Mohammad Ali Kadivar is an assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College. He is the author of the book Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy.
It’s been exciting and it’s been overwhelming. It’s exciting to see people are rising, to see the amount of bravery on the streets, how these young women and men will stand up against the armored police with bare hands. It’s been inspiring.
Mohammad Ali Kadivar
- Introduction – 0:38
- Democratization Examples: Egypt and South Africa – 3:20
- Democratization and Durable Democracy – 11:12
- Nonviolence and Democratization – 23:33
- Part 2: The Iranian Protests – 38:49
Over recent years, most scholars and researchers have focused on democratic decline and erosion. The narrative overlooks the many people who live under autocratic rule who daily work to bring about democratic governance in their countries. Unfortunately, as hard as it is to bring about a democracy, it’s just as difficult to sustain democratic government. The challenge then is not simply to bring about democracy, but a durable democracy that will last.
Typically most activists prefer to work on one problem at a time. They figure they can build a durable democracy once they have a democracy. But Mohammad Ali Kadivar disagrees. He argues the foundations of a durable democracy begin long before democratization. Ali is an assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College. His new book is Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy.
Ali’s work connects back to some past themes from the podcast such as civil resistance, revolution, and protest. He argues longer periods of mobilization allow for better prospects for durable democracy. Unfortunately, recent revolutions happen so quickly movements don’t have time to lay those foundations before a democratic transition starts.
I originally spoke to Ali in August. It was a month before widespread protests broke out in Iran. I’m bringing it up, because I brought Ali back to discuss how the protests fit into his theory of democratic durability. But I also wanted to hear what those protests mean to him personally, because he grew up in Iran. So, make sure to listen until the end so you hear his thoughts on the recent protests in Iran.
Before we start, I want to mention I’ve gotten some great pieces of writing from listeners to feature on the blog. If you’re interested in writing a post, please email me at email@example.com. Now this is my conversation with Mohammad Ali Kadivar…
Mohammed Ali Kadivar, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Hi and thank you very much for having me.
So, Ali, I was really, really impressed with the book that you’ve just written, Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy. It’s a fascinating book because it touches on the idea of democratization, but it extends beyond that to think about how the strategies that are applied during the democratization process can help lead to the consolidation of democracy. Typically, we think of those as two different phases, but you’re linking the two and saying that the consolidation of democracy really begins when we begin to democratize or even when we begin the democratization movement.
So, you actually look at a few different cases where some succeed and some fail. One of those is Egypt and you write, “The Egyptian movement of January 25th failed to fulfill these pro-democracy functions partially because its success was so rapid.” Tell me about Egypt’s brief democratic transition and why you believe that it failed.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, the Egyptian Revolution started shortly after the start of the revolution in Tunisia. It inspired Egypt and other Arab countries. The event in Egypt also was part of what was called the Arab Spring. It had a bigger effect on the other Arab countries, because Egypt is so central in the Arab world and in the Middle East. The protest that brought down Hosni Mubarak took three weeks. The protestors did not expect this. Mubarak didn’t expect this. No one expected this. But this is typical in revolutionary moments. People come to the street and they’re surprised that there are so many other people there.
So, the opposition groups that gathered in Tahrir Square were from different sections, but the main divide in the Middle East is between Islamists and non-Islamists. They were not ready for this moment. They didn’t have conversations among each other about what to do after Mubarak was gone and disagreements started between them right away. Mubarak stepped down or was forced to step down by the Egyptian military. So, in a way, this was also a coup. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, took the leading role in Egyptian politics. The opposition did not have a consensus to push back at SCAF at the time. Part of the non-Islamist opposition, especially the youth, were adamant in their opposition to SCAF at that moment.
The Muslim brotherhood who had been kept away from entering formal politics saw the opportunity of a lifetime. Now they could participate in elections. In the book I emphasize that the duration of protests matter. One benefit of a longer period of protest mobilization is organization-building. This did not happen for the non-Islamist opposition. So, we had a very uneven organizational balance in the Egyptian opposition. You have an organizationally strong Muslim Brotherhood. Now that Mubarak was gone, they were able to translate their organizational power on the streets to the ballot boxes. This was not the case for the non-Islamists. They did poorly in all of the elections that were held from 2011 such as the referendum, the legislative election, and the presidential election. They lost these elections one after another which brought them closer to the holdovers of the Ancien Régime, the previous regime.
So, this alliance was formed and the non-Islamists miscalculated here. Their perception was that the military was going to come in, remove the Muslim Brotherhood, and then hand the power to them. The prime ministership initially was given to Mohamed El-Baradei, but then the massacre of Rabaa happened which I think the anniversary was just a few days ago. And El-Baradei realized this was not the case. He resigned and the rest of them, I think, also realized military is not going to give them power. Some of people who participated in the 2013 uprising which led to the coup are in prison now and we have had a resurgence of authoritarianism with a different combination. The military is more powerful now than it was before.
