Iran: The Question of Illegitimacy Is Bigger than that of Electoral Fraud
By Al Giordano
The videos and links in The Field entry below this one demonstrate that there are indeed massive protests underway in Iran, and not only in its capital of Tehran, sparked by official claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a supposed landslide victory in yesterday's presidential election.
Today has, correspondingly, been one of the blogosphere's best moments in a while. In the English-language world, much credit goes to DKos blogger Clifflyon, who has been translating breaking report after breaking report from the original Farsi of Peiknet.com, and to Andrew Sullivan, among others, for unfolding the rapid-fire events of the past day.
While it is certainly plausible that Ahmadinejad's supposed victory is merely an invention based on cooked numbers, I'm more than a bit concerned that the focus by some media on bloggers on proving the presence or absence of electoral fraud is misplaced as a matter of strategy and tactics.
We know from the 2000 Bush-Gore post-electoral fiasco in Florida and, more recently, from Mexico's 2006 election swindle (one in which 1.5 million votes were either stolen or invented to give Felipe Calderon a narrow victory) that even the most solid proof of fraud does not at all guarantee a change in the eventual result. Since elections are controlled by State apparatus, the State, in the end, controls all data and process upon which any debate about fraud will be based. Additional frauds can be wrapped around original frauds so rapidly that it leaves everybody dizzy and, in the end, fatigued and disheartened. It can go on for weeks, if people misplace their hopes on the rulings of courts or councils.
Demonstrators in the streets in Iran today utilize allegations of fraud as the tip of their spear, but what fuels those protests goes beyond the official results of an election. That is even more true of Iran than of other recent examples of this post-electoral dynamic because the terms of the election itself were a farce even before the votes were counted: The Iranian "president" and "parliament" - elected powers - are in the end overruled by a Supreme Leader, his "advisors," his "experts," his "Guardian Council" (Ayatollahs, which is to say fundamentalist religious clergy) and the elected leaders live under their veto power on virtually all matters except for some of style and tone and what to eat for lunch.
To the extent that the worldwide community gets bogged down in the question of "was there electoral fraud or not?" in Iran it will allow said Ayatollahs to set up the perfect bureaucratic traps to exhaust and defeat the revolt, as occurred (minus the theocratic flavorings) in the 2000 US and 2006 Mexican post-electoral struggles.
More to the point: The yearnings by those in the streets of Iran today precede and supercede the concerns about yesterday's election results. They are seizing the moment of the election, but this is not really about the election. This is about a much deeper and wider discontent with the theocratic-political system they have lived under for 30 years. The timing of the protests has as much to do with the world's eyes being on Iran at this moment and the quorum of international media reporters that are inside Iran as part of that watch. (It's an advantage that the 1989 protesters at Beijing's Tienanmen Square did not have when their demonstration was cut short by a massacre.) The cost for the Iranian state of resorting to excess violence and brutality to shut down this revolt would, as a result, be much higher to its own goals at home and abroad, than it was for the Chinese regime twenty years ago. In that, the protesters have the system over a barrel.
Evidence and accusations of electoral fraud, no doubt, ought to be part of the mix here, strategically and tactically, but if it becomes the outcome determinative question then all will likely be lost: the State has the tools it needs to make the waters so muddy as to seem inconclusive. Media and bloggers alike should take care not to reduce the unfolding story to a matter of bean counting and numerology, and should, instead, focus on the larger truths and principles that fuel the protests.
The emphasis and attention should be properly put upon the repressive steps being taken by the Iranian state in the present, especially those it has already taken against free speech and communication (cutting off telephone and cell signals, filtering inconvenient Internet sites like YouTube, and the reported house arrest of opposition leaders, a claim which I tend to believe simply because we have not heard from any of them in recent hours.)
In other words, this is a State - and an election - that was and is illegitimate whether or not electoral fraud can be proved in yesterday's vote counting. And the actions it has already taken drive that point home, minute by minute, hour after hour.
Today's demonstrations remind me so much of those in the 1970s against the dictatorship of the US-installed Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi. In my brief (three-month) academic tour at Georgetown U. in 1977, I accompanied Iranian classmates to demonstrations in front of the White House protesting his brutal and anti-democratic secular regime. Most of the protesting students then wore orange masks to shield their identities from the Shah's dreaded SAVAK secret police, which was in the habit of assassinating and torturing not only identified dissidents but also their family members and loved ones.
The young people in the streets today are, in many, many cases, the children of those demonstrators of the 1970s, who were not religious crusaders, but, rather, the secular and left wing opposition to the authoritarian regime that religious fundamentalists toppled two years later.
I read on one blog today an Iranian quoted as saying "if Iran sleeps tonight it will remain asleep for a hundred years."
My gut tells me that the country's Civil Society is not going to be sleeping much at all tonight, and that this arc of the universe will continue to bend toward justice tomorrow and in the coming days and weeks. Online communications (and communicators) are going to be key to what happens next. That's why it is so absolutely important that we don't get bogged down by making the "was it fraud or not?" question the central matter of the reporting or blogging these sweeping human events.
What is at stake here goes way beyond a mere election and the accuracy of its results. It is the eternal human desire, indeed, human need, to overthrow repressive systems, that makes the cause just, whether or not electoral fraud - the spark that lit the fire - can be absolutely proved. Keep your eyes on that prize, and hold on.
Update, Sunday, 6:45 a.m. ET: Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post worked the night shift blogging various flows of new information coming out of Iran, including street protests that lasted to the pre-dawn hours, the reported arrests of 100 or more opposition leaders (according to DKos blogger electronicmaji, they include the daughter of the Supreme Ayatollah), and the Iranian state continues its somewhat spotty attempt to shut down all communications with the rest of the world (Twitter feeds have, for example, gone up and down all night long).
7:15 a.m. ET: The Iranian state has ordered the offices of the Al-Arabiya news network (the largest in the region) in Tehran closed.
7:35 a.m. ET: Interesting minute-by-minute commentary by hundreds (thousands?) of Twitter users at the Twitter feed titled #IranElection. Includes live commentary by folks listening to Ahmadinejad's press conference, a very tightly controlled affair in which he blames foreign media and the United Nations for the unrest in his country's streets.
10:15 a.m. ET: Opposition candidate Mousavi has penned a new letter, in which he says he has petitioned the Guardian Council to annul the election results and has applied for permits for demonstrations in every city of Iran on Monday.
10:40 a.m. ET: According to the Tehran Bureau, Mousavi has called for a GENERAL STRIKE on Tuesday, calling on "all those who contest the results to close their shops, businesses, etc. and for employees to not go to work that day."
2:55 p.m. ET: As schedules go, I've got to be on off and on again airplanes for the next 20 hours or so. Blogging will be sporadic, if at all until midday Monday. But I've given y'all a plethora of links to other news sources in this post and the one below it. Keep sharing your comments with each other and I'll check in when I can....