamic Republic neds to be ready). Nevertheless, women in Iran are more independent, better educated, and more politically active than in any Arab country I've visited; 60% of university graduates are women, their literacy is high, and they form an active part of the workforce. All it takes is to look at the attendance of either side's political rallies - men are the majority, but they don't overwhelm. And for all the talk of Iran's oppressive conservatism, there's no shortage of female Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is because Ahmadinejad's support has many sources. In addition to the rural/urban divide, there's one issue that Western commentators consistently overlook: corruption. Outside of Ahmadinejad, most of the ruling elite have been part of the establishment since the Shah's downfall, and it was they who benefited from the economic opening under Rafsanjani in the 1990's. I know from life in Poland and Yemen that there are few things more repressive than the daily humiliations of a corrupt government; faced years ago with a slate of establishment candidates and one, Ahmadinejad, who was nothing if not honest, it's not that surprising that they voted for him, and that many will do so now. It's one of the major issues Palestinians mentioned when they said they supported Hamas, and it's definitely one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys so much popularity over Mubarak's clique in Egypt. And Ahmadinejad is honest; he says what he means, even when what he means makes little to no sense or is outright offensive.

There's also an illusion that anyone who votes against Ahmadinejad is somehow pro-American, but the Republic isn't about to stop being Islamic, nor is it about to given up it's nuclear programme. Why? Because nuclear deterrent is seen as the only way to stop an American invasion. This often gets referred to as 'paranoid', but its anything but when you consider that the United States engineered a coup against a popular prime minister in 1953, put a brutal dictator in his place - for the incredible extent of this brutality, read Kapuscinski's excellent Shahanshah - supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran even while he openly used chemical weapons, shot down an Iranian passenger plane and then claimed it was a suicide bombing, and invaded its immediate neighbour on what can only be described as the flimsiest of pretexts and now has thousands of troops stationed just across the border. North Korea - a far greater danger to everyone than Iraq was - doesn't even get considered for 'military action' because it has nuclear weapons, which shows itself to be the only effective deterrent. Americans have short memories, and think that now that Bush is gone people should 'just trust them', but a part of the world where many major streets are named for past dates doesn't work that way.

The elections today aren't free - the government has denied Mousavi screen time, and tried to block the sites like Facebook that his supporters use - but they are far from the farces of Mubarak's Egypt. This kind of semi-democratic, pluralistic cacophony is, in fact, what Khomeini envisioned - with himself the arbiter between the various factions. In fact, it was only Khamenei who started using the Guardian Council to vet election candidates he didn't like. Just after the revolution, contrary to Western perceptions, the most Islamic faction was also the one that was the most democratic - they felt that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy naturally stemmed from the people who, if given the opportunity, would choose just such a government - much like the logic that drives Americans to believe that any genuinely free elections will choose an American-like society, and leaves the bewildered when it doesn't, as in Palestine. These pro-democratic radicals were, in fact, the Imam Khomeini's most fervent supporters, and Mir Hossein Mousavi was one of them; after their marginalisation by Khamenei after his accession, they re-emerged as the 'reformers', softening their religious policies but not losing their belief that democracy is the source of legitimacy. It is Mousavi that many, including myself, are hoping will win today's election, but even if he fails to, recent events in Iran should serve to dispel any simplistic charicatures about this complex and fascinating country.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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