I’m struck by the similarities between the spirit of the Iranian election – and the subsequent protests – and the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan this March. In both cases, the government promised to honor certain principles and then went back on its word – in Iran, by holding an election; in Pakistan, as President Zardari promised to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Supreme Court.
Then both went back on their word – and the people, to their credit protested. They were cynical about the motives of these leaders – but they refused to react with world-weary cynicism. They knew hope – and in their hope, they gained strength.
The elite power brokers in both nations believed they could get away with whatever they wanted – apparently believing that elections and campaigns and laws were merely a cover for their power politics. But the people took these ideas seriously.
In Pakistan, President Zardari made a campaign promise to reinstate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court known for his independence. Justice Chaudhry had been removed from his post when he appeared to be preparing to declare President Musharaff’s declaration of martial law illegal – and this act by Musharaff was considered the final straw by many in Pakistan frustrated by how the Rule of Law was constantly subverted by the elites in their power games, thus holding their entire nation back. So began the Lawyers Movement which fought to restore the Rule of Law, to remove Musharaff from power, and to reinstate the Chief Justice. After achieving some measure of the first two objectives, forcing Musharaff to resign and electing a new president, Zardari, having promised to uphold the Rule of Law and reinstate Chaudhry – the movement seemed to have won. But after months of stalling, it began to seem as if Zardari had no intention of restoring Chaudhry. Rallies continued – led by different groups across the country – building in intensity – and in a dramatic series of events, a key opposition leader broke out of house arrest to participate in a massive protest to force the reinstatement of Chaudhry. As a final show of determination, a series of rallies was supposed to culminate in a march to the Pakistani capital from all directions as the people took back their capital. In the midst of this chaos, the police and military for the first time in Pakistani history refused to control the demonstrators and stood aside. On the verge of this demonstration, Zardari gave in – reinstating the Chief Justice this March.
In Iran, the extemist mullahs panicked as the people rejected their hardline, isolationist views in favor of the offer of rapprochement with the West offered by Obama. Despite the fact that only candidates hand-picked by the Guardian Council were running – and that the reformers were led by a candidate described as an Iranian Michael Dukakis – and despite the fact that state organs and the Supreme Leader clearly favored Ahmadinejad – a grass roots movement took root on Twitter, on Facebook, in text messages, in blogs, in enormous rallies held by Mousavi in the weeks leading up to the election, and in shouts from the rooftops after the election when all other methods of communication had been cut off. And in all liklihood, according to polls by the Iranian government before the election, and leaked results after it, Mousavi won a resounding victory. And so far, the people have not backed down – as they continue to rally and agitate. After declaring the results of the election “divine,” the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene has begun to show signs of relenting as he has ordered an investigation into vote fraud. Couple this with the rash of resignations and unprecedented public protests by top Iranian leaders and clerics, and there is the potential for real change.
It seems hard not to connect these two demonstrations for political rights in Pakistan and Iran. And to note that leading them is the exact young generation of Muslims whom we were so afraid of after September 11. One of the recurring themes of Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric – and one of the key sources of his legitimacy – is his outrage at the corrupt dictatorships ruling the Middle East – which makes these demonstrations of the people on the edges of the Middle East reminding their leaders that they cannot tread lightly over the consent of the governed all the more significant.
And perhaps, Obama saw this before most – as he called in his Cairo speech for “a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals” that “government [should be] of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power.” Obama explained that legitimacy is gained “through consent, not coercion.”
It remains to be seen if the Iranian protests will be successful – though the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered an investigation into vote fraud is a slight sign to be hopeful. A stronger sign is what forced him to call for the investigation – as over this weekend in the streets of Tehran we saw a largely peaceful and determined insistence by the Iranian people on a government by consent, not coercion.
[Image from Andrew Sullivan’s blog.]