The revolution will not be coming to Iran. Not yet, anyway. Recent protests across 80 Iranian cities and towns nabbed the world’s attention and inspired comparisons with 1979. The speed with which the Iranian authorities quelled the unrest indicates that a major uprising is not imminent. But the protests were significant, and Pakistan would do well to learn some lessons from its neighbour’s difficulties.
Several aspects of the Iranian protests speak directly to challenges within Pakistan. Indeed, the drivers of these protests can be taken as warning signs for Pakistan, and should challenge the complacency that defines the political elite’s and establishment’s approach to Pakistanis’ capacity to suffer poor governance.
Iran’s protests were sparked by economic grievances, specifically soaring unemployment and inflation rates, but also corruption, income inequality and economic mismanagement. Protesters were likely driven by the realisation that the post-nuclear sanctions windfall promised by President Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian people is unlikely to come to pass, and, to the extent that it does, will not affect the fortunes of those hardest off.
In some areas, the protests were a critique of poor service delivery and governance failings. Kermanshah, the marginalised Kurdish province which was rocked by an earthquake in November, was the site of early protests as people spoke out against the government’s shoddy response to the natural disaster.
Nationalism did not prove a sufficient antidote to the grievances. The protests took place despite the fact that Iran is under pressure from the US, which is threatening to undo the nuclear deal, and while Saudi Arabia’s efforts to create an anti-Iran regional bloc are gaining momentum. Conventional thinking suggests that polities unite when the world gangs up against them; this was not the case here.
Iran’s regional ambitions also did little to quell public fury. In fact, the protests can be understood as a vote against the state’s involvement in proxy conflicts throughout the Middle East, and a demand for the ruling elite to pay more attention to troubles brewing closer to home.
Interestingly, the protests were largely leaderless and uncoordinated and, in the development that made most headlines, directed against Iran’s real power brokers, including the Supreme Leader. Even in religious centres such as Qom and Mashhad, chants against the ayatollah were heard. What can be a better reminder to the true powers that be that they too will one day be held accountable?
After the protests had been contained, Rouhani said they signalled the frustrations of people who no longer wanted to be told how to live. Indeed, a second wave of outrage was directed against the government decision to block social media platforms, a symbol of broader trends of repression and censorship.
The drivers of Iran’s protests read like Pakistan’s mistakes. We too are doing too little to address the urgent challenges of youth unemployment, income inequality and inflation. Service delivery across the country remains appalling, and as the impact of water and energy scarcity and climate change is more acutely felt, governance failings will become harder to ignore.
Pakistan also assumes that nationalism — articulated in response to scaremongering about external threats to the country’s sovereignty — will unite the country, justify securitised policymaking, and prevent too much of a focus on domestic issues. The rumblings in Iran have highlighted the limits of this approach.
Iran’s experience also shows that the current tactic of hailing CPEC as the panacea for Pakistan’s problems could backfire. At some point, it will become apparent to most Pakistanis that CPEC will benefit a privileged elite.
The cracks are already beginning to show. Think of routine protests over energy shortages or the recent outrage against Zainab’s tragic fate and the state’s complete failure to protect innocent children. Public outrage against excessive crackdowns on legitimate public protests and the increasingly indiscriminate nature of abductions, is also becoming more emboldened.
Pakistan also has enough dubious characters about who are willing to exploit the brewing resentments. For years, militant groups and their offshoots have channelled socioeconomic grievances to attract recruits. It is not by mistake that Tehreek-i-Labbaik played a large role in protests organised to demand justice for Zainab. When public fury in Pakistan spills over, it will find many willing to lead the charge to serve their own ends.
In this context, our ruling elite seems ever more disconnected. They hurl accusations at each other about steamy personal lives and multi-million-pound properties.
This is not to say that a revolution in Pakistan is imminent. But we should not consider ourselves immune to mass unrest. Perhaps learning from Iran could lead to some much-needed introspection here.