Note: The translation of the text was done in the framework of the documentary TONGUE –
By Costis Achniotis
Within The Walls, Issue 35, September 1988
This text is my lecture for the event that our magazine has organized at Famagusta Gate. At the same event Mehmet Yiaşin spoke about the “Turkish Cypriot identity in literature”. We will publish Yiasin’s presentation in the next issue in which there will be a feature on Turkish Cypriots. We will also answer to some articles published in the newspapers about our event there.
Firstly, I clarify that I understand the definition of collective consciousness (and its contents) not as stable and unchangeable and of course I do not give it the dimension of a natural order. Collective consciousness just as any social concept is changeable and follows the shifting needs of of a society.
This changeability of course is not at all mechanic. The superstructure can drastically act on social evolution. For example the appearance of industries shapes the totality of workers that are possible to become carriers of labor consciousness. Labor consciousness is potentially common for all nations and can determine the totality of the workers of the world. Of course, this understanding is macroscopic. Other factors (individual consciousness) act and shape opposing subtotalities.
For the purpose of this text, I call Cypriot Consciousness, the consciousness of the Cypriot Independence. Therefore, its carrier is anyone who understands Cyprus and its people as an independent entity and strives as a consequence for the protection of the corresponding state institution, the Independent Cypriot State.
Of course the understanding of Cypriot Independence is basically a subject that has not been studied neither historically nor sociologically, nor politically, and this stands for both communities. And it is entirely natural as since the 50’s the consciousness for Enosis (Union with Greece) and for taksim (separation) were entirely dominant. Regardless of the acceptance of this so-called Independence in 1960, the governing teams of both communities were (or were acting like) for Enosis or for taksim. Therefore only this version of history was projected with its corresponding ideological response. It is indicative how misguiding history is in Greek-Cypriot schools.
So it is not easy to realise that CPC (Communist Party of Cyprus) took an anti-union stand. I will quote an excerpt:
“…CPC sees as its duty to protest by any means, firstly against local English government which due to its indifference contributes in the intensification of intercommunal hate between the citizens of Cyprus and secondly against the fraudulent leaders of this place which spoke and will speak in the name of the Cypriot people. DOWN WITH ENOSIS – LONG LIVE THE INDEPENDENCE OF CYPRUS – LONG LIVE THE PROLETARIATS OF THE WORLD (Neos Kosmos, 25.4.1925)
We see that the understanding for Independence was already in combination with the effort to escape bicommunal conflicts.
Of course there is no doubt that since then, up until the categorical acceptance of “Enosis and only Enosis” by AKEL after about 25 years of inaptitude, the folk sentiment of the Greek-Cypriot community was all the more oriented toward Greece. The Turkish-Cypriot minority seems to have lagged behind in terms of following the developments and eventually takes a position after EOKA’s struggle. When AKEL leaned toward Enosis, the Trotskyist Party of Cyprus (which was a small communist organisation) criticized them harshly, as they saw independence as a self-government of the oppressed classes, without mentioning the Turkish-Cypriot community.
I quote an excerpt:
May this year’s 1st of May find us on the frontlines of the struggle for the handing down of power to our people, for SELF-GOVERNMENT. The traitorous abandonment of the position for Self-government on the part of the stalinist leadership and the adoption of the position for Enosis should make us come to our senses. We ourselves must stop the poisoning by Enosis. We must make the ill-fated leaders of our laborer’s organisations get on the right track of serving workers’ benefits. If they deny, we should set them aside and keep moving forward in a new polemic, with class-awareness and decisive leadership for the struggle for the handing down of power to the workers and farmers. Enosis can provide us neither better working conditions nor better wages, nor can it ensure our social emancipation. It will merely exchange our chains. Nothing more, nothing less.
WORKERS, FARMERS, OPPRESSED,
Move forward in the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle for our economic and political demands. The battle for the improvement of our working conditions and Social Security. For the creation of more jobs for the unemployed. For unemployment benefits. For the organisation and class awareness of all of the oppressed. For SELF-GOVERNMENT. For a Government of Workers – Farmers, that feels for the worker and protects the farmer. For the complete national and social liberation.”
In this text there is no mention of Turkish-Cypriots. But in the municipal elections the idea of proportionate representation of Turkish-Cypriots is projected from the candidates of this party and at the same time the request for Enosis is condemned in exchange for the request for Self-Government. The request for Enosis is considered a request which is entirely bourgeois (Ergatis, 15 May 1949).
The organisation of Trotskyists broke up and got dismantled soon after. One of the reasons is that a fraction of the members becomes for Enosis as one can witness through the conversational essays in it’s later editions.
We can see that briefly before the 50s, the Greek-Cypriot left tends to ambiguously want independence without always condemning Enosis and combines this demand with an intense worker’s politics (it is not by chance that the last labour struggles happened back then) and an understanding of danger that is included in a possible intercommunal conflict (and certainly other reasons such as geopolitical ones).
I do not know whether you, like myself, see that history actively justified the dears of the leftists of the era.
