A new kind of anger has engulfed the Islamic Republic. On December 28, 2017, a small street protest over high prices in the city of Mashhad rapidly spilled over into some 85 cities and provincial towns. The crowds decried joblessness, uncertain livelihoods, and oppressive rule, with a few invoking Reza Shah, the Persian king who is credited for modernizing Iran in the 1930s. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, joined the royalists and Mujahedin-e Khalq dissidents to “support the Iranian people.” One mask-wearing protestor captured on video urged his countrymen to join the uprising, but also sent a message to these strange bedfellows to “go to hell and leave us alone.” A police crackdown on protestors and social media ended the unrest, leaving 25 dead 3,700 arrested.
How do we explain the eruption? Among the numerous observations, two broad explanations stand out. The first views the unrest as a prelude to a revolution. The other understands it as an example of how Iranians typically air their public concerns. The reality, however, seems different. Neither simply an extension of routine protests, nor a prologue to revolution, what transpired in Iran recently was an extraordinary popular revolt. At its core: The “middle-class poor,” the rising angry class produced by a neoliberal age in which people’s welfare is left to the mercy of the market. With the opening of Iran’s economy, this class has benefited from educational opportunities, but failed in the job market; their expectations are high, but their livelihood less certain. With a disposition distinct from both the middle class and the poor, this disenchanted and restless class is poised to haunt indifferent authorities.
In Iran, street protests by workers or the disenfranchised are not rare. Since the nineties, workers have been protesting over pay, benefits, lay-offs, independent unions, and the effects of economic liberalization, which has left labor more fragmented, informal, and vulnerable. Today, some 80 percent of all workers in Iran are in insecure, temporary contracts. Perhaps a result, there were some 400 labor protests in 2015 and nearly 350 in 2016, according to a study by Kevan Harris and Zep Kalb at UCLA; there have been some 900 protests since March of last year, according to labor researcher Zahra Ayatollah. In the recent unrest, five labor organizations issued a statement calling for an “end to poverty and misery,” urging the government to undertake pro-labor reforms. Organized labor has clearly supported the protests, but the extent of its actual involvement is not known.
These days, it is Iran’s disparate masses, even more than organized labor, that are confronting the authorities on an everyday basis. Since March 2016, some 1,700 social protests have been reported, according to the Association of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution, a conservative body close to the ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cities brace for daily battles between the encroaching street vendors and the police; taxi-cyclists lacking permits defiantly carry passengers and goods around town; retirees protest over pensions, creditors over lost savings, farmers over hardships with crops and land, as the public decries chronic pollution and water shortages. As the government casts its restrictive net over informal and “quiet encroachments”—such as building homes without a permit, dodging water and energy bills, or street trading—the poor bring their collective outrage into the streets. Such protests, in part, embody the collective reaction of the lower classes against what they cannot achieve through their quiet encroachments.
This daily discontent fueled the recent protests. But the unrest went far beyond such dissent—the protests coalesced suddenly, spread over the entire country, took on an explicitly political language, involved violence, and were led by indignant youths in their 20s. As members of the middle-class poor, they took the great risk of coming to the streets to chant, to organize, and to coordinate. The protests were not mundane, but akin to an extraordinary nation-wide revolt.
But given that the Islamic Republic had survived two ferocious revolts, how extraordinary was this eruption? The first, which occurred between 1991 and 1994, included a series of popular protests that engulfed the cities of Tehran, Shiraz, Arak, Mashhad, Ghazvin, Tabriz, and Khorramabad. Most of these incidents involved urban squatters concerned with the destruction of their communities by municipal authorities. The most dramatic incident occurred in Mashhad’s Kouy-e Tollab squatter area, where authorities had refused to grant a permit to legalize a group of existing dwellings. When police shot and killed two protestors, the crowd torched the city hall, library, and several police stations; by evening, it had reportedly taken over the city. With the army unable to suppress the protestors, the central government dispatched extra Basij (volunteer militia) units from other cities. In the end, the Mashhad riot destroyed 100 buildings and stores. More than 300 people were arrested, six police officers killed, and four protestors hanged.
The second eruption came with the Green revolt of 2009. While it was triggered by what was deemed a fraudulent presidential election that reinstated the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the favorite reformist contender Mir Hussein Mousavi, it was animated by a long-standing yearning for a life free from everyday surveillance, corruption, and authoritarian rule. For weeks after the election result was announced, street politics became its chief expression. The monumental silent march of June 15, 2009 in Tehran and the ensuing street battles shocked the conservative establishment, prompting the Revolutionary Guards to take full control of the capital city for two months. By the end of the year, 10,000 had been arrested and 70 killed. The reformist media was shut down, and free communication in the city was virtually suspended.
Who led these movements? The revolt of the nineties was one of Iran’s traditional poor—largely illiterate rural migrants involved in local struggles, airing their disputes over housing and urban amenities. By contrast, the Green revolt and its reformist leadership came predominantly from the urban middle classes of Tehran and some large cities. These people were concerned with civil and political liberties.
The recent unrest, by contrast, came from neither the dissent of the traditional poor, nor the modern middle classes: According to the Ministry of Interior, over 90 percent of those detained were, on average, under the age of 25 and likely educated. Instead, recent events exhibited the revolt of the middle-class poor, the product of a large youth cohort, expanded education opportunities, urbanization, and aggressive economic liberalization.
