Friday, July 17, 2009

New Protests in Iran

"The air was thick with tear gas, so much that you couldn't open your eyes."

Yes, there's been another protest—and another crackdown—in Iran today. No great surprise. The man leading friday prayers was Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the leader of the Assembly of Experts and the guy that a lot of people (including myself) have been looking towards to end the situation in Iran.

His speech today didn't necessarily live up to those hopes. He called for freedom of expression, legitimate government, and everybody to "obey the law". He said that there should be more and better investigation of the almost-certainly-fraudulent June election, and that the hardliners had gone over the line. All true, but he wasn't calling for Khamenei or Ahmadinejad to step down, and wasn't fully aligning himself with the opposition.

Still, it may have been enough, as anti-governmental protests were again sparked. Here's one video:

...and here's what they did in response:

You may have missed it, but that was indeed tear gas.

It gets worse. The basijis outside the university where the sermon was given were carrying knives:

7:14 AM ET -- A caller from Tehran to says that several women were stabbed by plainclothes paramilitaries outside Tehran University. "Blood everywhere," she says. "Please tell everyone to get away from the university."

A reader's contact in Iran says something very similar: "The basijis had knives with them. That's why everyone around the university has knives. He says its really bad."
And, apparently, Mousavi was there.

But here's the kicker: the Iranian mindset has changed. They don't trust the official line anymore. Even now, even this long after the protests were squelched and the repression got stepped up, they aren't buying it. They're criticizing the leadership, the system, and those who support it. Some are even bitterly saying "God has cursed Iran."

No, that isn't as good as one would have hoped at the height of the uprising. But it's still important. It says that the government lacks legitimacy. Now, that's a word that tends to get thrown around a lot: people will say that a president or prime minister lacks legitimacy, or that a congress lacks legitimacy, or that any number of other things lack legitimacy. But that isn't really what it means.

What legitimacy really means is that the government has an acceptable basis for the power it wields. A government isn't really anything other than a bunch of guys with guns and tanks unless people agree that it is. It's all smoke and mirrors, really, a kind of shared illusion. But it's a really good shared illusion, and one that makes society work.

Usually, people do grant it legitimacy. Either because of elections, or because of primogeniture, or because of nationalism, or just because it seems like the only available option. In Iran, it was because there was a modicum of democratic legitimacy, and a lot of religious legitimacy, and the two combined to buttress one another: the state could be Islamic because the people agreed it should be Islamic, and they in turn had the power to reaffirm and guide that state through having the power to elect its members, either directly or indirectly.

(Remember, even the Supreme Leader is the appointee of a democratic body.)

But, now, since they no longer believe they have that ability to reaffirm or guide the state, many clearly no longer believe that it's legitimate. That's no surprise: even Machiavelli understood that turning a Republic into a Principality is intensely difficult, and generally not worth the trouble, because people will remember that they once had rights and will not easily give them up. The Iranian leadership is learning that too.

The shared illusion is no longer shared. It's faded in the mind of many Iranians. They aren't going to believe in it again anytime soon. And even though some of their countrymen still believe, it's going to be harder and harder for them to sustain that illusion.

Some will bend. Some will break.

I still believe its just a matter of time.

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