By Milad Pourisa
December 14, 2019
Almost four weeks ago, the sudden, steep increase in gas prices triggered nationwide protests in Iran. The demonstrations lasted for days and were soon put down by mass arrests and excessive use of force, leaving more than 200 dead and thousands injured. The protests might be over now, but the underlying causes remain. So what’s next?
IranWire spoke to sociologist Saeed Madani, a scholar and author of books including Social Movements and Democratization and the Necessity of Fighting Poverty and Inequality in Iran, to get his analysis of the November protests and provide our readers with a perspective for some sort of understanding of the future of the Islamic Republic.
In recent days, the government has repeatedly accused the protesters of violence and has even gone further and claimed that they were the ones who shot at people, killing and injuring them. In your view, were the November protests, in general, violent?
No. In recent years the overall political culture of our society has been moving toward civil actions. In the collective memory of our people, the silent march of June 15, 2009 [in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election of that year] is alive. Our society has learned well that peaceful, civil protests are more effective and less costly. Actions such as turning off the engine and leaving cars in the streets, or sitting in the streets, as people did in a number of cities, are entirely civil forms of protests.
What is noteworthy is that these peaceful forms of protests are taking place despite the fact that, in recent decades, all legal, political and executive structures of the country have been pushing the people toward violence, and if some protesters have committed acts of violence they have been responding to the institutionalized violence. Of course, it cannot be denied that because of unhappy socio-economic conditions, violence in the Iranian society has been increasing. For instance, violence among individuals and domestic violence has increased substantially. Structural violence is the most pervasive, powerful and persistent kind of violence and other categories of violence, including personal, domestic and even collective violence, are affected by structural violence.
Can you provide examples of what you mean by structural violence?
Passing discriminatory laws against women, ethnic groups and other disadvantaged people, or resistance to structures to change discriminatory laws, are what recreate violence across the society. Unjust and anti-growth economic policies that undermine social welfare strengthen a system based on corruption and discrimination, a system that spreads poverty and inequality and thus gives rise to the violence of “higher-ups” against “lower-downs.”
And tension-creating foreign policies spread a sense of insecurity and lead to the forced immigration of the educated and the middle class that makes them vulnerable to violence on the other side of the border. Is not a society that goes to sleep every night worried about an imminent war the subject of systematic violence? Can you find a more pervasive violence than the structural inflation that every day puts the middle class and poor wage earners under ever-increasing pressure? Don’t you see the violence in the faces of street children and child laborers who gather trash and have to spend their entire day in brick and glass-making workshops and similar places instead of going to school?
Can you conceive of a more bitter pain than that a woman feels with her whole being when she is fired by a greedy employer? Is there a more devastating violence than the lives of workers and toilers that wake up every morning, scared of losing their jobs or not being paid at the end of the month? The whole nation is the victim of the structural violence that infiltrates every aspect of life.
Nevertheless, I believe that recent protests by the people, generally and at least on the first day, were civil and peaceful before the police and security forces stepped in. A large part of the violence committed by some protesters was merely a response to the violence by security forces. At the beginning people showed that they gravitated toward civil protests but they were treated very violently. They shot birds with cannons.
There are also reports that groups organized by certain official institutions were responsible for the destruction of public property. Even among those whose confessions have been aired by the state TV, nobody has yet confessed to destroying public property or setting it on fire or beating others.
It has been reported that, besides the poor, the middle class also participated in the nationwide protests of late 2017 and early 2018. Do you believe that the middle class also had a considerable presence in the November 2019 protests?
It is only logical to say that classes who join a protest must have a motive for doing so. Based on past experience, increasing gas prices have a major effect on low-income classes. Studies in Iran show that after every increase in energy prices, especially gas prices, the cost borne by the first-decile [the poorest] to the sixth-decile households changes. Households in these deciles have to cut the money that they spend on entertainment, education and housing and increase their spending on food and transportation, suffering a fall in the quality of their lives. So an increase in gas prices impacts low-income classes, especially those that fall into the first through the fifth deciles. The protests of 2017-2018 followed the same pattern. The difference is that since then the population of the poor has increased sharply and more people are affected by the increase in gas prices.
On the other hand, we must also add previous discontent to the shock of the increase in gas prices as the motives underlying the protests.
It is reported that most protesters were young people and that more margin-dwellers participated in the protests than have in the past.
The high rates of inflation and unemployment and low level of feeling secure are crises that affect all classes, but they threaten the younger age groups more. As a result, the young are more motivated to engage in protests.
Some might believe that poor people and margin-dwellers are one and the same. First, as I said, with the increase in poverty and inequality in the last two years, now the poor greatly outnumber margin-dwellers. Second, urban margin-dwelling is not a comprehensive definition for people with inferior dwellings.
According to some estimates, between 8 to 15 million Iranians live in unauthorized dwellings. Some believe that unauthorized dwellers or, to put it in a rather imprecise term, margin-dwellers, are the people who live within the economic limits of a city but have not been absorbed into the city’s economy. The attraction of living in the city and of urban prosperity has driven these people from their birthplaces toward industrial centers and job markets. Residents of unauthorized areas are those who live in unconventional dwellings next to the residents of the main texture of the city.
