The Green Movement Is More Than Facebook
Why Feb. 11 was no failure for Iran's opposition.
In the aftermath of the recent Feb. 11 anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran, many commentators have been quick to draw attention to the perceived failings of the green movement, including Cameron Abadi in his Feb. 12 article for Foreign Policy, "Iran, Facebook, and the Limits of Online Activism." Rather than playing scorekeepers after each round of protests, Abadi and others of this mindset should instead evaluate this movement and its accomplishments within the context of both Iran’s history and the enormous power imbalance that the green movement is facing.
Feb. 11 was hardly the utter failure for the green movement that Abadi characterizes it to be. The Trojan Horse strategy he describes, in which activists were to attend an official government rally unannounced and then reveal their identity once arrived, was merely one of the many tactics activists considered in the lead-up to the anniversary, and not one which any of the movement’s leaders actually endorsed. Even former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi said in a statement, "We should attend the rally with the spirit of togetherness while maintaining our identity." In fact, the statements that emerged from the movement’s leaders after Feb. 11 rightly emphasize the enormous government effort — bussing in supporters from every corner of the country, amassing an enormous police presence, even bribing regime supporters to attend — that was needed to merely save face (For more on this, see Mousavi’s interview, "The Green Movement Is Standing Firm on Its Rightful Demands"). This tremendous effort and show of force, which culminated in the detention of more than 20,000 protesters, only served to underscore the regime’s legitimacy crisis on a day it had hoped to celebrate exactly the opposite. Although this outcome may not have matched the grand ambitions some had designed for the occasion, it was nonetheless a major accomplishment.
As Abadi rightly claims, this is not a sprint but a marathon. Any measure of the movement’s success must focus on the incredible changes brought about in Iran thus far, rather than the outcome of specific tactics. Conversations on the proper role of government, which would have been unthinkable less than a year ago, are now commonplace throughout the country. The government is constantly on the defensive on issues ranging from sexual abuse in prisons to its failed economic policies. Although the regime maintains tight control over all levers of power in society — police and security forces, the media, the oil industry, etc. — its popular support has been steadily slipping since June’s presidential election. These changes have taken place because of the millions of Iranians who see it as their duty to peacefully protest in the streets, document the regime’s brutality, and spread this documentation around the world. In other words, the movement owes its greatest successes to the horizontal organization and innovative use of technology that Abadi is so quick to dismiss.
This is not to imply that technology alone will lead the movement to success, nor that the movement should stop looking to its leaders for guidance. However, regardless of a commentator’s desire to serve as a dispassionate observer, his or her words have direct and tangible consequences for the observed.
The green movement is crafting a new and nonviolent political discourse that holds tremendous repercussions for a region in which the vast majority of civil actors are anything but peaceful. This movement is the culmination of more than 100 years of struggle by the Iranian people to secure their basic rights and liberties. Let’s use this opportunity to remind ordinary Iranians of the amazing and very real victories they have already won, and not lecture them about their inefficacy and inefficiency, which is wholly imagined and miscalculated.