Global Policy Forum

Civil Society Feels Conservatives’ Wrath


By Omid Memarian*

July 3, 2006

Nearly a year has gone by since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office, and his establishment is continuing to suppress civil society, intimidate the press and arrest activists. Since the government's security forces violently interrupted a peaceful protest in support of women's rights in Tehran on Jun. 12, dozens of women activists have been summoned to court -- some having been interrogated for more than a week. Nooshin Ahmadi Khorasani and Parvin Ardalan are two prominent activists who have spent more than four hours a day answering questions. Their lawyer, Nasrin Sotoodeh, told IPS that the charge is "mobilising people for illegal protests", a violation of national security laws that can carry a lengthy prison sentence.

During this month's women's rights gathering, which attracted more than 5,000 people, security forces arrested the former reformist member of parliament and student activist Ali Akbar Mosavi Khoeiniha, among more than 60 others. Though most were released within a few days, Khoeiniha is still being detained at an undisclosed location. Just two months ago, the Iranian intelligence service, which has close ties to the president, arrested Ramin Jahanbeglou, a prominent scholar, with no clear charges filed as of yet. At the same time, the National Security Council prohibited the press from criticising Iran's foreign policy in a bid to avoid further international isolation over its nuclear programme.

Mansour Ossanlu, the director of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, has been detained since December following the union's peaceful protest. Many student group members were also summoned to the Revolutionary Court in the past week to explain their political activities. Moreover, many women and human rights groups have been repeatedly intimated and asked to report all of their activities and meetings. In fact, activists, students, journalists, and civil society organisations have felt mounting pressure following the fall of the reformist government, and later on, the domination of the city councils, parliament and the presidency by hardliner conservatives who follow Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other high-ranking clerics.

A review of the past decade's events in Iran illustrates how weary and suspicious the conservatives have become of civil society. In their view, the development and expansion of civil society networks and discourse has been an attempt by the reformists to imitate the success of the conservatives in creating revolutionary organisations, such as Basij and Sepah. They reason that since opposition groups do not have the military might necessary to overthrow the Islamic Republic directly, they will try to bring about its demise indirectly through influencing civil society and weakening the institutional structure of the country.

That is why after the consolidation of power by conservatives, which came about through undemocratic means and the elimination of reformist candidates in the seventh parliamentary elections of February 2004 and the presidential election of June 2005, civil society actors became concerned with the impact of political developments and their own future. Their main concern is that the current government will negatively influence the direction of -- or put to halt to -- some of the reform era liberalisations, which had invigorated journalists, intellectuals, students, women and labour groups.

Now, only a year after President Ahmadinejad's election, it is becoming apparent that the hardliners who occupy positions in essentially non-democratic institutions such as the police, the judiciary and parallel security establishments are expanding the scope of their suppression and censorship. Most likely, their efforts will accelerate and toughen in the coming months. The hardliners cite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Eastern European regimes as a direct result of the expansion of civil society and international and aid organisations. The suppression or control of civil society, they argue, is essential for the survival of the regime, and it can be attained through sporadic arrests of activists, accusations of espionage against NGO members, and increasing the price of activism in general. They have started this process since capturing the parliament in 2003.

The conservatives have also sought to create "counterfeit" civil society networks to limit or disrupt the expansion of the independent, democratic civil society. These organisations are in all likelihood connected to one governmental agency or another. While they do not truly represent the people or their interests, they can take over the space of civil society and also tamper with its activities. While there are many examples of these types of organisations, they have been established with great professionalism, and there will likely be a great increase in their number in the next few years. This will create an environment in which the voice of civil society will no longer be the voice of the people, but rather, the voice of the government.

For example, after the return of a delegation of independent women activists from the regional Beijing +10 Forum held in Bangkok in 2005, conservative groups called for greater control over who and how Iran is represented in these gatherings. This reaction indicates a growing trend to limit to participation of independent groups at international conferences and replace them with groups that represent the government's official viewpoint. This, of course, is a strategy that has been employed since the beginning of the revolution -- what is new is an attempt to completely suffocate civil voices.

In the past, the reformist government often used civil society as a weapon to guard against the hegemony of the conservatives in traditional organisations. Thus, instead of working to create an understanding among the people or within the government about the benefits of civil society, some reformists valued civil society only on the rhetorical level. As a result, the main focus of the reformist government was on the quantitative, rather than qualitative expansion of civil society. Presently, many such new organisations are too weak to influence government policy in any meaningful way.

The Ahmadinejad administration has dried up the many funding sources for NGOs and civil society groups since coming to power last June. Moreover, mounting political pressures have also exerted a negative impact on the levels of cooperation between Iranian NGOs and international organisations, particularly donors. In addition, the Ahmadinejad administration has raised the political cost of having connections with international donors and organisations. In sum, the withdrawal of government supports, the lack of connection with international counterparts, and the increasing risks of activism have contributed significantly to the silencing of civil society in Iran. That's why for a widely covered campaign against anti-women laws that had the support of more than 500 NGOs, weblogs, news websites and foreign radio stations, the number of participants was just 5,000.

Given the increasing level of attention dedicated to Iranian society by the international community, such as news coverage of the activists' arrests, the cost of direct confrontation with civil society actors is too high for many conservative groups. Reining in this sector too tightly, the more pragmatic conservatives argue, would have negative consequences by attracting international attention and criticism. Furthermore, these conservatives believe that allowing the civil society to exist as it does today, without supporting its further growth, would indeed have a positive impact on the Islamic Republic's international image, while allowing the people to have a venue to express their demands in a controlled and limited environment.

Such arguments are advanced by conservative university professors, and also some high-ranking officials such as Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's National Security Council, and Emad Afroogh, a prominent conservative MP. In all likelihood, a combination of the strategies mentioned above will continue to be used by the conservatives to control and limit the growth of civil society in the coming years.

About the Author: Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil society activist. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award. Omid is currently a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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