So, one of the lessons I learned from your book about this case was the fact that the transition was just so rapid that it didn’t give the different groups opportunities to be able to work together to decide what a democracy would actually look like or how they’d be able to work together? So, you had multiple different groups, not just liberals, that were dissatisfied with the type of government that ended up coming out of the Egyptian Revolution. In contrast to Egypt though, you give what I think you might describe as an ideal case which was South Africa. South Africa’s democratization movement took a very long time. I think most South Africans would say it took too long. But can you tell just a little bit about what the democracy movement in South Africa did differently than what happened in Egypt?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, you’re right. South Africa is probably the longest depending on where we start counting when the mobilization started. So, we have mobilized protest demonstrations during the 1980s, but there were also protests in the 70s, 60s, and 50s. So, the African National Congress was formed in the early 20th Century. They stepped up their activities in the 1950s. They used methods of nonviolent resistance, but faced heavy repression. So, the ANC decides to go underground and takes up an armed insurgency. So, we have a period of quiescence and then there are uprisings that erupted in the 1970s. They uprisings were suppressed, but they brought about new conversations among the opposition. Why did the uprisings fail?
One of the messages they took from this is that the organizations of the opposition were weak and they had to build up the opposition and also be more inclusive and build alliances. It was a strategy of the ANC to be inclusive. They were in Alliance with the Communist Party and they also included white people in South Africa that wanted to assist the anti-apartheid movement. So, Soweto was a turning point. It brought down different segments of the opposition. Moreover, the South African government suppressed the movement, but also came under international pressure. At the same time, we have the formation of new trade unions in South Africa that I have detailed in the book. When the protests scaled up in South Africa, it brought different wings of the movement together.
So, by relying on this alliance, the ANC was able to represent the opposition in the negotiations. Both the government recognized them and the opposition recognized them. In 1994, they wrote a constitution, there were elections, and at this moment the ANC was able to contest power and until today they have been in power. But that organizational expansion, the formation of alliances, and the hegemonic position that the ANC was holding in the opposition, I think were crucial in keeping the transition process moving forward so the new institutions could be built and supported by political leadership and also the grassroots.
A key part of your idea is the fact that the democratic transition is more effective when it lasts longer and when it has time to be able to work through all of the different questions that are going to come up when the country finally democratizes. But I don’t know that it’s necessary for that process to take a long time so much as it is necessary to fulfill certain steps. Because if it takes a really long time, but they don’t answer any of those questions, it’s not going to be effective either. What steps must an opposition make then for a democratic transition to actually succeed?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, democracy is a collective game when we agree on certain rules for making decisions and for resolving our conflicts. That’s what democracy is. So, what are organizations? Organizations are also collectives that have formal rules for decision making. An organization is not necessarily democratic. We have non-democratic organizations, but the first step is just to have an organization with formal rules. The next step is to have democratic rules. So, one step is to organize and build organizations. I think informal organizations could be resilient against oppression. But the ambiguity is not, I think, compatible eventually for democracy building. Organization also means you have a group of people that agree to work with each other. They practice cooperation. It creates capacity for collective action. Again, democracy is collective action at the highest level which builds on lower capacities in society for collective action.
So having internal rules and expanding organizations (and I don’t think any one organization can include all segments of society) plus learning to work with each other is important. And even though they disagree with each other, eventually they have to agree on rules about how to resolve disagreements. So, having a democratic discourse, promoting that and showing that in practice should be shown internally in an organization and in terms of how organizations work and enter into conversation with each other. So, organization building alliance formation, and a conversation about what we want. What do we disagree about and how we can go about our disagreement?
I mean, many major theories of democracy also emphasize processes of deliberation and conversation in the public sphere which goes also into alliance building and organizational formation. What kind of organization is this? What kind of political regime do we want? These are major questions to be dealt with and having some patience for losing formal power initially. Now, we see groups cannot wait. I think if the non-Islamists had waited for another election in Egypt, the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood was declining. There was a big chance that they would’ve lost the next election as Islamists in Tunisia lost in 2014. So, having a little patience, not becoming paranoid, and waiting for the next electoral chair.
It sounds like it’s not just about building organizations. It sounds like institution building has to actually begin before formal democratization actually occurs. We see that in the case of South Africa where you have the ANC being developed as an institution within South Africa. You also have labor unions developing as institutions within South Africa. It’s always hard to distinguish the line between an organization or an institution, but it sounds like these are institutions that are going to live beyond the authoritarian past and transition over into democracy. Do I understand that right?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Yes, but there comes before that collective actors that have the job of building these institutions from the grassroots, from bottom up often under conditions of repression and constraints. These are experiences that create templates about what to do when you build democratic institutions. This also creates collective capacity in society for upholding those institutions. This is what I argue is crucial for both the quality and durability of new democracies.
