Hashtag Activism And Human Rights In Iran

Iranian authorities have proven themselves amenable to online pressure. But to effect lasting change in the Islamic Republic, people also need to engage in real-world action.

Tweeting in Tehran?
Tweeting in Tehran?
Ahmad Ra'fat


Social media platforms like Twitter are providing Iranians a place to do what they can't do in the actual, physical spaces of Tehran and other cities: gather together and unite around a cause, even if it's just for a few hours. And the cause that underscores all others right now is the defense of human rights.

The death-sentences issued earlier this year for Amirhossein Moradi, Sa'id Tamjidi and Mohammad Rajabi, three men arrested last November in nationwide protests, opened a new chapter in Iranian online solidarity.

Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court made the ruling in late February, ordering that the three men be put to death based on charges that include vandalism and arson "with the intention of confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran" and the far more serious crime of moharebeh — "waging war on God."

This kind of "unruly" cyberspace might have prevented thousands of executions had it existed in the 1980s.

The news moved hundreds of thousands of Twitter users inside Iran and abroad around a Persian-language hashtag that translates as "do not execute" and that quickly trended worldwide. People across the globe came to understand that most Iranians are appalled by the execution of regime opponents or protesters.

In a country where joining a street protest can get a person shot or hanged, virtual unity is all the more important. And in this case, as a result, Iranian authorities decided in July to halt the planned executions. The online pressure was effective, in other words.

This kind of "unruly" cyberspace is a resource that didn't exist in the past, and might have prevented thousands of executions had it existed in the 1980s.

Tehran courthouse — Photo: Stanislao

The online solidarity didn't end, furthermore, with the postponement of the executions of Moradi, Tamjidi and Rajabi. Iranians rushed back onto the "cyber-street" when news broke that the Isfahan Revolutionary Court had issued death sentences for five others detained in a previous round of protests, in early 2018. The people in question are Mehdi Salehi-Qal'ehshahrokhi, Mohammad Bastami, Abbas Mohammadi, Majid Nazari-Kondori and Hadi Kiani.

Like in the previous case, pressure from cyberspace again forced the regime to backpedal. Authorities announced that the sentences were not yet definitive. The accused had been given two death sentences each, based on charges of "waging war on God" and "armed insurgency."

Even though the Islamic Republic's retreats are temporary, many Iranians have come to realize that online unity can yield results that other mass initiatives have been unable to accomplish. Not surprisingly, these kinds of virtual protests have continued. Other successful hashtags included those for the detained lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, the former wrestler Navid Afkari (who has been hanged) and Maryam Shariatmadari, a protester who fled to Turkey but may be sent back to Iran. Her hashtag is helping keep her in Turkey for now.

The case of Nasrin Sotudeh is particularly illustrative. A prize-winning figure who is known internationally for her work to protect civil rights, she was largely ignored, nevertheless, by foreign media, even after a two-week hunger strike. It was only after Iranians took up her plight online that things changed.

Online unity can yield results that other mass initiatives have been unable to accomplish.

Online solidarity also prompted governments and personalities to plead for mercy in the case of Afkari, the 27-year-old who was recently executed after being convicted of killing a state agent in the 2018 protests. His defenders included President Donald Trump and FIFA. The former wrestler's case was reportedly riddled with irregularities, and it is widely suspected that he was tortured into admitting guilt.

The fact of the matter is that online reactions to real events are effective. And yet, real changes — including regime change — can only happen in the real world. More than a decade ago, during mass protests against the results of the 2009 presidential elections, Iranians proved themselves to be cyber-savvy then too, in that case by using Facebook. But in doing so, they also seemed to abandon the real world. Perhaps we should learn from that not repeat the same mistake.

The power of Iranians unified online is formidable, but it must also extend to the real world. Their solidarity must duly convince the world that the regime does not enjoy the people's support. They should speak in unison against it, without necessarily stifling differences. That would be an exercise in pluralism, which isn't discord but an effort to create a society that is broadly united and includes dissonant voices.

The emphasis should be on commonalities, one of which is our belief, as evident on Twitter, in the fundamental rights of Iranians. But from there we need to apply that energy and unity to the real world, because that, when it's all said and done, may be the only way to end the Islamic Republic's dismal history.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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