Missing a Party: Why Did the 2022-2023 Protests Fail in Iran?

Published by IranWire

Millions of Iranians have spent the past several weeks marking the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death and the grand movement that resulted from her murder. It has been a somber occasion. The nationwide protest movement that began in September 2022 has evidently failed in its central goal of dislodging the Islamic Republic from power. Failure was also the fate of several previous rounds of anti-government protests in Iran – dating back to 2017. 

Hundreds of Iranian protesters have been killed by the regime. They gave their lives and yet their goal remains elusive. Why? This is the question many Iranians are asking themselves.

IranWire has published dozens of articles in Persian and English exploring the answers to this question and from a range of angles. In one of my previous articles, I looked at what I considered to be the main missing element that thwarted the ambitions of the Women, Life, Freedom movement, which has been the lack of a political instrument and of a culture of political organizing. Inside the country, Iranians are not able to engage in durable organized work because of the regime’s repression.

We have also failed in this task abroad. While activists were able to organize impressive demonstrations (such as those in Berlin and Toronto in the fall of 2022, bringing between 50,000 to 100,000 to each event) they have not been able to build a membership-based political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the pre-1979 era when Iranian students abroad had a powerful organization with branches in dozens of universities in North America, Europe and South Asia. 

The one attempt at forming a political coalition abroad (the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran) was imagined as a coming-together of several prominent activists without any consideration of the need to recruit members. And even this attempt met an almost farcical fate as the so-called Alliance collapsed within a few weeks and amid recriminations between its leading figures. 

What has struck me about this organizational failure of Iranians are the similarities it has with other societies and movements in the last few decades. Social scientists have shown that many movements around the world seem to be suffering from a lack of organized political vehicles that might achieve durable results from their protests. And a new book published just this month takes a deep look at this very topic. If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, was written by Vincent Bevins, a celebrated journalist whose debut The Jakarta Method was a best-seller. 

“What I did was [to look] at a decade in which more people took part in protests than any other point in human history,” Bevins told IranWire in a phone interview via WhatsApp, during a book tour across the United States. “These protests took a very specific form that was shaped by historical and ideological circumstances preceding them. So, what we saw in the 2010s was the employment of a particular type of response, namely the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, horizontally organized, digitally coordinated mass protests in public squares or public spaces.”

For his new book, having reported from regions as diverse as Latin America and Southeast Asia, Bevins was able to look at protests such as the Arab Spring and Gezi Park in Turkey as well as those in Chile and Hong Kong. The commonalities soon became obvious. 

“I did over 200 interviews in 12 countries,” Bevins said, “looking very carefully at the long-term consequences of the cases in which this tactic was actually the most effective, and put so many people on streets, that it could either force changes at the state level or indeed dislodge existing governments. I found that long-term consequences were far from what people expected.”

“Indeed, in a majority of cases,” he adds, “I found that this particular type of protest led to the opposite of what protesters had asked for. If you take protesters’ own stated desires as your metric for progress, the majority of the countries I looked at went backwards.”

Bevins’s findings showed that the so-called ‘horizontal’ protests, a form that was widespread during the 2010s, could be successful in bringing many people to the streets and perhaps even dislodging a government in some cases. But, as he told IranWire, “they were very poorly suited to taking advantage of a power vacuum created by this type of protest explosion [to replace the government with something better].” 

“Individuals going to the streets without much organization between them,” Bevins added, “without coordination, without anybody that could represent this mass of individuals [are] incapable of forming a new government. This type of protest movement can’t even negotiate when that would have been the right move.”

The effect of a lack of organization on a movement – depriving it of the ability to negotiate – has also been noted by scholars such as American political scientist Erica Chenoweth. Many successful revolutionary movements, from Solidarity in Poland to the African National Congress in South Africa, were renowned for their negotiating tactics when the right time arrived. 

Bevins explained that negotiation becomes impossible for the type of movements he studied.

“Let’s say you have a moment in which the state is on the ropes,” he said. “Elites know that they are in trouble [and they are] willing to give something up to stop the chaos or hold on to power. Articulating exactly what the movement wants requires some process of representation, organization, and coordination. It requires somebody who can speak for the movement. In this type of apparently leaderless and spontaneous explosion, no one can speak for the movement.”

What makes the situation even more difficult is that many do not see this as a shortcoming. “This [leaderless quality] is proudly proclaimed by movements as a virtue,” Bevins said. “And indeed, it may be helpful in making explosions hard to control or hard to stop in early stages. But when it comes to sitting down and extracting concessions, in a way that perhaps a union might at the end of the strike, it cannot do that.”

Governments have also learned that they can wait out protests that, without an organization or leadership, will eventually subside and die down. “Even if they are smashing things up or attacking police officers,” Bevins says, “protesters will eventually get tired. And if you really and desperately believe that you need to hold on to power, you can put up with a few months of chaos. This is something that the government learns.”

Authoritarian governments also learn to paint whatever kind of picture they need to contain protesters. Lack of a centralized means of communication means that protest movements are often defined by their detractors. “If you can code a certain protest movement as the work of foreign meddlers, bad actors, traitors or wreckers, you can effectively re-signify the movement; at least to the people that listen to your media.”

If We Burn was written in 2020 and thus does not include Iran’s recent Women, Life, Freedom movement. But what appears to be the book’s central lesson certainly applies. 

“One of the lessons that came out of the book is the need for strong, but also flexible and democratic organizations, that can act in the short and long term and shift tactics when circumstances change,” Bevins said.

“They can make small wins when those are possible and indeed plan for bigger transformations if that’s what a given country needs,” he added. 

And this is precisely what the Iranian protesters of 2022-2023 lacked. Achieving this can finally bring an end to the Islamic Republic. 

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