Whereas the Greek-Cypriot community votes for “Enosis and only Enosis” as one in 1950, and for the entire decade it leaves no space for anything else, I suppose that hidden within the bourgeois class exist thoughts for independence, because of course it cannot be by chance that Makarios gave that infamous interview in 1957 or that the national council of the time takes part, even in disagreement, in the negotiations in Zurich and London.
In making a report of the 50s, we can in summary say that the entire revolutionary force of the Cypriot people, Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot, was wasted on marginalising the conscious participation of the working class, in order for an intercommunal conflict to be built and for neither self-government nor Enosis but for dependence to be given.
This is why Cypriot Consciousness is always a newborn consciousness. It has never overcome the stage of infancy. In consequence, its face is marked by the sorrow of profound old-age and the main sentiment that it can feel is the uncertain pain of existence. Cypriot Consciousness exists trampled under the feet of its adversaries who are caught in an infinite hand-to-hand battle. From the point of view of where it exists, on the ground, it sees them as enormous giants. Regardless of the constant trampling, the Cypriot Consciousness is saved by the fact that none of the giants is entirely dominant. Otherwise the Cypriot Consciousness would be lost.
The Cypriot Consciousness thinks itself weak. That’s why it plays possum, waiting for better days.
The Cypriot Consciousness is weak and humble. It knows it and doesn’t go to battle. It settles for cackling at the weakness of its far stronger adversaries who are nonetheless also too weak to impose their own order of things. In its ears the voices echo like empty words and fanfare.
Cypriot Consciousness has the arrogance of the marginals.
. The dominant Greek Cypriot Discourse which called for union with Greece.
. The dominant Greek Cypriot Discourse which called for complete separation of the two communities.
by Sispirosi Atakton
Over the long view of history, the reproductive rights debate has given rise to a vast number of conflicts as a result of an ever-expanding state, in which edicts of the church are often enshrined in law, and a gradual process of full politicization of the womb as a public space subject to legal and social regulation. These conflicts occurred both in the 19th and 20th centuries when many countries criminalized and recriminalized abortions (there were some exceptions as the fascist regimes in Germany and Austria adapted abortion restriction to eugenics and pro-natalist goals, while in Catalonia, Spain, abortion laws were briefly liberalized in the 1930s, but any efforts to implement reforms were squashed by the victory of the fascist Franco regime), and again in the late 20th century when many countries reformed and liberalized their abortion laws, after a heightened debate on the issue, leading to legislative change and partial decriminalization (1960s-1980s).
It is essential that every person has control over their body, and the ability to make informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health, such as for example if and how many children one will have. Every woman, or person of any gender which might get pregnant (such as trans men, non-binary, agender people, etc.), must have the access and right to opt for abortion services, regardless of their reasons for wanting to terminate the pregnancy. This right to control our bodies is indispensable in the struggles for liberation and social justice, as nobody should be forcefully assigned the role of a child-bearing reproductive machine.
In our discussion it is crucial to think of abortion as just one of the issues of reproductive justice, which expands the pro-choice agenda to incorporate a wider array of economic, social and political issues affecting women’s power to decide about their bodily autonomy, reproduction and well-being. Legal abortions are meaningless if those who want them can’t afford them, and this framework allows to see the inequalities in women’s control over reproduction. Besides, middle and upper class women, with privileged access to relevant information, have always had access to abortion, by making use of the loopholes in the existing law, or by travelling to countries where abortion was/is legal. Working class women, on the other hand, not trained to argue with the authorities and/or could not pay for a doctor’s (legal or illegal) help, were the ones who have always been at risk. Thus, we can conceptualize a struggle not only for the right to choose, but for the social, political and economic conditions necessary to exercise that right. It entails a movement oriented approach, in addition to demands for safeguarding reproductive rights and accessible reproductive health services.
The acknowledgement of reproductive work as unpaid labor in the 60s made it possible to redefine the domestic or private sphere as an anti-capitalist site of struggle. In this sense, strict restrictions on abortion can be interpreted as an attempt to control the labor-supply, and deviations from the form of the procreative, heteronormative family and gender roles as resistance to this mechanism . Radical and liberal feminists often disagreed about the demands the women’s movement should have, with the former arguing amongst others for free abortion on demand, free child-care and equal pay, while the latter were mainly concerned with the legal right to abortion and equal employment opportunities. The radical feminist agenda included practices such as consciousness raising and setting up self-help clinics and women’s shelters; discourses centered on liberation and sexual difference (rather than equality); and a political stance to which abortion and, more generally, the reclaiming of the sexed body, was central. Those were considered moments of deep feminist challenge to the dominant patriarchal culture and the state. Those creating policy and articulating hegemonic cultural norms responded (to a greater or lesser extent) to feminist threats to the status quo, and engaged in processes of negotiation and transformation .
It seems that with the demise of the radical feminist movements of the 70s which expressed an unapologetic stance for abortions, and the co-optation of women in legal debates over the matter, a shift occurred towards a defensive and prevention based stance. The focus has shifted from reproductive autonomy and self-determination to issues of sex education and contraception methods, with abortion framed as an avoidable last resort. In this way, regardless of how useful and necessary sex education and the availability of contraceptives might be, abortion is kept secret, shameful and regrettable, and the liberating potential of choice is surrounded by feelings of shame and guilt. It seems that the new, gendered language that was developed along the radical feminist movement with which to speak of one’s body, one’s sexuality, one’s pain and alienation faded away. Despite the efforts of radical feminist movements to center the debate on abortions around women’s self-determination, linking thus abortion to men’s assumed responsibility for controlling and monitoring women’s sexuality and reproduction, in most countries the initial debate is framed around the unborn fetus, doctors’ rights, or the state’s response to rising illegal abortions. It is important to bring back the unapologetic demand for abortions and the repeal (what has been called the decriminalization of abortion without limitation), not reform, of abortion laws into current struggles, as modernization of abortion laws does no justice to women, who are still denied agency.
It seems that a woman’s desire to end a pregnancy is not enough in itself, for it has to be approved first by a “respectable” authority figure, be it her husband, her father, her family, her community, her nation. Denying women the right to end a pregnancy is like denying them the right to own their bodies, which, in turn, results in women’s infantilization, which is all about rendering them incapable of making an independent decision. Historically, and ontologically, women and the feminine were strictly associated with the passion of the body; a body which was simply considered, by the Cartesian/humanist philosophical canon, to be inert and passive, silent and inferior, part of an unchangeable nature. On the contrary, the so-called superiority of the logos of the mind was associated with men and the masculine. Consciousness, rationality, intelligence, selfhood and subjecthood were synonyms of the masculine, and men were identified with the thinking subject and, by extension, with the universal . There was no place for women’s voices to be heard, while their right to (own) a self was forbidden. They were supposed to live for others and their bodies were considered property of the autonomous (male) subject, as he was the one making all the decisions –nationally, institutionally, domestically– on her behalf. In a word, women were denied their existential freedom ; they were denied their status as thinking subjects, who could make decisions for their own bodies and choose between having a baby or not. This discourse is extremely important to the extent that it somehow sets the frame to understand better the arguments, claims, and struggles of the pro-abortion/pro-choice movement.
In other words, despite the fact that abortions are performed on women’s bodies, policymakers have often framed it in other terms –doctors’ rights, fetal rights, law enforcement, morality, religion, progressivism, family planning, eugenics– rather than discussing women’s choice, health, autonomy, agency, or sexuality. The dominant framework of the issue when abortion first arrived on the public agenda, was either the status of the unborn fetus (e.g. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium), or doctors’ rights (e.g. France, Canada, USA), or state’s integrity in the face of rising rates of illegal abortions (e.g. Germany, Italy) . The debate about how abortion policy could strengthen women’s autonomy was completely absent. Once again, women were not the talking subject, but rather a silent participant in a malestream debate, whose decisions were to determine the future of her own body. The political semiotics of representation play a crucial role here as, in this case, the object of representation (the fetus), permanently speechless, becomes the representative’s (patriarchal institutions) wet dreams because it can be easily naturalized and disengaged from the discursive realm. Women who want abortion simply vanish or become the enemy because they have opposing “interests”. The only actor left whose voice can be heard is the one who represents and is traditionally related to the hegemonic masculinity mostly articulated in juridical and medical discourses . For this reason, concepts such as self-determination and agency are really important for the abortion debate because they put women, as subjects who are not afraid to speak their truth, back at the center of the way we talk about abortion.
However, relying solely on politics of ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ obscures the presence of other factors affecting the person’s choice over an abortion, such as access to subsidized care and job security . Framing abortion and parenthood as an exclusively private issue suffers from an insensitivity to the way the private/public dichotomy fails communities whose social, political and economic realities are incompatible with this distinction. For example, migrant women’s paid labor is often domestic labor, and child-rearing is often intertwined with interpersonal relations and bonds of solidarity and cooperation for the overall well-being of the community, even in individualistic societies. When systemic inequalities result in the material conditions which determine the necessity of an abortion, defending only the right to choose is inadequate. Such a narrow-focused approach leaves unchallenged the fact that even if accessible abortions permit greater women’s access into the workforce, thus challenging the subordination of women in the private sphere, the burden of unpaid reproductive and domestic work remains disproportionately on them. In cases where abortion was legalized, legalization alone proved useless in claiming the resources women need to maintain control over their bodies and lives. While mainstream feminist movements made sure that women could have access to male-dominated workplaces, they abandoned reproductive work and the domestic sphere as a site of struggle. Terms like autonomy, empowerment and choice, historically employed by the feminist movements to raise consciousness, have been deployed by media and the state to promote the ideal of an active, individually responsible working and consuming female citizen. This promoted ideal does not suffice to challenge the exploitative relations of the capitalist mode of production and reproduction, and has accelerated the undoing of the radical women’s movements.
