Much attention has been given to the absence of large street protests on the anniversary of Iran’s disputed elections. This focus on street protests however, largely misses the point of the opposition movement today.
“A government that is scared of a corpse is a weak government,” Shirin Ebadi said, referring to the government’s decision to bar families of killed protesters from holding public funerals. Attacks on Mehdi Karroubi and raids on the offices of Grand Ayatollahs Saane’i and Montazeri show the increasing desperation of Iran’s rulers. Every website managed by WordPress (the most popular blog hosting platform on the web) has been filtered since this past weekend in Iran (including this blog), and the Revolutionary Guards have even set up a “Facebook Espionage Division.”
All of this indicates that the Islamic Republic is a regime that has become afraid of its own shadow. And this is the real story of the past year.
Pundits in the West have been quick to write obituaries for the Green Movement because it’s been unable to maintain the mass protests we last saw on Ashura. They ignore the fact that the regime has now become permanently on edge, and every crackdown against the opposition is a testimony to this.
One year on, the real story is that a pro-democracy movement that had long been simmering under the surface has finally been thrust into the spotlight.
Those who expected to see the toppling of the mullahs within a year failed to grasp the difficulty of such a task in an authoritarian state. Ayatollah Khamenei understands better than anyone the fragility of his authority, and his actions in recent weeks are the best indication of this.
Movements in pursuit of democracy and independence are long, protracted struggles. At times, the efforts of the people manifest themselves in public displays of strength. But even more important are the times in between where ordinary citizens retreat to their homes and places of worship to discuss the future of their country, and to engage in a spirited discourse about the future of their political system. And this has been the most fundamental achievement of the Green Movement: to craft an alternative narrative for Iran’s future that abandons the status quo.
Once that idea catches on in the minds of the people, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a reality.
Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi points out in the Green Movement charter issued on the anniversary:
“By rejecting the ruling establishment, by going back to their own homes and developing and expanding their social networks, strong and reliable relations between the various strata of the nation have been established. The social networks have created miracles in the area of informing [the nation] of political-social and cultural [developments]. All we need to do to understand this is to glance at their artistic productions, the amount of news and information that is exchanged, and the analyses that are going on in a completely democratic way. The Green Movement has created a powerful wave of debate and discussion concerning the critical problems among the people that is unique in our recent history.”
This debate — more than the number of people out on the streets or in the jails — is the true measure of the movement. Those who ignore this are missing the biggest story of the past year. “Just because there are less people on the streets does not mean that the movement has weakened, but that the criticism has taken a different form,” Shirin Ebadi said on Tuesday.
Joe Klein of Time Magazine said in reference to Iran on Sunday that “this is the greatest mismatch between a people and a government of any country in the world.” Very true. And that mismatch — not displays of strength on the street — is what will ultimately bring about the change Iranians have long been waiting for.