The MENA uprisings of this year have brought Otpor!, the nonviolent youth-led movement that overthrew Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, back into the spotlight, with many drawing comparisons to Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement. Indeed, images of the iconic black flag and white clenched fist, so visible in Serbia in 2000, were raised throughout Tahrir Square this year as protesters successfully organized to unseat the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
The Otpor! movement derived many of its tactics from Boston academic Gene Sharp, the man now known as the godfather of nonviolent resistance. The Egyptians adopted several of these, including nonviolent response to violent crackdown, mockery, and identifying how to effectively infiltrate the pillars of power. Most notably, they successfully engaged the army, which ultimately refused to crackdown on the demonstrators.
Interestingly, however, we have seen little commentary on the use of Otpor! tactics by the Green Movement in Iran. This is certainly not because organizers there were unfamiliar with the movement or didn’t feel that it was applicable to them. Quite the contrary – Iranian organizers met with Otpor! veterans to gain insight into their tactics. The primary difference here is political climate.
The Milosevic and Mubarak regimes were undeniably reprehensible (genocide and ethnic cleansing certainly don’t engender respect). But they simply didn’t respond to their opposition movements in the same way that Iran did. Iranian protesters were brutalized, murdered, raped, and tortured. While this took place in Serbia and Egypt as well, it was nowhere near as widespread and systematic as it was in Iran. The Ahmadinejad regime and the Revolutionary Guard were determined to put a cruel end to the demonstrations.
So, can Otpor! tactics actually work in Iran, given this commitment to violent repression?
Let’s explore the pessimistic view first: it is unlikely that widespread protests and mass demonstrations in Iran will work in the same way that they did Serbia and Egypt, for the above-mentioned reasons. There is no reason to believe that the Revolutionary Guard will rein in its violence against the protesters, and in order to carry out a sustained demonstration, ordinary Iranians would have to be willing to face down bullets, torture chambers and rapists for an untold amount of time. This is obviously not an attractive option. It’s hard to imagine more people on the streets of Tehran than we saw in 2009, and yet the regime was able to defeat them.
On the other hand, however, while Sharp’s tactics were broadly developed, they were not meant to be a one-size-fits-all prescription for demonstrators across the globe. Outside of mass demonstrations, Sharp also recommends identifying and exploiting a regime’s weaknesses to bring about its downfall.
Given Ahmadinejad’s penchant for violent suppression, the following are several potential weaknesses that protesters might exploit:
- The internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei is preventing the regime from forming a united front. As a result, policy development has proven difficult, and any policy created leaves a large fraction of government officials dissatisfied and at times infuriated. If effectively leveraged, this could leave the door for some officials to take a more lenient approach in responding to a grassroots uprising.
- More than 60% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. Ultimately, the regime will be forced to find a way to appease this demographic, as well as the growing unemployment rate plaguing them (now at nearly 15% overall).
- Scientific advancement is a central focus of the regime. Today, more than 65% of Iranians in university today are women, ultimately placing them in a stronger position to demand more rights. Given that women will be the majority of the population poised to make developments in this area, the regime will have to decide how to balance their desire to suppress with the necessity of advancement.
- Finally, the regime strongly relies on the support of those receiving government assistance to provide basic needs. These subsidies have largely ceased, eroding support among this once reliable base.
While the Ahmadinejad regime was successful in terrorizing its opposition into submission in 2009, it will be hard pressed to silence the voices of a movement committed to change, particularly given should movement leaders work to exploit these weaknesses. Undoubtedly, there are many working to expose them as we write and it’s a safe (and hopeful) bet that we haven’t heard the last of the Green Movement.
The CGA at NYU ethnic conflicts learning community is part of the MSGA Program in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, taught by Professor Colette Mazzucelli, who is a member of atlantic-community.org.