Additionally, focusing only on modernizing abortion laws, neglects the way age, class and ability influence one’s reproductive health priorities, and how under neoliberal restructuring of economies, the cost of the relevant reproductive health services is falling on the individuals. At the same time, women are more visible to governmental agencies, through the required medical intervention in abortions, giving birth, postnatal care, menopausal issues, breast-cancer checks, etc . Reproductive capacity is monitored and medically controlled throughout a woman’s life. Even in countries where abortions are more readily accessible, women who want to undergo sterilization, the most permanent of contraceptive methods, are often forced to lie about their reasons and denied the agency in taking decisions affecting their bodies. Whereas the right to voluntary motherhood has become more accepted, the denial of a woman to procreate is often dismissed as an immature and immoral choice.
Upon impregnation, the person is stripped off their bodily autonomy, and anyone who wants to have an abortion must face the consequences of confronting not only medical authorities and their policies, but also the defenders of the procreative role assigned to women by capitalism and the nation-state. The latter insist on the patriotic mobilization of mothers against imagined demographic threats, either from minorities within the Republic of Cyprus, or by “Turkish settlers” in the north . Lower birth rate, a phenomenon frequently associated with accessible abortions, is wrapped in nationalistic rhetoric and presented as a problem by government officials. The role of motherhood has been elevated over the past century to mother-of-the-nation, a heroic figure responsible for protecting traditional morals and producing the future defenders of the country’s national interests, as well as the younger sector of the workforce that would strive for the country’s economic recovery and growth. Future dehellenization and lack of local labor supply are expressed as the second most important problem after the Cypriot issue by conservatives and the right-wing, or even as an integral aspect of it . This is not to say that everyone against abortions falls in these categories. As long as the debate over when human personhood begins remains open, some of the opposition might also be rooted in liberal defense of individual liberties. What we can conclude from this however, is that it would be a contradiction for the state to offer free accessible abortions. Defending abortions and reproductive justice requires to overcome the pervasive nationalistic rhetoric and militarist attitudes in society.
In October 2017, there was an arrest and 5-day detention of a woman and her doctor for an abortion, which is a criminal offence according to current laws, after a complaint filed by her partner, who was unaware of the event .
The Criminal Code of Cyprus (sections 167-169 and 169A), as amended in 1986 (Law No. 186), permits abortion if two medical practitioners are of the opinion that continuance of the pregnancy would endanger the life of the pregnant woman, or that physical, mental or psychological injury would be suffered by her or by any existing child she may have, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such serious physical or psychological abnormalities causing severe disabilities. The Criminal Code also permits abortion following certification by the competent police authority, confirmed by medical certification whenever possible, that the pregnancy resulted from rape and under circumstances in which the pregnancy, if not terminated would seriously jeopardize the social status of the woman or of her family. Although the Code does not specifically address socio-economic grounds other than as a factor in the criminal indication for abortion, in practice, “mental and psychological injury” is generally interpreted as including socio-economic grounds. The Code was first liberalized in 1974, when provisions permitting abortions only on therapeutic grounds were replaced. Prior to the liberalization of abortion laws in Cyprus, laws were not strictly enforced. Abortion could be obtained in private clinics. Most abortion clients were married women with multiple births or young unmarried women.
Any person performing an unlawful abortion is liable to seven years’ imprisonment. A woman inducing her own abortion is liable to the same punishment. Any person unlawfully supplying or procuring anything knowing that it is unlawfully intended to be used to procure an abortion is subject to three years in prison. An abortion must be performed by a registered medical practitioner. Although not specified by law, in practice abortion is performed within 28 weeks of gestation[12a,12b].
In February 2015, a new bill for decriminalization of abortions was proposed by four big political parties, but was never discussed in parliament and no voting was carried out, due to also direct and indirect influence of the church in order for this new bill not to proceed . Just last year, in September 2016, the Archbishopric, the National Committee of Bioethics and the Pancyprian Medical Association organized the scientific convention “Abortions: medical, social, legal, spiritual dimensions” . During the convention, positions against abortion under any justification were express and signed for by the three institutions in a memorandum of understanding. This alliance does not surprise us. The liberating potential of someone prioritizing themselves, usually against the patriarchal roles assigned to them, poses a threat towards the state, church and medical/scientific authorities. We perceive the decision for abortion as a matter of self-determination of our bodies, and consider unacceptable the criminalization and arrest of those pregnant and seeking abortion, as well as the doctors who help terminate a pregnancy safely.
