What lessons does the Iranian uprising offer for the region?
In early November, the chief Iranian investigator in charge of interrogating youth detainees said that he had spent his entire life questioning political figures, but found the recent interrogations the most difficult because he was unable to understand the responses.
His remarks were in line with recent reports suggesting that the Tehran regime cannot comprehend the reasons behind the mass protests that have swept the country. Putting aside the regime’s violent response to the demonstrations, the authorities’ inability to understand what is driving citizen dissent is indicative of their failure.
While Mohammed Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s attorney-general, has said that the morality police have been abolished, uncertainty remains as to whether their duties were transferred elsewhere, or if Iranians can begin to dictate their own social behavior, without fear of severe judicial repercussions.
Nevertheless, protests ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police continue, without a clear end in sight. But the Iranian regime’s apparent belief that simply abolishing the morality police would put an end to the anger on the street is symbolic of the widening gap between the state and society.
This posits questions of how integral it is for governments to understand citizens as a basis for effectively addressing their demands. Data from the most recent World Values Survey shows that most young people surveyed indicated between “some” and “little” when asked about the extent to which the political systems in their countries allowed them to have a say in decision-making.
The same survey also showed that among those aged 30 or younger, the average satisfaction level with the performance of the political system and the way governments carry out their duties was low.
This data highlights the gap between citizens and decision-makers. If governments are oblivious to or, worse, simply wrong about citizens’ needs because they do not engage them in their decision-making processes, then their policies will likely be tuned to a different wavelength. As a result, governments and societies will find it difficult to understand each other because they will not be having the same conversation.
There are two important factors to consider. First, the understanding between governments and societies is a fundamental component of the social contract. When societies refuse to acknowledge the reality that they are not the same as before, and when governments view societies in the same way they did in the past, progress becomes all but impossible.
Second, the performance of the economy has become increasingly more important when it comes to determining the efficacy of political systems, especially in the Arab world. In fact, data from the Arab Barometer suggests that Arabs assess the success of systems, including democracies, on the basis of their economic progress.
By this logic, when governments understand their citizens’ needs and demonstrate economic progress, citizen confidence in decision-making is likely to be higher. Contrary to what Western liberal schools assert, a state need not be a democracy to achieve this objective.
When governments understand their citizens’ needs and demonstrate economic progress, citizen confidence in decision-making is likely to be higher.
Mohammed Abu Dalhoum
Over the past decade, two main types of governance have been sustained in the Arab world: Democracies, or democratizing states, on the one hand, and what can be referred to as “effective governance” on the other.
While democratization processes have been stagnant or failing in many Arab states, the effective governance module is becoming economically more successful regionally. Effective governance in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar is demonstrating tangible growth for their citizens. Conventional discussions tend to point to the prevalence of natural resources as the driver for the success of the system. But digging deeper offers more depth to the discussion.
This is because clarity and harmony between governments and citizens go hand in hand with economic growth. We cannot overlook how governments communicate with citizens in comparison with how they communicate with foreign leaderships and international multilateral organizations.
At face value, we see economically struggling states constantly sending liberal messages to external audiences as part of the search for foreign aid, yet their domestic policies rarely line up with such messages. From a citizen’s point of view, it is cognitive dissonance in a sense that what they see implemented does not always resemble what they hear their governments claim.
Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to overlook these contradictions, especially when they are more aware of different, more effective measures elsewhere. Unless governments improve the transparency of the drivers behind their policies, citizen dissent is unlikely to subside.
On the other hand, Arab states that adopt the effective governance module rarely deliver different messages to their citizens compared with their rhetoric with foreign governments and multilaterals. This consistency of communication, regardless of the audience, is contributing to a sustained positive level of mutual trust between the state and society.
Ultimately, governments ought to effectively manage their available resources, regardless of their scarcity, while also effectively communicating with their citizens — clearly, transparently and in a way that is consistent with how they communicate externally. The protests in Iran have shown that no system is entirely immune to citizen dissent, but effective governance and open, consistent communication with citizens can preemptively address the warning signals.
• Mohammed Abu Dalhoum is the president of MENAACTION and a senior research analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions.