Memo From a Failed Revolutionary

Shout out to the five people who still read this blog who aren't related to me. I noticed that the last post I started to write and didn't finish was about this same topic: colored revolutions. After exhausting myself on Twitter and Facebook responding to others' comments - both insightful and ridiculous -- about what's happening in Iran right now, I figured it was time to write a coherent analysis using this regretfully neglected blog.

While I am no expert in Iran, I do have more experience with failed and successful "colored revolutions" than I care to remember and I am a pollster by trade and temperament. Besides, I get irate when I read blogs like Andrew Sullivan's, overflowing with gloppy idealism about democracy and freedom.  This is serious stuff and if the Iranians were serious about regime change, they should have been more organized about it. Successful democratic transitions are not spontaneous; they are planned and this one was clearly not planned. Spontaneous demonstrations of public outrage are heartwarming to people watching from a distance who love to see purple fingers and green banners and big chanting crowds, but under dictatorships like Iran's, the stakes for ordinary people are incredibly high. People die and lives are ruined.

Let me start by saying I do think there was fraud. But, just because one side stole votes doesn't mean the other side won. The important question is was the scale of fraud big enough to alter the outcome? In the absence of an exit poll or PVT or a mission of independent domestic or international monitors documenting, quantifying and reporting violations, we may never know for sure. There's plenty of speculation -- some of it BS, some of it plausible -- but I think the strongest arguments for fraud are that Mousavi underperformed in the Azeri (he's an ethnic Azeri) part of the country (as well as other geographic anomalies)and the speed at which the count was reported. But neither of those can tell us that XX% of the vote was likely stolen, which is the critical data point we lack. If there was a PVT or exit poll (why those may or may not have been appropriate tools for the Iranian case are fodder for another post, but it doesn't matter. The regime would never have allowed them anyway) we would know. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data. (super post about this topic here!)

By quantifying fraud, observers' reports and exits polls provide the foundation for protesting stolen elections. If there are credible exit polls or observers' reports, there can be a communications strategy to tell people about how many votes were stolen where; a legal strategy to flood the courts with evidence of violations (even if it's pointless, it contrasts the opposition's commitment to rule of law with the intransigence of the authorities); an organizing strategy to coordinate and channel public reaction (and prevent counterproductive violence); and, a political strategy to persuade security and political forces to switch sides and not shoot people. It's as simple as that. If the Iranians had any of these strategies in place, I might change my mind about the prospects for a transition.

Iran is different in other ways from other countries that have had democratic transitions. Ahmadinejad has a substantial and enthusiastic rural, lower class constituency. He is not Shevardnadze in Georgia, whose regime was rotten to the core, or the murdering Kuchma/Yanukovich regime which began to offend even the Russian-leaning east in Ukraine. I believe the Terror Free Tomorrow poll  (why is also fodder for another post) that states he was ahead a month before the election. If they were to release the crosstabs on who was undecided, it would be pretty easy to predict how those undecideds might vote on election day (especially since they interviewed all adults and not just likely voters). That would give us more evidence that the election was probably close, but no real insight on who actually won. They did point out that the only subgroup where Mousavi led was among the youngest. This dynamic was unlikely to have shifted much in the final month.

And yes, Twitter is 1000 kinds of awesome. Everyone agrees. All of us armchair revolutionaries can feel like we have a dog in the fight and read all kinds of unfiltered and probably wrong reports from the front lines, which is incredibly important. I am not going to diminish the importance of it being the only way information is getting out of the country right now, but I also want to point out that it is absolutely useless for getting information to people who are actually in the country (anyone have any numbers yet on the number of Twitterers in Iran? Maybe someone can look into that before we have Moldova all over again). Where are the 67% of Iranians who do not have access to the internet getting their news? What about the 90% who have never heard of Twitter? (I made that number up, but I suspect I am being generous). The Orange Revolution was pushed along when Channel Five (a BROADCAST station, which means "accessible to everyone") decided to stop telling the regime's lies. When the BROADCAST channels in Iran start to do that, I might change my mind about the prospects for regime change.

All this talk about this being the next Twitter/FB revolution strengthens my perception that this is an urban elite movement. Having a million people on the streets of Tehran, a city of 14 million in a country of 80 million, doesn't impress me much. Ukrainians had 500,000 in a city of 3 million. Urban elite everywhere tend to be completely out of touch with the views of anyone who doesn't live in their area code. Ask Misha Saakashvili if he's concerned about the Georgian opposition, which is almost entirely made up of urban elite. He knows he's ok with the folks in Kutaisi. When I start seeing reports about massive protests in Shiraz or Tabriz, I may change my mind.

And let's talk a bit about violence. There's a reason why people were so inspired by the Ukrainians and the Georgians: their revolutions were non-violent and utilized tools of civil disobedience and old-fashioned political organizing. There were plenty of times when things could have gone either way, but because the Ukrainians had a strategy and were organized, they were able to maintain discipline and keep angry people from setting fires and throwing rocks and behaving like thugs.  By seizing the moral high ground and eschewing violence, they encouraged ordinary, non-activist Ukrainians to camp out with them on Maidan in the freezing weather and made it harder for police to shoot unarmed people. It's hard to imagine the protesters in Tehran are going to persuade ordinary, non-activist people who may be on the fence about this whole issue or who support the protesters but are afraid of violence, to join them. It will never become a truly mass movement until that happens. When it does, I'll change my mind.

My single achievement in Azerbaijan in the 2005 parliamentary election was helping to organize the opposition movement to such a degree that they were able to prevent their people from responding to a stolen election with violence and getting people killed, as happened in 2003. The final post-election rally was brutally dispersed and the protests effectively ended, but the violence was on the part of the police, not the protesters, and no one died. We take our solace where we can. We can talk about all the reasons the opposition in Azerbaijan failed later.

And can we please abandon the narrative that the US or Obama has influenced this election, the Lebanese election on June 7 or any other? It's ignorant, narcissistic and diminishes the importance of the actions of people who actually live in these places. You mean to tell me that Joe Biden's pre-election stopover in Beirut had more of an impact on the Lebanese elections than the Maronite Patriarch guilting people into voting against Aoun? Are you for serious?  Accordingly, little the US did precipitated the Orange Revolution. The Ukrainians did it. Also, it's plausible that political change *might* happen in Iran, even without the presence of NDI, IRI and all the other beltway bandits charged with democracy promotion by USAID. All these arguments do demonstrate is that US arrogance has nothing to do with which party is in power.

Anyway, even if nothing happens and the protesters go home to nurse their wounds and try to spring their comrades from jail, what this election shows is huge split in Iran between urban and rural, educated and non, young and old, none of which is either terribly surprising or unusual in a country of its size and demographic profile. Maybe before the next election, young activists will study the lessons learned by folks in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Lebanon and even Azerbaijan, about how to plan a revolution.