As emerges from the analysis above, the capitalist-patriarchal state is deeply invested in control over reproduction, but when faced with acute social pressure key political and social actors are compelled to revise their positions. This includes elements of engagement with feminist arguments, but mostly a modification of those arguments, by refocusing the debate on a discourse of (sex-less) individual rights. Creating a legal consensus on abortion is seen across the political spectrum as key to the stabilization of socio-political life. More fundamentally, by controlling reproduction through an articulation of the conditions in which abortion is allowed, the state attempts not only to control population, but also to lay down the boundaries of acceptable values and behaviors . Thus, it is important that abortion should be accessible to all women without discrimination, and each person seeking abortion to have access in safe abortion services around the world. On the contrary, abortion is either prohibited or criminalized or extremely limited (for example Ireland and Poland). When abortion is criminalized, it means that the person seeking abortion is denied fundamental rights over their bodies, health, self-determination, dignity and to have access to rights without discrimination. It means that the person will either seek abortion methods that would endanger their life and/or health and that they would try to seek for abortion in other countries. The right to abortion is just one part of the struggles for safe access to sexual and reproductive health care for everyone, which should entail access to counseling and support before and after the abortion if necessary. Lack of access to abortion services is an attack on the freedom to self-determination, and paves the way towards dangerous methods of terminating the pregnancy. Let’s not forget that the existing ‘way out’ through private doctors and clinics comes with a financial burden which prevents those with low income, migrants, teenagers and others from having an abortion. As long as the state monopolizes authority and uses it to define which medical and surgical procedures are accessible, it is necessary to proceed immediately into a discussion and amendment of the legislation, and decriminalize abortions without requirements for justification and medical opinions. It should ensure that everyone, regardless of gender and gender identity, will have access to these services when they need them.
The pro-choice, feminist movements and those in the radical left struggling for reproductive justice should not rest on their laurels, even in countries which witnessed progress on reproductive rights or positive abortion law reforms. As the anti-abortion camp is pushing for retrogression in abortion laws, it is becoming increasingly evident that abortion law reforms are insufficient to safeguard women’s increasing access to abortion. For example, Armenia, FYROM, Georgia, Russia and Slovakia have recently reintroduced preconditions for accessing abortions. Even in countries with legal abortions, long waiting periods and biased counseling services act as barriers to accessing an abortion safely. Legislative proposals for near-total bans or retrogression to stricter abortion laws also took place in Latvia, Lithuania, Spain, Romania, and Poland; however, they were met with public outcry and protests and never realized. Andorra, Malta, Liechtenstein, Ireland, Monaco and San Marino currently have very restrictive abortion laws, with the former two prohibiting all abortions. As in Cyprus, most of these countries’ criminal codes include sanctions for women who undergo unauthorized abortions and those who assist them to do so . Amidst the rise of authoritarian populism and the resurgence of traditionalist values in public discourse, it is crucial that we do not remain silent in front of the attacks on reproductive rights and our sexualities. In our struggles for social justice, deciding for one’s own body is an inalienable right, without the intervention of any authority threatening one’s health, life or freedom. Our bodies are ours, and not reproductive machines of any system.
References and further reading
 Silvia Federici, “The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy, Marxist theory and the unfinished feminist revolution”
Silvia Federici, “The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy, Marxist theory and the unfinished feminist revolution”
 McBride Stetson, Dorothy (2003) Conclusion: Comparative abortion politics and the case for state feminism.
 Braidotti, Rosi (2002) Metamorphoses: towards a materialist theory of becoming (Cambridge: Polity Press); Grosz, Elizabeth (1994) Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism (Sydney: Allen and Unwin).
 Τούτος εν ένας όρος που εδιατυπώθηκεν πρώτα που την Katha Pollitt. Για περαιτέρω συζήτηση γυρώ που την έκτρωση σαν ένα ηθικό δικαίωμα, δες Pollitt, Katha (2014) Pro: Reclaiming abortion rights (New York: Picador).
 McBride Stetson, Dorothy (ibid)
 Για μια πιο εκτενή συζήτηση γυρώ που την πολιτική σημειολογία της αντιπροσώπευσης, δες Haraway, Donna (1992) The promises of monsters: a regenerative politics of inappropriate/d others, in: Lawrence Grossber, Cary Nelson & Paula A. Treichler (eds.) Cultural studies (New York, London: Routledge), pp. 295-337.
 Dorothy Roberts, “Reproductive Justice, Not Just Rights”
 Madame Tlank, “The Battle of all* Mothers (or: No Unauthorised Reproduction)”
Madame Tlank, “The Battle of all* Mothers (or: No Unauthorised Reproduction)”
 “Αυξάνονται οι αλλοδαποί, μειώνονται οι Κύπριοι”, Sigmalive
 An example of this argument can be found here: http://www.cna.org.cy/webnews.aspx?a=13b07a14e43f4f4e9bd2b891d8310818
 Woman who had illegal abortion released (Updated)
[12a] Ο περί Ποινικού Κώδικα Νόμος (ΚΕΦ.154), ΜΕΡΟΣ IV ΠΟΙΝΙΚΑ ΑΔΙΚΗΜΑΤΑ ΠΟΥ ΠΑΡΑΒΛΑΠΤΟΥΝ ΤΟ ΚΟΙΝΟ ΓΕΝΙΚΑ, Ποινικά Αδικήματα εναντίον των Ηθών
 Εκτρώσεις: Τι προβλέπει η πρόταση νόμου του 2015
 Ιερά Αρχιεπισκοπή Κύπρου: Επιστημονικό Συνέδριο με γενικό θέμα: «Εκτρώσεις: Ιατρικές – Κοινωνικές – Νομικές – Πνευματικές διαστάσεις»
 Pollitt, Katha (ibid)
 Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe
It’s kicking off in Iran. Millions have taken to the streets in anti-government protests. Twenty people are reported dead, more than 500 arrested. But the dynamic is not declining. Unlike 2009, this period of protest has much more potential, because Iran’s no future-generation – like here in Europe – has nothing to lose and is willing to risk everything.
