A matter of time
Democracy takes a very long time to be built and democracies are not necessarily supposed to be the same
January 21, 2007
The first attempts on democracy in Iran were made more than a century ago. Ever since Iran has failed to establish itself as a democracy and pro-democracy movements have been busy talking, not so much being able of anything else. Recently there were talks of Khamenei being seriously ill, or even dead. Seriously ill he may be but it turned out that dead he is not. Any eventual death of Khamenei would probably mean his swift replacement by someone else within the Islamist circles. The Islamic regime has become quite old and experienced. The regime has evolved and entered into new stages. Enemies within have been skilfully decapitated or neutralised. The Islamic regime has become able to focus almost exclusively on external threats, being confident of its internal dominance. They are not wrong.
Iran's Islamists are good at what they are doing and they have not been complacent. They have continuously improved their skills on how to rule an antagonised nation only having the support of less than or close to 15 to 20 percent of the population. But this small percentage may be extremely misleading. The vast majority of Iranians are opposed to the system but at the same time let's not forget that most democratic governments often have no more than 20% or less popular support and nothing happens. It is not necessary for a government to be unpopular in order to collapse or be the precursor of serious popular uprising. A government collapses when it is extremely weak from an administrative point of view. And popular revolts take place or succeed not when there is extreme dissatisfaction with the rulers but when there is a combination of favourable circumstances that lead to the rise of a significant and relatively well-organised opposition.
Let's not forget that historically it has been possible for ruthless regimes and tyrannic dynasties to survive for hundreds of years even without any significant popular support. Iran' own history is testament to this fact as there have only been two regime-changes because of popular unrest, one of Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar and the second of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. But the territory of Iran has been ruled by hundreds of kings. These two instances of popular revolts replacing the regimes had preceded sudden liberalisation and openness that had permitted popular dissatisfaction being more easily transformed into well-organised opposition movements.
Before the overthrow of both the Qajar king and the Pahlavi king there had started a wave of new-found tolerance toward opposition that was unprecedented and essentially inspired by outside social evolution toward democracy. These changes had permitted popular dissatisfaction being turned into organised and often militarised groups defying the incumbent regimes. Other times opposition leaders usually ended up in the gallows in a quick and scary manner that also taught lessons to other possible challengers. In 1906 or 1979 oppositions had grown loud and courageous and there were no more the previous lethal and dramatic consequences for opposition movements.
Those unique favourable circumstances, together with the advent of technology that allowed much quicker circulation of information and propaganda and also mass movement of opposition supporters, succeeded in doing the unthinkable, to change the regimes according to the will of the people. Although the people did not get exactly what they wished for, at the end they did succeed in bringing down the regimes that had caused their revolts at the first place. The mere fact that the elite of Iranian society had not yet reached the maturity to offer democracy to the Iranian people is a separate issue. The reason there have not been many other popular revolts against leaderships has not been the lack of popular dissatisfaction but rather the effective manipulation and control of the opposition movements by the ruling regimes.
However the Islamic regime of Iran is a master of social control. They know how to control the media and how to control the opposition movements. And for a dictatorial regime Iran's Islamists are among the most popular. Many other non-democratic regimes have no popular support. The reason is their Islamic ideology that still attracts a large number of Iran's less urbanised masses. This popular niche allows the Islamists to be partially democratic, therefore loosening the grip time to time and letting the heat off. Iran's elections are shambles, though they are much more democratic than in many other countries. And the fact that Iranians are all able to vote and choose one Islamist over another in itself is a great deal for a theocratic society to have achieved. This is a clear sign of some popular support for the regime.
What is needed now for Iran to move toward a more democratic society? Luck, or Divine intervention, is always handy. Nevertheless it is beyond any pragmatic mind to believe that any possible sudden fall of the Islamic regime would bring true democracy to Iran. Democracy takes a very long time to be built and democracies are not necessarily supposed to be the same. Some may be generations behind others. To have any chance for establishing a system that can at some stage be called democratic first of all there needs to be a consolidated opposition to the regime. if the current regime, at this moment in time, due to some miraculous accident (for example a comet that would wipe out most of the Islamists having gathered in a stadium watching Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad wrestle) would collapse, the most probable outcome that could follow would be a long period of deep chaos, very possibly followed by civil disobedience, regional separatism, and finally some type of a mild, or serious, civil war.
Because there would be no active and powerful opposition movement to take over. So, there is a need for a serious opposition to be created. Iran's Islamists are smart enough to know this (long before reading this article) and they are always watching the opposition carefully and surgically removing the nasty elements. The Islamists are candid in their intolerance toward un-Islamic opposition though they allow friendly competition among the moderate and hardline Islamists. This is probably going to be the weak link of the Islamic regime. If there will be favourable circumstances then it is possible that moderate Islamists will be able to gather strength and make some serious reforms through the legislature.
Those reforms, if serious enough, would open the possibility for real change. However as long as the hardliners are powerful enough to hold their grip on key decisional posts, that are not directly chosen by the electorate, all this will be very unlikely. The hardliners are able to block candidates and also block what they deem as not-so-Islamic laws. So, the only realistic way to change will depend upon the degree to which the hardliners will be able to work together in a united fashion to block all the moderate factions. As long as hardliners are strong and united, ideologically, there is little chance for change. We can all shout that we want democracy and freedom, they will just relax and smile. And that's the reality. We've got to acknowledge that they are good at what they are doing, though they are evil due to what they are doing.
One day the ideology and its proponents will weaken and we can only hope that it will be soon, though it can take a very long time. Pragmatic and moderate opposition among the Islamists will eventually gain strength and take over from the hardliners but when this will happen is just guesswork. Communism survived in the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991. That is 69 years. Communism survived though it was much less democratic than Iran's Islamism. And Communism collapsed not because of popular revolts but because of the weakness of the ideology among the Communist elite. Iranians may be more keen to revolt and what Islamists have devised to combat this fiery habit of the Iranians, which brought them to power, is to let the anger release through relatively harmless elections once in a while. And these same seemingly harmless elections will probably bring about the end of the Islamic regime sooner or later. Comment