So, how do you go about building organizations and institutions in a repressive environment? I mean, I imagine that a repressive state is going to recognize that organizations and different institutions are starting to form around them that are hostile to the state and try to eliminate them. How is it that people who believe in democracy, who believe in just change, who believe in human rights… How is it that they can develop these organizations within these environments?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, this is a very hard question, but I think an important question. So, when we look at the cases that I examine in the book, there are different occasions where opportunities arise. One is when there are openings from the top. So, the authoritarian regime is a big player in this game and sometimes they open up and they create space. This opening up itself could be a response to earlier episodes of protest mobilization. So, I argue in the book that longer periods of protest mobilization are more likely to be conducive to durable democracy. We see this in Poland and in South Africa. There was protest mobilization and then there were both repression and opening in response to that. It goes through cycles of repression and opening in different countries.
So, those windows of opportunity from the top that are itself the results of previous episodes of mobilization are one path. We see this in both Poland and South Africa. Another occasion is sometimes there are protest organizations that regimes build themselves for controlling the population. There are often debates among the opposition and activists like ‘Should we participate in this,’ for example, government-made or government co-opted trade union or state union ‘or should we stay?’ Sometimes activists participate and are able to create spaces within those cooperative places. There are also other spaces that have been described as free spaces such as churches and universities. But I think at this point, authoritarian regimes have learned about these free spaces, have penetrated them, and have them under heavy surveillance.
It’s much harder, of course, when the regime is very repressive to build formal organizations, But I still see organizations formed under repression. I mean, going back to the example of Iran, even though it’s not in the book. Iran is going through a very repressive state right now and if you want to build an organization to say that the Islamic Republic must go, it’s obviously not possible. You cannot make that. They even recently closed a charity organization that was just running anti-poverty campaigns. This was a formerly registered NGO, but they had an extensive network of charity activists throughout the country. Of course, they are afraid of this type of activity. So, they shut it down.
But at the same time, now we have associations of teachers and associations of retired people that are holding a lot of protests. The government doesn’t recognize these organizations formally. It’s hard for them to have a space, to have open budget and so on and so forth. But they have their organizations and they are not overtly demanding regime change or a transition to democracy. They want higher wages, but they also want to have free organizations which I think is fundamentally democratic. It’s related to what we’ve been speaking about. The regime rightly thinks that if we give you even a free organization, then some risk comes with that. So, the regime doesn’t recognize them. There are a lot of teachers in prison. But they’re active. They have their organizations. They’re protesting. They don’t target the top of the regime saying, ‘This must go.’
But they make, I think, radical demands that we want to be in the streets. This is our right to protest. This is in the constitution. We aren’t recognized by the government, but we keep doing it. So, we see that these organizations can also play a role. In Sudan it was a professional association that took the leadership role during the protest that happened a couple of years ago. They were just announcing the time and place of the protest and because it was a credible organization, it was popular. People were participating.
But even under repression, there are new ways. The internet has been used for rapid mobilization, but the internet can also be used for organizing. Of course, we wouldn’t see it so visibly. For protests, we see it visibly. They say tomorrow is the day of rage. Come to Tahrir Square to protest police suppression. That’s how the internet is used for mobilization. But the internet can also be used for organizing like when activists contact each other. They speak with each other. We don’t hear about it. We don’t see that. Governments are obviously focusing heavily on the internet. The internet is now being used as a source and tool of surveillance. It’s become harder for activists to use it for mobilization. But I think there are still capacities and possibilities on the internet to be used for organizing even within the context of oppressive regimes.
You know, in the example of Iran where you said that there are nonprofits and charities building up and that it’s in a way an expression of democracy itself, it’s an expression of pluralism. It’s changing the way in which society relates to the state. But at the same time, we haven’t seen Iran’s democratization fully take hold. So, we don’t know how that’s going to really shake out. But we can look at another example, which you do cite in the book, which is Poland where Solidarity did not start out as an institution of democratization. It started out with specific labor demands and started out just trying to represent workers. But in the end, after almost a decade, that was really the institution and the organization that was created that helped bring about the fall of communism within Poland. So, we’ve seen that exact template play out in other examples in history.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Yes. The initial demands were about the Gdańsk shipyard and it then expanded to workers within the country. But they maintained, ‘Okay. We recognize the Communist Party. We are not demanding for you to go. Just give us space to organize and have our independent trade union.’ And it was the first independent trade union in the whole communist world. So, sometimes making more moderate demands is the more radical thing to do and that’s what takes courage. And that’s what Solidarity did. But then we were suppressed. So, if we stand in 1980, ‘81 things looking very interesting in Poland. If we stand in 1983, things look terrible. Solidarity was popular, but was a failure.