There is a saying in Iran: Every thirty-ish years, there is a regime change. In 1979, a people’s revolution chased away the Shah, this was before the Islamists around the first supreme leader Khomeini took over the state violently and transformed it into the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Exactly 30 years later, in 2009, the country saw its last big uprising, orchestrated by and around the “reformist” current of Iranian real-politic – a movement which gave not only reformists, but all who wanted change a plausible reason for hope for improvement. But in the end, neither the controversial former conservative president Ahmadinedjad and the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei nor the principles of the Islamic Republic were touched. The movement was cracked down on. Is the cycle of regime change broken? Recent events in Iran give us hope that it’s only delayed. This movement – certainly in its beginning yet – has far more potential than in 2009 because in some crucial points it differs vastly from the 2009 movement. It is making the Islamic Republic’s elite shake and gives all of us who want to see the Islamic Republic gone and the people in Iran living in dignity and freedom a reason to hope.
First of all, very briefly: what is happening in Iran right now?
We are witnessing the transformation of social revolt into a more and more radical social movement all over the country. This is the biggest protest-wave the country has seen in eight years. The aim of it can be summed up as “Bread, Work, Dignity, Freedom” – and large numbers of the millions in the street are demanding nothing less than the end of the Islamic Republic.
The reasons why it’s kicking off are complex and have been growing for years, if not decades. In the news, it is said the spark was escalating egg prices and unemployment. Indeed, inflation in Iran is disastrous and combined with harsh austerity politics it outreaches the level of wages and incomes by far. In many cases these conditions push not only the unemployed, but even the masses of precarious employed Iranian to the edge of surviving. This is why Iran is at an unrest for a long time: the state funded organisation Isargara counts 1700 protest actions of social character only between March 2016 and today – be it wildcat strikes by factory workers or actions by pensioners and public sector employees – despite harsh prosecution against (radical) unionism and any kind of similar organisation. The end of the previous, hurtful UN-sanctions did not bring back economical recovery except for some corrupt Mullahs and their economic-military complex, the Revolutionary Guards.
But, the state’s economic struggle isn’t the only problem for people living in Iran. The increasing authoritarianism under Ahmadinedjad was not really stopped by the current president Rouhani, who is considered a reformist, and at least a moderate type of guy. The religiously motivated, authoritarian pressure on daily life, especially the harassment against women and alternative young people, the executions in the name of Allah etc. have not declined at all. The pollution especially in big cities is so bad that some blocks at some hours are only to sustain with masks. Last but not least many Iranians are furious that the expansionist IRI sponsors ideologically related struggles in the region, like in Palestine or in Lebanon with billions of dollars, but does not give a dime about the suffering people back home.
But what is different now compared to 2009 – the year of the last uprising, which did not succeed?
The character of the protest and what it’s all about. 2009 was a genuinely political protest in the sense that it was concerned with “real-politic” in Iran. It was orchestrated around and within the “reformist” current, with the former candidates for presidency Mousavi – the same man by the way, who was premier minister under Khomeini during the mass executions against about 40.000 political opponents at the end of the 80s. But we will come back to the desperation of Iranian reformism later. However, the founding moment was the election within an autocratic and totalitarian regime, which implies, that the reformist wanted to take power within the Islamic Republic and – if possible – do things better slightly. More democracy, more individual freedom, less harassment, slight opening towards the West – all perfectly capable within the Islamic Republic, who have tolerated these changes already in 1997 during the last reformist candidate Khatami.
Now, the whole situation is turned around. The reformists are in power in the form of Rouhani, but the problems are the same, if not even worse. This is why the demands are more existential and the struggle, the conflict, is far more fundamental. It is not about choosing between different currents within the ruling class, but rather against the ruling class itself. In fact the first rally of this protest cycle on 28th December 2017 in the city of Mashad was organised by conservative hardliner and Rouhani-rival Raisi, but quickly got out his hand. The people are fed up of being used as negotiation masses between the reformist and the conservative currents of the real-politic – none of which are able to solve fundamental, existential problems. This was expressed during one of the first demonstrations in the current protest cycle at Teheran University, when people shouted “Reformists or Conservatives – the game is over”.
The subject of the struggle. The 2009 uprising was led by the urban, educated middle class, which was not suffering existentially in a material sense, but ideologically. They were – and they had every right to be – fed up with the aggressive, authoritarian development under Ahmadinedjad, whose administration massively increased the attack on genuinely democratic and individual rights like freedom of the press, assembly, opinion and so on. He manoeuvred Iran into a more and more leading role in opposing the West (who, despite the sanctions did not get tired of doing massive business with the IRI, though) and mobilising the country and regional allies as the West’s counterpart – as kind of an “anti-imperialist block of the 21stcentury”. While Ahmadinedjad was able to unify the lower classes by appealing to the national identity, the middle class wanted to take part in the globalisation of the western world – but not revolutionize Iran. They put their hopes into the reformist candidate of presidency to achieve that and chose the parliamentary way – which is a structural problem in a totalitarian state, where the supreme leader has to approve all the candidates.
