Iran Feature: How the Civil Rights Movement Challenged the Regime...And Then Made A Mistake (Boroumand)
Ladan Boroumand writes for the "Civil Society Zine" of Arseh Sevom, the NGO pursuing civil society in Iran:
It is worth exploring, even anecdotally, the extent to which civil society organizations in Iran have been instrumental to the unprecedented popular participation that marked both the June 12 election and the extraordinary wave of protest that followed when the authorities hastily and unconvincingly named incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the overwhelming winner. The role played in these events by the Iranian civil-rights movement—a name that I will use here as shorthand for women’s-rights and student activists as well as human-rights advocates—is one that we will never adequately grasp unless we keep the legal and historical backdrop in mind.
When it was assigned to draft a constitution for the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran thirty years ago, the Assembly of Experts made sure that the sovereignty of the people would not be the government’s source of legitimacy. According to the Assembly’s intention, the supreme leader’s absolute power over the whole government emanates not from the people, but rather from the divine authority of the Twelfth (or Hidden) Imam, which is delegated to the supreme leader during the Imam’s miraculous occlusion. Elections, therefore, are mere administrative procedures whose legitimacy depends upon the preelection vetting of the candidates and the postelection approval of the results by the unelected, cleric-dominated Council of Guardians.
In such a setting, elected officials up to and including the president have little power to make democratic reforms. Realizing this, civil-rights activists began some time to ago to debate among themselves what position to take regarding the 2009 vote. In 2005, they had decided to boycott the elections as unfree, and to focus instead on organizing robust civil society organizations that might be able to negotiate with the government as independent entities.
Pushing Back Against Oppression
Semi-official student groups asserted their independence, with the stated goal of defending human rights and students’ interests only. Women’s-rights activists who had been protesting gender discrimination by holding regular (and regularly repressed) demonstrations decided to launch the Million Signatures Campaign behind a public petition to end unfair laws affecting women. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and other lawyers set up the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), while other lower-profile but dynamic human-rights groups proliferated during Ahmadinejad’s first term and put out a steady stream of reporting on the Islamic Republic’s abuses. An alarmed Ahmadinejad administration stepped up repression, hitting not only activists but also ordinary citizens, as the masked goons of the so-called Social Safety Project spread terror and intimidation throughout Iran.
To Vote or Not to Vote?
By 2009, the public was primed to vote Ahmadinejad out, but the activists were feeling vulnerable and isolated after years of savage persecution. They could either ignore these unfree elections as they had four years earlier, or they could plunge in and try to help elect a lesser evil. They knew that the regime might exploit the latter course in order to bolster its bogus claim to be overseeing a genuine electoral process, but they also knew that for international reasons the regime badly needed a big turnout and hence would permit a few weeks of free expression (as it did).