So, we can’t always judge from where we are standing in history. We shouldn’t take a ‘presentist’ moment for Iran or for another country. We might be in a type of 1983 moment of Poland. I’m not saying necessarily we are. But there are these forces and possibilities. History is not determined. We see openings and possibility, but sometimes we see constraints. No one thought that the Arab Spring was going to erupt in Tunisia. A month before that I was in an annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association in November 2010. There were multiple panels about the stability and resilience of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. There was no panel about the possibility of protest.
So, key to your idea is that the democratization process, the mobilization process, should last longer than sometimes it typically does with these urban civic revolutions that take literally just weeks or days sometimes. Armed mobilizations typically last longer than unarmed ones. They typically begin in the countryside rather than in the cities. They try to outlast the repressive regime. Why is nonviolence still more effective than an armed mobilization that might follow your template of lasting years rather than days?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, I discuss in the book where armed struggle is trickier to lead to durable democracy. We do have some democracies that have emerged out of armed struggle and have succeeded. El Salvador, I think, is the best example. But most cases of armed insurgency don’t lead to democracy. In the first place, it’s a very rare pathway from armed struggle to democracy and there are multiple reasons. One is just that violence and democracy, especially armed insurgency, are not compatible. You can’t have a democracy while people are shooting at each other. Now, you can say, ‘Okay, that’s a means to an end. We use armed insurgency and violence but we will stop it when we have a democracy.’ It’s often not the case. It’s hard to stop violence. It’s very challenging to turn combatants into civilians and into unarmed movements.
So, we see in a lot of countries with a history of civil war that either civil war continues or other forms of organized crime take place which undermines the quality of democracy. That’s one reason. The other major reason is that the type of organizations that armed insurgency takes is often nondemocratic. It’s hierarchical and it’s a matter of secrecy which is opposite of a democratic organization. So, in general unarmed struggle is more compatible with democratic organizations. Again, it’s not necessary. You can also have a nondemocratic organization that uses unarmed struggle. But for armed struggle, it’s impossible. I don’t know of any democratic organization that is involved in an armed struggle.
Even in the case of South Africa, the ANC has been criticized for its authoritarian internal structure which is in a way a legacy of armed struggle and also a legacy of the type of communist organizational template they adopted and learned from the South African Communist Party. When you have this idea of democratic centralism, where you elect the leaders, but then it’s whatever the leaders says, the organization just follows. So, I think in those two senses armed struggle cannot be conducive to democracy. First is that it rarely even achieves a democratic regime. It often doesn’t stop. And the type of organizations that are involved are not democratic. The other things that usually you need are like third actors, like UN peacekeepers or other foreign countries to come there and make sure that civil war wouldn’t erupt.
So, there are a few cases, but these are rare cases. It’s not a common pathway for democracy building when civilians are killed this way, these wounds are just hard to heal. They stay in the psyche of a nation and we see their effects for a long time to come both in interstate wars and internal civil wars.
The impression that I’m getting is that it’s not just about building organizations over a long period of time of mobilization. It’s building the right type of institutions that can transition over into democracy. So, the democratization process, like we said, at the beginning should already be looking forward to the consolidation of democracy with democratic institutions that they can carry over. The process is obviously not going to be ‘pull it out of the box and it’s ready to go from day one’ but you’ve got a head start. If you’re going to create a durable democracy, if you’re trying to begin everything at the moment that you take power, I mean, there’s just too many things to be able to handle. It’s part of the reason why so many democracies end up failing shortly after the revolution ends.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, going back to South Africa and Poland, one thing they did is they didn’t just build organizations. They were practicing what would it be like to be a democratic citizen. For people who were participating in the unions in South Africa, they were trying to have this bottom-up democratic process within a factory. When the factory workers elect their shop stewards, then they build regional communities to make decisions. So, participatory democracy was being practiced in South Africa and Poland. One of the places that a major theory of civil society was cultivated was by Polish intellectuals such as Adam Michnik. Their idea was that we leave politics to the government, the idea of anti-politics, and we practice civil society where we can speak with each other, be civil with each other, cooperate, and build collective capacity by making decisions.
So, yes, organizations are a structure that facilitates this type of participatory democracy. Initially there was this idea that participatory democracy is incompatible with organizations. So, we had this idea of absolute horizontalism where anyone can have a voice. But now we have experience and these ideas have been developed and criticized, especially within the feminist movement. So, we now know about the tyranny of the structure of this. So, to have participation, you need structures of decision making, regulation, deliberation, and accountability. So, this is what the organization initially can do within the movement. Then when the cadres, the leaders, the grassroots have practiced this, they know how this works. It’s a better chance that we will also see this coming to a larger scale when the transition succeeds and the new democracy begins.
So, let me ask you a question that I think is on just about everybody’s mind. Tunisia was largely considered a democratic success. Today it looks like it might turn out to be a failure of the Arab Spring along with some of the other revolutions that were attempted. What’s your opinion? Tunisia lasted almost a decade. Is that a democratic success or a failure?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
I think for the Middle East, it’s a case of relative success. The Middle East is the most antidemocratic, most authoritarian region in the world. From the indicators like V-Dem, which is now a major democracy data set, Tunisia has reached the highest democracy score any Middle Eastern country has been able to reach. So, I think democracy has ended in Tunisia. But we still have a decade of democracy. Again, we shouldn’t see this just from the present moment that if it failed now, this has all been nothing. No. I think we have had a decade of democratic experience in Tunisia. That’s one thing.
Another thing is that the episode of 2011 to 2014 was an important episode when Islamists and non-Islamists faced each other and it didn’t end in violence. Go back to 1979, Iran, bloody violence. Islamists killed non-Islamists. Egypt, at the same time, the government and non-Islamists massacre Islamists. Algeria, 1990-1991, a massacre. So, we have seen very violent episodes between Islamists and non-Islamists. We didn’t see this in Tunisia. They were able to reach a compromise. They wrote a constitution together and they eventually agreed to it. So, we had a decade of peaceful democracy in the Middle East where political rights were respected for a decade.
So, yes, I think we can see the ending. But these things have happened. The situation doesn’t look good in Tunisia right now. But still Tunisia has a more organized civil society than other Arab countries. So, at least in the midterm and long-term, I’m optimistic. In the short-term, I’m pessimistic.
So, you mentioned the term authoritarian legacies once before. I wonder about the idea of democratic legacies such as when a country like Tunisia democratizes and has years of experience under a democracy, whether or not that’s going to influence its future political trajectory as moments occur and opportunities come up for it to democratize once again. Because I look at Europe and countries like France, who are in their fifth Republic, which means that they’ve had five bites at the apple before they’ve tried to get democracy right. And you could still argue that we may end up finding a sixth Republic in France where they try to make an even better democracy someday in the future.
Do you expect there to be democratic legacies within some countries like Tunisia or even Egypt where maybe they might have a better success the next time that they make an effort at a democratic experiment in the Middle East?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, in the book, there’s a statistical chapter where I look at all the democracies that have emerged from 1950 to 2010 and there I confirmed the main argument of the book that the longer length of unarmed mobilization is associated with higher chances of democratic durability and also growth of democratic quality. But I also look at other explanations and one thing that I find significant in all the models is previous democratic experience. Democracies that have previous years of democracy before the current episode that we are analyzing in the model are more likely to survive and the quality of democracy is also more likely to grow. This previous democratic experience also provides a foundation for further organizing and alliance building. It wouldn’t be automatic. The political actors should learn, should examine, and should enter conversations with each other to use this.
But it is certainly an opportunity. The main challenge in the Tunisian opposition, like any other opposition now, is to overcome fragmentation. We still see a big chasm between the Islamist party Ennahda and other parts of the political opposition. This is a major divide that should be overcome for the Tunisian opposition to be able to push further for democratization. The other thing is to reconnect with elements of civil society that were active between 2011-14. A major one was UGTT trade union that has been oppositional or co-opted at different periods of Tunisian history. When it stood by democracy in 2011 and 2014 democracy succeeded. Unfortunately, UGGT stayed passive during the current episode and some of the members even supported the authoritarian turn by the president.
So, this would be important for making ties within the opposition, so to activate the trade union and bring it to the side of the democratic movement. So, yes, there’s a foundation. I think this would be an important episode for the opposition to learn from. We also see this in Latin America, in Argentina, for example. We had Peronists and anti-Peronists going at each other which contributed to the failure of the Argentine democracy in a couple of episodes. But what was significant in the early 1980s was that they grew more tolerant of each other and they were able to build a united coalition against dictatorship and for democracy. Secondly, I think, for democracy to come back to Tunisia, we would need to see similar steps to be taken.
So, we’ve been talking a lot in the abstract and we’ve talked about some historical examples. But looking forward into the future, do you know of any democracy movements that show real promise to you that look like they might be able to create durable democracies sometime in the future?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Well, the one that I’m watching closely now is Brazil. So, we have had this kind of back and forth. Brazil had a long movement for democracy. The Workers’ Movement was formed during the years of a struggle against authoritarianism. They came to power more than decade after the transition had happened and then we have had an episode of democratic erosion with the presidency of Bolsonaro, but the Workers’ Party has stayed organizationally strong. I don’t want to go through all the details, but we know that the former president Lula da Silva is contesting the presidency and there’s a good chance for him to win the election, if unusual things don’t happen.
