Does Iranian Uprising Necessarily Need a Leader?

The question about necessity of “leadership in the recent uprising in Iran” has been raised since the beginning of the widespread protests after death of 22-year-old Mahsa (Gina) Amini under morality police custody for wearing loose hijab. A lot of comments have also been made about the issue of leadership, who should be the leader, and who does not qualify to be called the leader. Some claim that the absence of a specific leader in the recent Iranian uprising is the main reason for the prolongation of protests and not achieving a tangible result.

In this regard, France 24 says: “The protests’ lack of a clear leader is proving to be both a strength and a weakness; it makes them harder to repress but also impedes the development of a viable political movement.”

The uprising in Iran, which is carried out by the youths, is mainly perceived as fight for women’s rights, and later developed into the motto of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” covers a broad scope of protests against dire poverty, unsatisfactory economic situation, corruption, embezzlement at the high level of executives, the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorism, and the crippling sanctions isolating the country in the global arena.

Does the Iranian uprising necessarily need a Leader? Does leadership guarantee victory of the uprising and the lack of it means failure? To find the answers to these questions and to find out “the role of leadership” in the success and victory of protests,” this article reviews the protest in Iran in 2009 and the similar uprisings in the past decade against the established ruling systems in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, the Arab Spring, and finally the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. 

Green Movement Failed Despite Leadership

Mir Hosein Mousavi, the reformist rival of then incumbent hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led the widespread peaceful protests against the results of the presidential election in June 2009. Following the release of the presidential election results, people took to the streets chanting “Where is my vote?” and claiming that Mousavi had won the election while Ahmadinejad was proclaimed as the winning candidate. The protests continued until 2010 by its proponents and were titled the Iranian Green Movement, reflecting Mousavi’s campaign theme.

Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, along with Mehdi Karoubi, another opposition figure, have been under house arrest after they urged their supporters in February 2011 to organize demonstrations in support of the uprising.

The house arrest of Mousavi and the elimination of him from the political arena pushed the protests to margins, and according to some, put an end to the people’s will to overthrow the regime.

Uprising in Sri Lanka, Victory Without Leadership

Unlike the current protests in Iran that seek to overthrow the totalitarian Islamic Republic regime, the 2022 protesters in Sri Lanka  chanting “Go home Gota!” and “Go home Rajapaksas!” demanded the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and key officials from the Rajapaksa family. The government was criticized for mismanaging the Sri Lankan economy resulting in subsequent economic crisis, severe inflation, and shortage of essential goods.

Supporters of the opposition party led by MP Sajith Premadasa had a substantial role in protests; nevertheless, Sajith Premadasa’s name has never been mentioned as the leader of protests. The uprising in Sri Lanka was a spontaneous, collective, public action not organized by a specific person or political group.

In July 2022, protesters occupied President’s House causing Rajapaksa to flee and forcing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to announce his resignation.

Protests in Venezuela, Failure Despite Leadership

Protests in Venezuela started in January 2019 to remove Nicholas Maduro from presidency. The uprising was accompanied by counterdemonstrations by supporters of Maduro.

The protests were led by Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan politician and MP, recognized by most Western countries as the rightful leader, behind whom was the country’s most prominent political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez who had been under house arrest since 2017.

Guaido announced in March 2019 that he would organize committees for what he called “Operation Freedom,” to increase pressure on the incumbent President Maduro. Later, he summoned new protests that preceded massive rallies in the capital city, Caracas.

Despite all attempts by Juan Guaido and his proponents for almost a year, the protests achieved no results. The Venezuelan pollster conducted a poll asking the attendees if they would go to the streets if Guaido or the National Assembly called for protests. According to respondents, 84.8 percent would not protest, 10.9 percent would protest, and 4.2 percent were unsure if they would protest. This was the end of Guaido’s unsuccessful attempts to take power in Venezuela, and Nicholas Maduro has remained in power until now.

Iranian Uprising  Resembles Arab Spring

The current protests in Iran, aiming to topple the authoritarian regime, is very much like the Arab Spring, a series of protests that took place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain in 2010 against corruption and economic stagnation. The motivation behind the Arab Spring was overthrowing dictator leaders Bin Ali, the former President of Tunisia; Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya; Hosni Mubarak, the former President of Egypt, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former President of Yemen.

The Iranian protesters follow the same goal, i.e., the overthrow of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. They believe that the Supreme Leader is the source of the current miserable status quo in Iran. The strategies devised by the advisers of the Supreme Leader and carried out by the IRGC (Islamic Republic Guard Corps) are the root cause of isolation of Iran in international arena, the economic, political stalemate, deterioration of environment and natural resources, and the overall public dissatisfaction.

Regarding the issue of “leadership,” there is no trace of specific names in sources as the leaders of the Arab Spring. The uprisings and protests in the Arab world were rather a collective, spontaneous action started with the street uproar and led to the downfall of dictatorship in the aforementioned countries. There is no trace of a specific person’s role in organizing and leading the movements. The Arab Spring succeeded without “leadership” and was achieved merely by spontaneous demonstration of people fed up with the authoritarian tyranny.

Romania, Good Example of Victory Without Leadership

Let us get back in history and take a look at the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989. The anti-government demonstrations in the city of Timisoara in 1989 grew into massive spread of riots and civil unrest across the country and became known as the Romanian Revolution. The revolution was mainly led by the Army. The anti-government demonstrations were triggered by the attempts to evict Laszlo Tokes, an ethnic Hungarian pastor, accused by the government of inciting ethnic hatred. Members of his ethnic Hungarian congregation who surrounded his apartment in a show of support sparked the protests. Later, students spontaneously joined the demonstration, which soon lost nearly all connection to its initial cause and became a more general anti-government demonstration. Military forces and police opened fire on demonstrators in December 1989, killing and injuring men, women, and children.

After days of demonstrations, protesters attended the Ceausescu speech on Dec. 21, 1989, booing and heckling him. By the morning, the rebellion took over all major cities across the country, and the army carried out an operation the same day and captured Nicolae and his wife Elena Ceausescu. On Dec. 25, 1989, they were tried before a court and were sentenced to death and executed in the same day.

What matters in analyzing any revolt is factors affecting victory or failure of protests aimed at toppling an established totalitarian regime. The type of the governing system in a country where the uprising takes place, the economic, geopolitical situation, the goal of protests — whether they demand making substantial changes in a presidential system or seek to topple a well-established regime — cooperation of the military forces with protesters are among the factors affecting failure or victory of revolts. The issue of “leadership” is just one of the many underlying factors.

The uprising in Iran, like the Arab Spring that led to toppling the authoritarian regimes in the Arab counties, aims to overthrow the Islamic Republic regime that has been established for over 43 years in Iran. The  1979 Islamic Revolution took about 16 years (from 1963 to 1979) to topple the Pahlavi regime. The current uprising may take years to succeed.

Rather than “leadership,” the Iranian uprising needs “coalition” of prominent protest leaders inside and outside of the country, who are actively uniting the people in the form of gatherings and rallies in support of protesters. Each of the prolific protest leaders outside of Iran represents a group. Hamed Esmaeilion, author and spokesperson for the Flight PS752 Victims Association, represents elites; Masih Alinejad, journalist and women’s rights activist, represents women; Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, represents monarchists, and Nazanin Bonyadi, Hollywood actress, represents youths. They are making their best efforts to lead the path of protests to the right track.

[Photo by Taymaz Valley, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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