Iran and the Democracy Panopticon

Although we still do not know how the events in Iran will be resolved, it is apparent that this is a special moment in that country’s history, one that is pregnant with all kinds of possibilities ranging from a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown and a movement to a more authoritarian regime to a peaceful, and extraordinary, democratic breakthrough.  There are, of course, numerous other potential outcomes as well.

The events in Iran bear some striking similarities to images we have seen in recent years of people coming to the streets to protest stolen elections from Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, but there are some interesting differences as well.  In addition to the obvious bigger picture import associated with this occurring in Iran, as well as the influence of new social networking and other technology, the role of international organizations including NGOs, election monitors and the like is very different in Iran than it had been in the Color Revolutions.

In short, these organizations are nowhere to be seen in Iran. While, it is almost certain that there have been less public programs in Iran helping to support that country’s vibrant civil society or to provide technical support to the social networking and blogging sources which are playing such an important role in Iran today, these programs are by necessity and modest in scope.  There have been no statements by the OSCE or anybody else suggesting these elections are fraudulent, nor have domestic election monitoring groups with foreign financial and technical support helped reveal election fraud.  Moreover, no democracy assistance organizations have been working with Moussavi or any other political forces in Iran.  Nonetheless, the Iranian people have been able to identify election fraud and mobilize peacefully, and in massive numbers, in the face of a powerful state apparatus without any real help from anybody else.

What we are seeing in Iran demonstrates that, at least some of the time, people know when their votes have been stolen.  Outside observers may be able to draw more attention to this, or reveal the machinations by which election fraud occurs, but they may only be rarely telling people who have voted something they do not already know.

Additionally, the massive and peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Tehran we have seen over the last week are evidence of a vibrant and powerful civil society in Iran.  There are many countries all over the world where many millions of western dollars have been used to nurture and develop civil society organizations such as those underpinning the movement in Iran.  Iran has accomplished this with very little assistance from the west.  While this may lead some to question the need for democracy assistance work, it also offers a strong counterexample to those who would claim ideas like democracy and civil society are culturally bound and only possible in the west.

Accordingly, in some sense, Iran today presents an existential challenge to the relevancy of the electoral and democracy assistance community.  If the Iranian people can do what they have done without any foreign assistance, it raises the question of the overall value of foreign assistance.  While this question should be taken seriously, there is an alternative explanation which is at least as plausible.  It is possible that much of what the Iranian people are doing is based upon marrying their political and physical courage and resolve with what they have seen from other popular movements in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in recent years.  The situation could be viewed as something of a democracy assistance panopticon, as the Iranian people, and many activists in Iran, may have seen from these other cases, both how to spot a bad election and what to do afterwards. Although the democracy assistance institutions are not present in Iran, the effects of decades of their work all over the globe have perhaps had an indirect impact.