And if it happens, I think it would be an important success for now, because I see this as a global struggle of authoritarianism versus democracy. I think authoritarianism has been emboldened and has taken over several places, but good things have happened recently. One was in Bolivia when the coup was subverted and civilians came back to power. It was also good that Morales was gone and MAS party was able to exert itself without its founder. Chile looks promising and I have hope for Brazil. These are places that I see promise and there are other movements. I mean, the struggle is ongoing in Sudan. In Burma, I think that authoritarian regime has suppressed a movement for now. But these are movements that are weakened, that are repressed and wounded, but at some point, they will come back to the surface.
We just look at the history. It never goes only one way. I don’t know how long this dark age of the authoritarian turn will last. But one thing I see from history is that it’s not always going to go the same direction.
Well, thank you so much for joining me. I agree with you that I think Latin America is a real bright spot right now in terms of democracy. A lot of different stuff going on and one country you didn’t mention is Ecuador. That’s had a real turnaround as well. It’s an interesting part of the world that I think sometimes gets overlooked, but is really, you know, at the forefront right now of defending democracy in the current moment. But thank you so much for joining me and thank you once again for writing your book. The book, once again, is Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy. Thank you once again for joining and thank you for writing the book.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a real honor for me to speak on this podcast with you.
Now that was my conversation with Ali in August. But after months of protests in Iran, I reached out to Ali to get his thoughts. So, this part of the conversation was recorded on Friday, November 18th.
So, Ali, about a month after we talked protests broke out in your home country of Iran or rather your country of origin, Iran. Let’s start there. I really want to touch on what these protests are really about.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Yeah, these protests have been extraordinary in many ways as I think most of our listeners know. They started when Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, died or was killed in the custody of the morality police in Iran. She was picked up because of her hijab and then protests broke out first in her hometown of Saqqez at her funeral. Then it spread in the next days to other Kurdish cities nearby. Then there were protests in Tehran and some other big cities. Then we had the diffusion of protests to other cities around the country. So, weeks have passed since then and protests have continued despite heavy crackdown of the government.
The protests are about several things. So, first thing is this is about compulsory hijab. This is about state subjugation of women’s bodies and we see in this protest women have been taking up their scarves, putting them on fire, cutting their hair, so women issues are at the forefront. We see in many videos that women are leading these protests including young women in their late teens and in their twenties. So, many have observed that this is a new generation protest. A main slogan we’ve been hearing is ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ which is rooted in the struggles of Kurdish women in Turkey and then in Syria. Then this slogan traveled to Iran’s Kurdistan and from there it has become a national slogan.
We have had episodes of anti-regime protests before starting in 2017, 2018, 2019 and right now as we are recording this podcast is the anniversary of the 2019 protest. We saw an uptick in protesting over the last three days in Iran. So, there is continuity in these protests with past protests and there are differences. Similar to previous protests there is a strong anti-regime theme in these protests. Protestors are calling for the end of the Islamic Republic and say that is what they want. So, that is also one of the major demands of these protests.
In addition to that, we observe a clear ethnic element to this protest. They started in the Kurdish region of Iran, but they have demonstrated in other areas of Iran. Another area that has seen protests are in the southeast of Iran where the Baloch minority lives. They’re also a religious minority. They are Sunni. Mahsa Amini’s part of Kurdistan is also Sunni. There have been protests in Turkish regions in the Northwest. So, they have received clear expressions of ethnic solidarity between these different regions and recognition of the diversity and pluralism of different ethnicities in Iran. This is new to observe this type of solidarity to emerge at a national level.
In addition to this, we also see a reactivation of protests at universities in Iran. The universities have been a contested space in the last four decades. They’ve also seen that these protests have spread to schools like high schools. There have been even videos from elementary schools. You see young girls at schools taking off their hijab, taking down the pictures of Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, and first leader of the Islamic Republic and the picture of Ali Khamenei. So, they’ve seen these girls taking them down, showing the middle fingers to them. These pictures have become iconic. So, yeah, we have been observing a big uprising that still continues today despite heavy repression.
One of the most startling facts of this set of protests have been the calls for the death of Khamenei. That they’re not just looking to see a change in leadership, but they want significant change within Iran. I’d like to know whether or not you feel that these protests are really about a change towards democracy or if they simply just want a change of who’s actually in charge.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
So, I think that this moment is heterogeneous. There is a progressive side that the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ represents. The idea behind this slogan is that unless women are free in our society, no one would be free. So, the word freedom appears. You mentioned ‘Death to Khamenei’ is one of the main slogans. Probably the number one slogan is ‘Death to the Dictator,’ which is a slogan from the 1979 Revolution that has been repeated decades afterwards. We had those slogans in the previous episodes of protests that I also mentioned. What’s new is this new slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ which is positive. It’s about life, it’s not about death. It is about freedom.