Now, it is totally another social group revolting in the street: It is mostly the (young) lower classes, the (precarious) labourers, the non-represented, but also students (which are part of every big uprising in Iran) – and, very importantly, one of the strongest movement in Iran for decades, progressive women in the front. Most of this huge part of Iran’s population has literally no future. They have no perspective whatsoever. They want a life in dignity, they want something to eat, they want work in order to afford basic needs and they are frustrated about religious justifications of the misery. They have – unlike the 2009 urban class – nothing to lose and the mentality to risk everything. A young man from the south said during the riots: “I live with my parents and we can hardly afford meals for all of us. I cannot find work. What will they do? I do not fear them. I have nothing to lose”. It is astonishing, how this sentence in its exact wording could come from the (South-)European youth, who live in another world but suffer the same problem of being un-represented, dispensable in the eyes of the ruling class – and becoming ungovernable.
The determination and the symbolism of the protest. Consider this: Iran’s repressive apparatus is one of the most advanced and most ruthless in the region, if not in the world. There is not only police, but the better organised, more important and more brutal Revolutionary Guard and their unofficial, paramilitary arm the “Bassidj” militia, founded by Khomeini himself. This is why it takes a huge amount of courage to go out and demonstrate even peacefully at all. There is practically no right to do so, especially if it turns against the government. In this context, it is even more impressive what the people shout during these illegal assemblies. There are basically no religious slogans being heard. Unlike 2009 where one of the most central slogans was “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) in order to symbolize a loyalty to the principles of the Islamic Republic. You cannot find this slogan here. On the contrary, the people shout in masses and in all cities “Down with Rouhani”, “Down with the Dictator”, “Mullahs go home” even “Down with Khamenei” and finally “Down with the Islamic Republic” – these slogans can be prosecuted as “mohareb” (sin against God) and punished with the death penalty. According to the revolution in 1979 as well as Western republican revolutions they also demand “Independence, Freedom – an Iranian Republic” and reject the IRI by that as well.
The people seem to keep radicalizing every day. They do not let themselves be chased away by police, in many cases they overwhelm the riot units and set their cars and police stations on fire. In the videos, you can see that during militant actions, the people care for each other and stop others if they about to harm innocent people. There is a big sensitivity in the riots. The targets of direct actions are also very clear: people turn against police buildings and cars, banks, local administration buildings and especially against property of the hated Revolutionary Guard. Furthermore, they tear down huge posters of the Supreme Leader and burn the flag of the Islamic Republic. One of the most important signals for secular and progressive protest is the presence and the active involvement of women, many protesting without the Hijab. A young, protesting woman turning her Hijab to a flag became the symbol of this movement.
The geography of the protest. Unlike 2009, the actors of the current uprising are not limited on the relatively small urban middle class in three or four cities, but distributed all over the country. Iranian society is very heterogeneous– 60% is made up by the Persian majority, which in many cases aggressively claim the hegemony of the nationality “Iranian”, and there are several smaller and larger ethnic, cultural, religious minorities, like Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Baha’i and so on. 2009 had a very crucial problem – it basically did not reach any of those minorities, because it never convinced those minorities why they would have a better fate with a reformist president. No wonder, since this topic was not a considerable part of their programme.
This year the social protest does not prefer any of those identities, but is very existential and includes all. While 2009 was massively orchestrated around Tehran and Isfahan, this year’s cycle started in the North-West (close to Iranian Kurdistan) and then was swept to Teheran and around 70(!) more cities in every parts of the country, including the minorities’ regions like Khuzestan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan. This is a nationwide movement of millions and it includes a very large part of society, 2009 did not.
The organisation of the movement. Naturally, the 2009 movement was a classical political movement with a narrow window of demands and – most importantly – with leaders. Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnaward and the co-candidate of the reformists, Karroubi, did not only consider themselves as leaders, but they were called as leaders by the movement. They and their team were responsible for the programme and choreography of the movement – and they also decided what was important enough to ask for, i.e. they warned of too much radicalization – naturally. But in a totalitarian state, this top-down-organisation is not a mistake for ideological but for pragmatic reasons. When the state was ready, they imprisoned these leaders and the dynamic was harmed heavily. Easy game. The protests did not stop but in many ways the movement became headless.
This year’s protest movement is much more decentralised and self-organised. People in the different cities coordinate with Internet tools and by taking recordings they see what is going everywhere, so they can refer to each other. They usually come together after work or school, when it gets dark, start chatting about politics and life, then they shout slogans and eventually take direct action – and disperse. Come and go, Hit and Run. Sure, there are attacks from security forces, arrests, people die. But nonetheless the protesters keep coming and coming, with a certain calmness. This has a spontaneity which a genuinely political movement like 2009 usually does neither know nor tolerate. There is nothing to behead for the authorities (yet?), this makes it so painful to stop.