There’s something paradoxical about this class. It holds college degrees; it is versed in social media, possesses knowledge of the world, and dreams of a middle-class life. But it is pushed by economic deprivation to live the life of the traditional poor in slums and squatter settlements, and subsist on family support or on largely precarious and low-status jobs—as cab drivers, fruit sellers, street vendors, or salespeople. A member of the middle-class poor frequents the city centers, but lives on the periphery. He yearns to wear Nike shoes, but has to settle for cheap knockoffs. He dreams of working or vacationing abroad, but feels trapped by a dearth of money and the strictures of border controls. This is a class that links the world of poverty and deprivation, of shantytowns and casual work, of debt and precarity, to the world of college, consumption, and the internet—to a global life. Its members are acutely aware of what is available in the world and what they painfully lack; their precarity and limbo are supposed to be temporary conditions, but in reality become permanent. Feeling neither fully young nor adult, and filled with a profound moral outrage, this class is becoming a critical player in radical politics.
The origins of this group date back to the 1980s, when Iran’s high fertility rate created one of the world’s largest young populations. At the same time, literacy was on the rise. By the end of nineties, the student population increased 266 percent to a staggering 20 million, or one-third of the population. As of June 2014, the number of university students in Iran was 4.5 million—an increase of more than 25 times since the revolution. As of the early 2000s, one out of every five households produced a college student or graduate. The growth of the private Islamic Azad University and the expansion of distance learning into provincial towns has produced college graduates in almost every village.
But even as education raised expectations, it failed to secure economic mobility, at least for the 2.5 million college graduates who currently remain without work. On the whole, 35 percent of educated youths are unemployed, according a parliamentary report. These people must bury their dreams of owning a middle-class home, for which they would need to save one-third of their monthly income for 96 years. Instead, many of them settle in the squatter communities, which now house over 20 percent of Iran’s urban inhabitants, according to 2014 study of 14 cities by Iran’s Ministry of Urban Development. With little money and poor housing, plans for marriage fade or are suspended—one reason why four million of Iran’s young college graduates at the traditional age of marriage remain single. Even though families in Iran usually help out their needy members, the shame of dependency and the general feeling of stagnancy make these adult youths exceedingly indignant. As the economy failed to create jobs for them and the government failed to protect them, these restless youth seemed ready to spark to revolt. The spark came with the Mashhad protests.
Who speaks for these disenfranchised people? In other times and in other countries, like Egypt in the nineties, segments of this class turned to nationalist and Islamist movements before resorting to street politics before and during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the center-left Tunisian General Labor Union seemed to give them a voice, if the Islamic State did not lure them first. But in Iran, they have had no representation—neither Islamists, who are preoccupied with building an ideological community, nor reformists, who are concerned with “political development” and a post-Islamist project, nor the leftists, who have mostly disappeared. This class has been forced to represent itself in the streets, as we saw and heard in the recent revolt. The dynamics of their revolt brought to mind Tunisia during the December 2010 uprising, in which the middle-class poor played a critical role.
Is the recent revolt in Iran a prelude to a revolution? Certain indicators—the nationwide protests, calls for regime change, elite division, and international support—appear to suggest that this could be the case. But this would be a misreading.
First, the international support for regime change or calls for violence would, at the present stage, discredit the protestors as simple agents of foreign powers. Secondly, while protests spread widely across the country, the actual number of participants was limited compared to the Green revolt. While many ordinary citizens did assemble in the streets, they mostly watched as events unfolded; they seemed uncertain about what was unfolding, and feared their country would become another Syria. Thirdly, while Iran’s political elites are divided—they tend to blame each other for the outbreak of the protests—they remain firmly united in preserving the fundamentals of the system.
Finally, and most significantly, the revolt has so far failed to galvanize a broad coalition of class and political forces—the same deficit that doomed the Green revolt, which did not include the poor and working classes. Iran’s recent revolt is one of the disenfranchised people—the well-to-do middle classes are largely absent. The reformists, a significant political force from the middle class, have stayed away from the current protests. Their politicians and intellectuals have explicitly opposed the revolt, even though they have sympathized with its grievances. Prominent reformist thinkers, like Abbas Abdi or Sadeq Zibakalam, have explicitly spoken against the destabilizing unrest. Beyond invoking a Syria-type scenario, the reformists reject the very idea of revolution on principle. They firmly believe in the concept of reform, even though their actual efforts, valuable indeed, have been frustrated by the stubborn resistance of the hardline establishment—the non-elected but powerful institutions of the Islamist state. The point is that a revolutionary movement is highly unlikely without a coalition of class and political forces, the working poor and the middle classes.
For now, the revolt and any notion of an impending revolution are over. But the underlying grievances remain. If the authorities carry on with the status quo, the “angry class” is likely to strike back sooner or later. No one knows what will transpire then. Iranian politics is notoriously unpredictable—revolution, even more so.
Suppose the sporadic protests regain momentum, bringing the poor, the political forces, and the middle classes, into a coalition that unleashes a revolutionary eruption? Even if a nationwide uprising comes to fruition, it is likely to evolve into yet another Arab spring—which brought little change in state power—unless the revolutionary movement develops a powerful organization, a strategic vision, a progressive program, and a leadership capable of inspiring people to believe that another future is indeed possible. The future, at any rate, remains open.