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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What happened yesterday in Iran?

Dictatorships are often caught off guard by sudden explosions of popular discontent. It takes them several days to determine that the protests are so deep and widespread that they cannot be controlled by normal means.
Once they make this determination, however, they often make a strategic decision to strike back as savagely as possible. It is at this point that massacres often occur and hundreds of people are beaten, jailed or simply disappear. Protest movements of ordinary people are by their nature almost never able to directly resist the full power of the organized violence soldiers or elite riot police can unleash against them.
After the violent repression pauses and the streets temporarily become quiet, the regime follows up with a mixture of carrots and sticks. The ordinary protesters are told that they are “forgiven,” that they were mislead by a small group of subversives, that perhaps – perhaps – some unfortunate mistakes had been made and that some small and symbolic concessions will be offered. At the same time, a massive wave of brutal, covert and systematic arrests are made in an attempt to decapitate the leadership of the protests.
The streets are quiet and strangely empty. No-one is sure what will come next.
At this moment the regime has one vast and overwhelming objective — to re-establish a surface appearance of normality. Things must be quiet. The leader has to give a speech reasserting his legitimacy, and reassuring the population that the institutions of the country are intact – that things have gone back to normal.
This is a critical moment in every struggle against dictatorship. If the regime is successful, a surface calm may indeed return. A sullen, grumbling undercurrent of discontent always remains, but life goes back to what it was.
But if the protesters return to the streets to defy the authorities once again, on the other hand, an awesome and profound psychic barrier collapses. The protesters demonstrate to both themselves and to the authorities that their spirit cannot be broken, that they will never again be the same people they were before. From that moment on uniformed men with guns may still control the streets, but the legitimacy of the regime has received a mortal blow.
In moments of quiet reflection the protesters know success may take months or years of patient organizing and persistent struggle, but each of them senses that in some profound way the tide has fundamentally shifted to their side.
The regime will never be the same again — because they will never be the same again.
That is what happened yesterday in Iran.

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