Fifteen Eighty Four

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Iran Then and Now: What Similarities in Protests in 2009 and 2022 Demonstrate

Pouya Alimagham

There is much speculation about what will be the outcome of the current protests underway in Iran. While it is impossible to predict the future, Iran’s recent history of social movement activity and the many similarities to previous uprisings shed some light on the possibilities.

While the catalyst for each uprising is different—one was alleged election fraud and the other was Mahsa Amini’s detainment and subsequent death while in custody three days later, the uprising in 2022 shares important parallels to 2009 Green Movement—the largest challenge to the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979.

The death of the 22-year-old sparked protests not just against the compulsory hijab but the state that mandates it. The protests in 2009 began when the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the state’s preferred candidate—was hailed the victor, an election win millions deemed fraudulent. More than a week later, the Iranian government began a widescale crackdown on the mass protest movement resulting in the death of Neda Agha Soltan. Her violent death was captured by citizen journalists who then uploaded it onto YouTube, which was then relayed around the world by global news media; her killing became the most widely televised death in history. In other words, each movement had a “poster boy,” and both were, in fact, young women.

Both uprisings included women, and the martyr figure for each are women, but unlike in 2009 when women were shoulder to shoulder protesting with men, women are at the very forefront of this recent uprising. That very fact underscores how central women’s grievances are to contemporary Iran.

There is also an important difference, while Agha Soltan’s death galvanized world opinion in favor of the Green Movement, the footage of her killing brought its visceral reality into the living rooms of Iranians, after which many parents grew steadfast in preventing their sons and daughters—especially the latter—from continuing their activism. Consequently, the movement’s numbers continued to dissipate but it did not altogether end until months later. The repression either pushed the moderate voices to stay at home or altogether radicalized activists thereby resulting in the uprising’s slogans changing to more militant ones—from “Where is my vote?” in June 2009 to “This month is the month of blood, Sayyid Ali [Khamenei] will be overthrown” in December of the same year. In short, the movement went from seeking the abrogation of the election results to targeting the core of the Islamic Republic and seeking to overthrow the state that ratified them. This is why it is wrong to categorize the uprising in 2009 as an outburst of reformist energy.

Unlike Neda Agha Soltan’s death that sent shivers down the spines of parents and activists in 2009, Mahsa Amini’s death in government custody has had the opposite effect. Her death has ignited a fearless firestorm of anger felt by both men and women, especially the latter, even encompassing high school girls. That is, a new generation has crossed that mental threshold of fear and are facing down the vaunted security apparatus of the state hellbent on putting down yet another challenge to its rule; this is an important victory for a new generation of activists that cannot be overstated. That fear was shattered not months into the uprising like in 2009, but from the very moment Amini died on September 16, 2022.

As with 2009, crossing that mental threshold is important but it is not enough for a movement’s revolutionary success. Organizations and leadership matter as well.

In the Green Uprising, the activists served as impromptu leaders. While the election campaign-turned-protest movement crystalized around the two reformist candidates, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as Mousavi’s outspoken wife, Zahra Rahnavard, they did not provide effective leadership. In fact, many of the key moments of the uprising surprised them. For instance, once the state implemented a full scale crackdown from June 20 onward, activists adapted to the new security climate by going underground and then resurfacing on specific days of action when the government wanted people to come out onto the streets to commemorate moments religio-political holidays, such as the anniversary of the assassination of Ayatollah Beheshti, Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy, Ashura, and others. On those days, activists used the opportunity to re-emerge and breathe life into their movement by airing slogans against the state.

While adept at using such tactics, the movement did not have effective leadership, therefore, never articulated a coherent ideological alternative. In other words, it is one thing to be against something, it is quite another, more difficult thing to present an alternative. Without a vision for a different future, it was challenging to have citizens in such a populated country as Iran embrace the movement.

This is similarly a problem with the current protests. The lack of a credible leader means that there is no one person or unified command structure to strategize tactics, coordinate effectively, especially in relation to strikes, present a vision for an alternative future, and delegate a committee to negotiate with the state, all of which were key to the triumph of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

At the same time, that there is no leadership and ideology is also a strength because it creates the space for anyone with a grievance to join. Women, religious minorities, secularists, LGBTQ+ community members, ethnic minorities, post-Islamists—those former Islamists who now want to save religion from the state—and more joined in the post-election uprising in 2009, as they are doing now. Strength in numbers is important—the Iranian Revolution brought the Shah to heel after multi-million person marches—but numbers alone are insufficient.

Egypt is an important case study. Millions participated in the uprising in 2011, but the movement lacked leadership and ideology. The focus of protester ire was on the head of state, Hosni Mubarak, instead of the structure that gives rise to such military strongman. Despite the participation of many millions, the protest movement ultimately ended in the overthrow of the government’s figurehead but left the state intact. That continuity eventually produced a military rule in the form of General Sisi that makes Mubarak’s dictatorship seem liberal by comparison.

Iranian women have a long history of activism in modern Iran, and were especially prevalent in the 2009 uprising. Today, however, they are at the forefront of protests against not just compulsory hijab but the state that enforces it. Instead of hearing their grievances, the Iranian government has doubled down on repression and blames a foreign conspiracy—as it did in 2009. The polity, unlike its predecessor before 1979, has a multi-layered security apparatus, from the Basij paramilitaries and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to the militarized Law Enforcement Forces and the regular armed forces. For all its failings, it is indeed skilled in suppressing its domestic challengers.

If the uprising is unable to heed the lessons of its antecedents then it will be more susceptible to eventually buckling under the weight of the state’s repression. If so, it will be only a transient victory for the government—the legitimate grievances will persist until the next spark lights another inferno of angry protests.

Contesting the Iranian Revolution By Pouya Alimagham

About The Author

Pouya Alimagham

Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is the author of Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Camb...

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