Young Iranian activists, democracy building and the legacy of a failed civil society


Peace, Security & Defence

Photo of This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.
This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

Friends of Europe’s Iran in Focus series aims to identify new approaches to diplomatic relations with Iran by establishing an understanding of the domestic political context and recent developments in international relations that jointly underpin the country’s political decision-making.

By taking a wider perspective on security and focusing on the role of women, the state of civil society and the human rights situation in the country, the series brings a fresh and informed perspective on diplomatic engagement that empowers domestic activism.

Amplifying a varied range of voices, these think pieces examine the challenges and opportunities of civic movements and organisations in Iran. Priorities include women’s rights and political participation, freedom of speech and of the media, the humanitarian considerations of international sanctions, and the role of international actors in Iran.

Our articles and the Iran in Focus series as a whole will engage with these overlapping themes, promote new and diverse opinions, and provide a coherent and progressive reconfiguration of diplomatic relations with Iran, including concrete conclusions and recommendations, based on strategic thinking and mutual interests.

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The identity of this article’s author has been kept anonymous to ensure the safety and security of the individual.

Civil society was a hybrid and ambiguous concept at the time of Mohammad Khatami’s landslide election to the Iranian presidency in 1997. During his term, numerous scholars took it upon themselves to come up with a working definition for this trendy buzzword, ranging from ‘the State’s right hand’ to ‘the State’s ultimate alternative’. Nonetheless, conservatives’ incessant attempts to put an end to Khatami’s reforms, be it in the form of shutting down progressive press or jailing and eliminating prominent figures, left the project of defining an Islamic civil society in limbo.

Even in its heyday, it is undeniable that civil society in Iran was fragile and deficient. However, despite the turbulent political sphere, it managed to raise, guide and educate a generation of young activists who were well aware of the chimera that it was facing and the roundabout methods necessary for organising and putting forward demands.

The One Million Signature for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws campaign, which arose in 2006 during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, was one of the most successful movements after the 1979 revolution and is recognised as one of the fruits of this era. Modelled after a similar Moroccan initiative, the One Million Signature campaign aspired to change existing laws regarding women and prepare the ground for the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women (CEDAW). At the same time, although the 2009 Green Movement attracted citizens from all walks of life, it is not an overestimation to assume that its core proponents were the middle-class, technology-savvy youth who believed achieving democracy within the existing political framework was possible even in the face of rubber bullets and tear gas.

Today’s youth inherited nothing but the debris of civil society

In comparison, those born in the 1990s and thereafter have fuzzy memories, if any, of this ‘golden era’ of makeshift civil freedoms. Due to the state of security, strengthened by sanctions and international isolation, today’s youth inherited nothing but the debris of civil society: NGOs with low capacities to survive on their own and reduced to their charity functions with the majority of their network-building attempts deemed as security threats, and a handful of human rights groups, activist networks and professional unions pronounced illegal. In a nutshell, branches with no trunks.

Iranian society has long lived under the double threat of sanctions and mismanagement. As time passes, the impacts of this situation become clearer. Hope was injected into Iranian society after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was adopted in 2015. According to the World Health Organization, the death rate due to self-harm in Iran increased from 5.9 per 100,000 to 6.1 between 2011 and 2014; however, just one year after the temporary lifting of sanctions in 2016, the figure returned to 5.9.

The loss of hope was palpable after the United States unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA agreement in 2018. The void was filled by a general sense of disappointment in a society that now had to make do with a decaying environment, restrictions on civil freedoms, high inflation and unemployment rates, and the increasing pressure of neoliberal policies that created serious inequality in various areas, including health, education and living conditions.

The current generation of young activists is not willing or able to abide by the prudent ways of its predecessors

Given the circumstances in which the current generation was politicised, its course of action is understandable. Enthusiasm for change is on par with reluctance to learn from the experience of those deemed as the failed generation, duped by a façade of change and responsible for compromises that led to the current situation. Consequently, the current generation of young activists is not willing or able to abide by the prudent ways of its predecessors.

Today’s young activists are often criticised for being atomised, short-sighted and reactionary, lacking theoretical and practical knowledge, and disregarding of the international climate. However, it should be understood that after the failure of the JCPOA, many lost all hope in diplomatic solutions, international bodies, and the agreements and treaties they offer. The new generation of activists, particularly those belonging to leftist groups, reflect the sentiments of a society that is tired of being deceived and disappointed by deals that can be revoked on a whim. Their calls mirror the actions of countless people taking to the streets in small and big towns alike, demanding economic equality and decent living conditions.

Resolving the current situation and changing public attitude calls for even more capable organisers, stronger networks and innovative strategies. Yet, it is lamentable that as the protests escalate, the gap between the old and new generation of activists grows wider. I am not here to fan the fire of old against new. On the contrary, I am here to propose a truce, wondering whether the combination of the old generation’s knowledge and experience in organising and negotiating mixed with the new generation’s zeal can finally bring democracy and stability back to a society on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse.

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