Iran: Time To Ask What The Protest Movement Did And Didn't Achieve
Impatient to be rid of a 40-year dictatorship, many Iranians have sunk into despair at the failure of protests last year to topple the Islamic Republic. They must be patient and sober in their immediate expectations, before a longer, ongoing process of change turns Iran into a free nation with the rule of law.
Transformation is, by nature, both visible and essential. The mutation of living beings is reflected in changing appearances that herald a new being and life cycle, emerging with the demise of a prior form.
Like creatures, societies also change, even if a longstanding, complex society may find it tougher to evolve. Indeed, the more deep-seated its cultural moorings, the greater the pain of its mutation. Yet transformation is essential to a nation's endurance.
Iran is today in the middle of such a mutation, a phase of which included the months-long protests of 2022. The difference between those protests and previous movements against the clerical regime was, firstly, their duration, and secondly, their collective impact on the consciousness of Iranians.
In other words, a large mass of Iranians with differing perspectives came to see them as a reflection of the state of the country and its direction, which makes the protests a historic landmark.
They have also come to inspire Iranian artists and filmmakers, who will further entrench them in the collective memory.
Short lives, a tardy history
But even if the protests have won a place in our history, this story — and the history around it — is not over. We are hasty by nature, knowing that our short lives may not let us see to the end of historical events. This leads many to despair, especially activists and generations who yearn to lead different lives in a changed country.
While Iran's transformation may have reached a conclusive phase, that phase itself may go on to the point of crushing an entire generation. Yet collective depression can only impede the pace of change, which makes sober realism our only, bitter, pill and remedy at present.
Thus, let us see this unprecedented coming-together of forces in the wake of the killing of Mahsa Amini, as a vigorous continuation of previous actions against the regime.
An Iranian young girl without covering her mandatory Islamic headscarf walks past a mural in downtown Tehran, Iran, April 8, 2023.
Not enough to overthrow...
The protests that began in Sept. 2022 became the most resilient and widespread act of popular resistance against the criminal regime running Iran since 1979. For their scope, they briefly robbed the regime of its repressive momentum. They brought together the female half of the population, oppressed minorities, the battered middle class and above all, those youngsters called Gen-Z. Many protesters were likely members of all groups simultaneously, like the late Mahsa herself.
For the first time, the regime doubted itself.
It is difficult today to isolate such a broad range of opponents. On the other hand, as they have no access to state agencies and cannot organize themselves as a single force, able to paralyze any of those agencies, they cannot topple the regime. A realistic look at the protests shows they could wear out some of the regime's rotten structures, but not seriously harm its core. And realistically, this state will not be overthrown until it is further weakened.
Yet we must also see how far the protests went toward that goal. This was unnerving, and for the first time, the regime doubted itself and, briefly at least, abandoned the streets to protesters. The fact that many women are still walking the streets without their hijab headscarves — and facing the regime's excoriations and a (further) restriction in state services — shows that the regime is running short on agents and resources.
It's no small feat for a defenseless population. Thuggish regimes like the Islamic Republic take power through street-level turmoil. In losing the street, they lose a visible sign of the support of the people. Without "the people" cheering them on, they lose confidence, and may question their entire being, like a thug who feels his "manhood" draining away. There is no reaffirmation at the end of this road!
A sober look at the protests of 2022 shows that, for the first time since 1979, we struck back, or gave them a punch in the mouth, as the regime likes to boast when it believes it has caught the "imperialist West" wrong-footed. We are sure that this won't be the last time.
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