These groups are those people who have been driven from their birthplaces due to expulsive forces such as poverty and unemployment and have sought out life in urban areas. And since most of them are illiterate and do not possess the necessary skills to be absorbed by urban job markets, they are driven from the cities to their margins. It is also said that “unauthorized dwellings are complex and dynamic social systems that are constantly changing.”
Margin-dwelling refers to people who have taken shelter in and occupy dwellings without authorization or without paying rent. Poverty in margin-dwelling areas is strikingly evident. Of course, not all urban dwellers are migrants and some of them have always been city dwellers who, because of poverty, have been forced to live in substandard dwellings and are therefore considered margin-dwellers.
In recent years, with the increase of inequality and inflation and the fall in prosperity, many social groups in the heart of the cities have descended into poverty and have been forced to live in low-quality domiciles. So those who live in low-quality housing do not always live in the margins of the cities. And although in the protests of November 2019 margin dwellers played a prominent role, the protests were visible in the heart of the cities like Shiraz as well.
It has often been said that the urban middle class is the main driver of demand for democracy. On the other hand, as you said, the middle class has also fallen into poverty and middle class people worry about their livelihoods. How does the presence, or lack of presence, of the urban middle class in the these protests affect demands for democracy?
As I said, it is not only the disadvantaged classes but also the young that played a prominent role in these protests. So, in reality, we are dealing with two things: a rebellion over subsistence as result of the shock of the increase in gas prices and a movement by the young people, who are unhappy with the general conditions of the society.
The urban youth is an uncoordinated movement that goes forward slowly and tentatively toward a general direction and, as a result, is a long-term and continuous movement. This movement usually has no known leader and its protests reflects a certain kind of urban ideal but, demographically, it has no exact definition. By “the young” we mean those in the age group from 15 to 29 years old. In most youth movements high school and university students play a central role.
Among all social movements, youth movements, because of their demands for democracy, have a special place in discussions about transition to democracy. Youth movements in all countries seek the expansion of civil rights, the right to decide one’s own fate and the establishment of democratic political systems. Democracy is the foundation of what the youth demand.
Democracy is the core demand of the young generations. Sometimes it is anti-colonial, sometimes it is anti-tyrannical and sometimes it takes the form of political and social struggles within a democratic system. From a sociological point of view, youth movements do not belong to a specific class and students constitute its core. Students have ample time, are closely familiar with ideological discourse and new ideas and have credibility with people. Therefore, students have better credentials to play a more serious role among young people and in giving cohesion to a social movement aimed at transitioning to democracy. This youth movement is a combination of low-income and middle classes with its own preoccupations. We must not ignore the fact that economic factors play a major role as well.
The other important point is that, although currently the middle class has serious concerns about making a living, it has not forgotten its political and cultural demands. The 2017-2018 protests were about bread and butter but the protests of November 2019 were not limited to the issues of making a living and expressed political demands as well.
These political demands are clear if we watch videos of these protests. Any protest starts with a specific motive and reason that kicks it off but there is no guarantee that other demands will not hitch a ride on the protests. In the November protests the starting point was the response to gas prices but then we heard the protesters chanting political slogans as well.
The question usually raised after such protests is: Was this a rebellion or a movement? And the intent behind this question is: to what degree did these protests have a target, a plan and a clear path forward, and how likely is it that they will get results?
Both rebellions and movements have targets and follow a path. A rebellion is a protest against a specific policy and a movement, besides protesting a specific policy, aims at a better future and, compared to a rebellion, has an affirmative character.
But there are other important differences between these two collective actions. Every movement starts as a rebellion, meaning that it [starts with people] protesting a specific issue, but many other factors, including the continuity of the protests and the emergence of a system of demands that portray a better picture of the future, can transform a rebellion into a movement.
In the November 2019 protests, we clearly witnessed a dissenting aspect, but for these protests to become a movement they need the participation of a social force to organize them and provide them with specific demands. But as of now, we have not witnessed such a process and, as a result, we can conclude that this year’s November protests were more a rebellion than a movement.
The people of Tehran did not participate in a widespread way in the protests of late 2017 and early 2018, or in the November 2019 protests. Could this be down to security-related matters, including arrests and violence, and in particular the crushing of previous protests such as the Green Movement after the 2009 presidential election?
I do not think that the crushing of the Green Movement can be seen as the main reason for the lack of widespread participation by the people of Tehran in November 2019 protests.
First, it must be noted that protests express themselves differently in different geographical regions. And we must also note that various regions of Iran are different when it comes to the level of economic development. For instance, the rate of unemployment in Yazd province is very different than that in Kurdistan. Naturally, in some provinces people are less motivated to join the protests than in other regions.
Nevertheless, we must not forget an important point. November protests lasted only a week and it would be wrong to arrive at firm conclusions about their geographical categorization by concentrating on only a week-long protest. I have no doubt that if these protests had lasted longer people from other regions would have joined it as well. As I have said before, until further notice, Iran is in a movement-ready situation.