How Does A Revolution Begin?

Things have gotten very interesting over the last few days in Iran.  Here are some good resources to follow the developments:

Andrew Sullivan (dedicated Iran coverage)

Twitter #IranElection

The Lede Blog at NY Times

LiveBlog at the Guardian

Cyberwar Guide for Beginners

Al Jazeera


BBC Persia (in Farsi)

Nico Pitney (HuffPo)

This is how revolutions begin.  But more often than not, revolutions fail.  One can’t help but think about the basic prescriptions for taking power:

  1. Take control of a major media outlet, ideally television;
  2. Get the military on your side.

The likelihood is that the government will clamp down and the protesters will get tired.  There will be a crackdown on dissidents, and life will return to normal.  But can things return to the way they were?  China used economic growth to buttress legitimacy in the aftermath of Tienanmen.  But the Iranian economy is not doing well.  If oil prices continue to rise, that will certainly help.  But it is unlikely that Iran can sustain the kind of breakneck, double-digit pace of growth we saw in China.  Legitimacy will suffer even if the regime retains power.  Is force all that is left?

The odds favor the incumbents.  But sometimes you prevail against the odds. From Michael Ledeen:

“What’s going to happen?, you ask.  Nobody knows, even the major actors.  The regime has the guns, and the opposition has the numbers.  The question is whether the numbers can be successfully organized into a disciplined force that demands the downfall of the regime.  Yes, I know that there have been calls for a new election, or a runoff between Mousavi and Ahmadinezhad.  But I don’t think that’s very likely now.  The tens of millions of Iranians whose pent-up rage has driven them to risk life and limb against their oppressors are not likely to settle for a mere change in personnel at this point.  And the mullahs surely know that if they lose, many of them will face a very nasty and very brief future.

If the disciplined force comes into being, the regime will fall.  If not, the regime will survive.  Can Mousavi lead such a force?  If anyone had said, even a few days ago, that Mousavi would lead a nation-wide insurrection, he’d have been laughed out of the room.  Very few foresaw anything like the current situation, although I will claim credit for predicting that neither side in the electoral circus would accept the official verdict.

Does Mousavi even want to change the system?  I think he does, and in any event, I think that’s the wrong question.  He is not a revolutionary leader, he is a leader who has been made into a revolutionary by a movement that grew up around him.  The real revolutionary is his wife, Zahra Rahnavard.  And the real question, the key question in all of this, is:  why did Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei permit her to become such a charismatic figure?  How could he have made such a colossal blunder?  It should have been obvious that the very existence of such a woman threatened the dark heart of the Islamic Republic, based as it is on the disgusting misogyny of its founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

These are real people and real events.  In the real world, these things don’t happen by script.  Revolutionary leaders are not picked by central casting.  People get swept up by events.  Sometimes they rise to the challenge and become greater than themselves, while at other times they reveal their humanity and come crashing back to earth.  Sometimes incumbent leaders do smart things in response to existential threats (from the standpoint of preserving power), but sometimes they make grievous errors.  Sometimes revolutionary leaders are those one would expect to lead an insurgent movement, but sometimes they are people who rise from obscurity with the right skills, passions and good fortune to direct the change.

It has been almost exactly 30 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah.  It was a revolution that defied the odds, the United States, the West and the incumbent power structure.  Students grew ever more determined and, with shouts of “Allah O Akbar!,” they prevailed.

From the rooftops of Tehran, in the streets and in the universities, the shouting voices of students, women, men, rich and poor are calling across Iran:  “Allah O Akbar!”

This is how a revolution begins.  But how does it end?

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 13:40  Comments Off on How Does A Revolution Begin?  
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