So, it’s presenting an alternative, but I think there is an authoritarian site to this movement. We see that in the lack of tolerance from part of the opposition. They attack very harshly other sides of the opposition, especially among the diaspora. We have observed kind of a toxic atmosphere. If, for example, someone has a different strategic opinion or one about tactics, they get attacked for not being revolutionary enough or being a white washer or being reformist. These are the type of attacks that I think are a good example of disorganization or disorganizing rather than organizing. So, for some people who are denouncing the Islamic Republic, I think they clearly also say what they want.
There are also calls for democracy. You do hear this word from some activists, protestors here and there. For some people, they’re denouncing the Islamic Republic, but they don’t say as much about what they want instead. I mean, comparing with 1979, I think the democratic expressions are certainly much stronger. As I mentioned, there are some authoritarian sides. Also, there are some elements that denounce the pluralism, like the ethnic plurality of the movement. But there are also other voices that emphasize freedom, emphasize democracy, emphasize plurality, ethnic polarity.
I think the reality is that we have these two sides present and what comes later very much depends on the balance of forces within these two sides. The more protestors can articulate about what they actually want and what ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ means beyond these three words in terms of what kind of future protestors want in Iran. I think that can persuade more protestors to join these movements. Repression has failed to contain the movements, but they’re asking regime change and mere disruption is not enough. The movement needs to accumulate more power. That, I think, is a main requirement for that is the organizing and organization building that I emphasize so much in my book. But to organize, you need a narrative to say where we have come from, where we are going, and what are our values.
Another expression of this tension I have seen in the movement is that there is a lot of emphasis on what we don’t want. There is some expressions of what we want, but the side about what we don’t want has become stronger, especially with the violence that the Islamic Republic has been unleashing against protestors. So, every day people have been falling from the security forces. Every day their pictures come up. This unites anger and some of the revolutionaries just use these pictures and the denunciation of violence to try to bring more people to the side of protest.
One of the things that I’ve learned through these protests is just how diverse Iran is. You’ve already mentioned how the protests have shown some of the pluralism that exists, but it’s not just ethnic pluralism. I mean, Iran is a very educated country, much more so than I think people give it credit. It seems that people are much more sophisticated than outsiders recognize. Do you think that the pluralism that exists in Iran will help that movement towards regime change or potential democracy or do you think it will get in the way of having a clear message?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
I think without recognizing this pluralism and building a coalition through this pluralism there’s no other way for change. We have different ethnicities. We have different classes, like some workers have joined these protests. There have been some workers protesting, although the news we get about strikes also sometimes are not true and are exaggerated. But we’ve had workers with strikes in Iran. We’ve had different occupations coming and demanding better salaries or protesting getting laid off.
But before this, the episodes of anti-regime protests did not really come together. They saw a lot of workers or laborers or occupations that haven’t joined protests. For example, we’d have an incident that doctors protest or lawyers protest and that news comes out, so if you just read that, you might think, ‘Okay, all of the doctors are now protesting.’ But that is not true. This movement has a lot more potential to actualize and more people need to join, if this movement actually wants to change the government in Iran. From videos that I have seen, I think on any day we have tens of thousands of people protesting. But we still don’t have hundreds of thousands protesting. We certainly don’t have millions protesting on a day or in a week.
Iran has between 85 to 90 million people and the Islamic Republic is a strong political regime. They have the oil revenues. They have a strong robust, repressive apparatus and they have their own supporters that they have been also mobilizing. In addition, they also have alliances with other authoritarian superpowers or regional powers such as Russia, China, or Syria. This means that this movement needs to increase their ranks and bring in different groups of people. This will not happen by denying pluralism.
We do see some calls in the opposition that say, ‘Let’s just keep our unity. Don’t bring in fragmentation.’ In some cases, that means don’t highlight your identity that you are a Kurd or you are Baloch or you are this or that. I don’t think that is going to work. People know what their identities are and what they want. Moreover, if we want to gain democracy, we need to talk about issues that would be contested later. The ethnic issue is one of those issues. Maybe Iran wants a federal system, for example, or a centralized system. Some people say, ‘Let’s just leave this until after the Islamic Republic has fallen.’
What we have learned from cases such as Egypt or Tunisia or many of the others of the recent urban civic revolutions is that when the regime falls, there is no common denominator between these groups. The kind of conflicts that could emerge from them could just subvert the whole process and bring back the old regime or give rise to a new form of authoritarian regime. So, I think yes, the recognition of pluralism is required and fundamental for this movement.