Reactions within the state apparatus and perspectives. The state apparatus is kept hesitating a long time, now it is slowly getting into position. After the protests got so big that they could not ignore them anymore, they started their usual blaming game: terrorists, agent provocateurs, foreigners and other enemies are responsible for the revolt. It is said, though, some police officers and soldiers have resigned already and deny duty. There are efforts to high jack the protest from conservative forces, for example, yelling “Allahu Akbar” through the microphones, but those efforts were shut down everywhere in Iran. Recent “demonstrations of power” where loyalists of the regime should come out in “masses” were beyond expectation. But the state has not mobilised all of its repressive apparatus yet. The revolutionary guard and the Bassidj militia are keeping clear for now. They want to see how it turns out. The reformists, given their misery and their pointless hope of transforming a totalitarian regime effectively by just installing a different president, will probably turn out as the accomplice of the conservatives in the end and form a “unity of reason” government, i.e. a unity of those who want to uphold the Islamic Republic and confront the movement.
However, here is one crucial difference to 2009: a lot must happen that the people become scared and stay home. They are hungry, unemployed or employed but feel miserable just like the unemployed, fed up with the Islamic regime and have no future. Even if the death toll is relatively much higher than 2009 (2009: 60-70 killed after 6 months, now more than 20 after 7 days), they keep staying on the street. This is what makes them dangerous, unpredictable and this is why it is probably not possible for political reasons to crack down the movement militarily. The state has men and material for sure, but they too surely fear a further escalation, that will expose further the regime to the outer world.
The misery of Iranian Reformism. Not only are the reformists not really part of this movement – many parts consider it as hostile. First, because the man in power is considered in their political current: When he got elected, reformists – imagine how desperate they are – celebrated that as a victory. But Rouhani’s era was more than disastrous and one more signal that reformism within the Islamic Republic is not an option.
Facing the protests now, I would even go further and say that the reformist promises and its real outcomes are a big part of why people got angry and take to the streets now. Despite his election campaign, Rouhani’s cabinet was heavily conservative – neither women nor representatives of a minority were part of it. This cabinet was a love letter to the supreme leader. During his campaign he heavily agitated against the Revolutionary guards, now he seems not to get enough of cuddling up to them and he refers to a “brotherhood” with them. Furthermore it was leaked that billions of the government’s budget was invested in religious projects outside and inside the country – but none of those really helped people in social need in Iran. But at least he lowered the numbers of executions? No, he did not. No wonder that two months ago a campaign under the name “I regret it” went viral, where people and celebrities (like former football star Ali Karimi) expressed their disappointment in the reformist current.
Reformism, its false promises and their historically consistent, fatal cooperation with conservatives and hardliners and selling that as “the lesser evil” are a reason for the misery in Iran and why it is kicking off everywhere now. They deserve nothing less.
What can we do here?
Organise solidarity. We know from many sources within Iran that it is vital for them that their struggle receives global attention. Not only do they feel empowered for the rightfulness of their struggle, but it has a political-strategic value: a tweet by USA’s Ahmadinedjad, Donald Trump, warning the Islamic Republic to maintain standards of human rights (what an irony), makes the Islamic Republic think twice about shooting down protesters. On the other hand, the Islamic regime is highly professionalised in transforming comments like these into their fake news, where they make foreigners responsible for the protest – an important ideological twist. Nonetheless we should not be silenced by that, never and from no regime to practice solidarity to a struggle we support. If there are solidarity actions in the whole of Europe or the whole world, it can and will make the Islamic Republic shake at least a little bit more – even if they claim the opposite.
Furthermore in a globalised world like ours, the struggle in Iran has to do with us. Have a look how, despite the sanctions, European capital makes large profits through trade with the Islamic Republic. According to the campaign “Antifa Teheran” from 2009/2010 you will be surprised how many companies in Europe not only have innocent trade and commerce links, but, for example many German and British companies, also deliver intelligence and material for the Islamic Republic security regime, for example riot gear and less than lethal crowd dispersal weaponry. In what way so ever: there are many ways to show solidarity. Make use of it and do not hesitate to clarify, what you are in solidarity with, i.e. social justice, secularism, freedom and peace – and with what not. The community of exiled Iranians is highly political and includes all sorts of political currents, partly extremely well organised: Several leftist currents, Mudjaheddin, nationalists, neoliberals, monarchists.
Let’s not forget: Iran’s regional and geopolitical importance is obvious by now. And the people of Iran – like everywhere – deserve a much better fate than the super-authoritarian, clerical IRI. But the 2009 movement in Iran was the start of the global protest wave, which swept over Arab countries, the USA and the movement of squares in Europe – even if not everywhere the rebellion succeeded or if there was no direct action connection with Iran. Now, after the terrible global rise of the right wing and authoritarian formations, it must be our time again. And Iran can be the beginning – again.