So, many of us have a lot of hope for this protest. But they’ve gone on for months now. It’s still not clear what the final resolution will be, if this is just one step in Iran’s political history or if this is going to be something that actually brings a massive amount of change and repercussions going forward. Do you feel that these protests right now, that the things that they’re doing and the signs that you’re seeing through the protests, that they show the foundations for what you describe as a durable democracy for the future?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
I mean, I have hope as well. I am, I think, more hopeful than before. Especially because the progressive side of this movement came out of nowhere. In the 2019 and 2017-18, there were slogans in support of the monarchy before the 1979 revolution. This time, you don’t hear those slogans. So, on the street, you don’t hear any support for monarchy and instead you hear, ‘Women, Life, Freedom.’ But also, there’s a lot of anger and anger can go different ways. Anger is part of social movements and revolutions, but anger could also be destructive. But the same weakness I observe, for example, in the case of Egypt’s organizational weakness, I do see that also in Iran as well.
There are some labor syndicates. For example, the teacher syndicate has been very active in Iran. So, there are some organizations that previously were pursuing occupational demands, but now they are siding with the protestors. They are participating and spreading the news for protests. The teachers’ organization has called for strikes, for example. Some of the local elites, such as the leader of the Baloch religious population in the Southeast has joined the protest. So, I wouldn’t say organization is completely absent. There have been formal organizations that have joined. These are the organizations that the state doesn’t recognize. These are all syndicates that have emerged despite lack of recognition by the state or repression by it. I know that informal groups are organizing, so that is also a positive step.
But for this to lead to durable change, I think organizing is an important requirement and I don’t think any episode like this would be the end of how we get to what we want. Look at the 1789 French Revolution. It was earth shattering and a turning point in modern history, but that was not the end of it. Then you had 1830. You had 1848. It was a contentious episode that changed a lot of things in France and even though it led to a regime change that was not the only regime change to happen in France. So, uncertainty is just the essential part of this type of episode. We don’t know.
I mean, if we were standing in the middle of the 1978-79 revolution, we wouldn’t know where that would be going. It went somewhere no one had imagined. Even the leaders of the Islamic Republic didn’t think they were going to be leaders of the new political regime. So, I’m not going to make a prediction of where this is going, but we can see what kind of political social forces are emerging, what kind of coalitions can come together, and what are the weaknesses and strengths of different parts of this movement.
So Ali, before I let you go, I know that you grew up in Iran and that this probably means a lot to you. Do you just want to add a personal note of how you felt about these protests and just the excitement maybe of watching these develop?
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Yeah, I mean, you ask a personal question, so I give you a personal answer. Before this, I didn’t know what is the future of Iran, so I prepared myself not to ever go back and die in exile. It’s still a possibility and I’m prepared for it. I think many other Iranians have thought about this. Since this started, I became hopeful that maybe I could go back one day. That changes every day as I watch the news about how it unfolds, I still have hope. I have concerns also as I expressed through this interview and yes, it’s been exciting and it’s been overwhelming. It’s exciting to see people are rising, to see the amount of bravery on the streets, how these young women and men will stand up against the armored police with bare hands.
It’s been inspiring and it’s been tragic to also observe the violence, to watch how people get beaten up. People get shot. Even sometimes harder than that are the videos that some of these people take of someone getting beaten up. You see the reaction or you hear the reaction of the person who’s recording that. So, it’s like different levels of mediation of how people in the streets are reacting and how I’m here sitting in the US reacting. So again, I think for me and many of the other people on this side of the world, we’ve also been asking ourselves, what can I do to help this movement? I think a lot of us have become restless and have been just trying to find what to do.
So, in a way I think we’ve also been living a double life here, trying to just do our regular jobs and be present in the workplace, in the community, and be normal, while you are also experiencing a tragedy or what is described as thickened history unfold. Because on every single day, just so much happens and just the news that happens and then there are reactions and it’s very emotional, so it’s been a struggle to also stay grounded and not get carried away. Because for me personally, to be able to present a sound analysis, I also need to stay grounded and not get too affected by emotions. But it’s an emotional process. It’s just part of it. And now with the Internet, we have this phenomenon of being here and not there, but also not being here because you are waiting for what’s happened today.
So, by the time we wake up, a lot has happened in Iran. Every day I’m sure any Iranian in the US or in Europe, they just wake up checking the news. What happened today? Where did protests break out? Did someone got shot, beaten up? Yeah, it’s been a lot. It’s been a lot.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me Ali. Thank you so much for joining me.
Mohammed Ali Kadivar
Thank you very much for having.
Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy by Mohammed Ali Kadivar
“Sticks, Stones, and Molotov Cocktails: Unarmed Collective Violence and Democratization ” by Mohammed Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World
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