The New Face of Democratic Struggle | Opinion

In recent months, a handful of Iranian citizens have been sentenced to death for the crime of protesting. Recently Mohammed Mehdi Karami and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini were hanged after claiming they were tortured to make false confessions. Their faces covered with a sack, their hands and feet were bound before being executed. In mid-December, there were signs of torture on Mohsen Shekari's face at his trial, his mother urged. Similarly, Majidreza Rahnavard's parents were not even allowed to see the body of their son, who was hurriedly executed and buried in Behesht-e Reza cemetery just 23 days after being arrested. Months earlier, Jina "Mahsa" Amini was arrested, beaten, and died in police custody simply for "improperly" wearing her hijab, setting off protests in Iran that continue to this day. The number of those jailed and at risk of being executed continues to grow.

When we look back on the prior protests that have erupted in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, especially those in Iran in recent years, we come to see that these repressive techniques will only work for so long. Eventually the regime will be forced to negotiate or else fall. What comes as a result when a regime topples can be hard to foretell.

Over 10 years ago, another wave of protests consumed the streets of most Arab-majority countries. The Arab Spring eventually led to the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, which slowly paved the way for changes in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Dictators like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi were toppled. Tunisia was able to successfully transition into a democracy in 2011, and while the path has been rocky, continues to maintain it. Yet, in sister nations, where national leaders dug their heels in, the result was either civil war or renewed dictatorship. Still in most nations, the people continue to fight.

While some nations allowed for ad hoc changes, financial handouts, or some general reforms to appease public demands, many governments instead fought to secure the status quo through violent suppression. Often backed by pro-government militias, large military forces, and counter-demonstrators, governments retaliated. But when regimes respond with government retaliation, the outcome is nearly always civil wars and conflicts that end up toppling the leaders, such as in Yemen and Libya.

In many of these cases, the fight against repression and violence can lead to more killings and more oppression. Hardships on people often manifest, making some question whether the fight for democratic freedom is really worth all the costs. The continued fight even in nations flung into civil chaos after a regime falls tells us that most in the region would answer emphatically: yes. Despite the conflict that comes after toppling a regime, new generations continue the fight that their parents started. This should serve as a warning to the Iranian government that no matter the costs, its people will never settle for anything less than liberty and equality.

Time-and-again, Iranian citizens have publicly protested what is notably one of the most oppressive regimes in the MENA region. Large-scale protests against the Iranian government are not new.

In 1999, approximately 10,000 people participated in student protests, in which an estimated four people died and over 1,200 were detained. In 2009, nearly 3 million Iranians peacefully demonstrated against official claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections by a landslide. The riot police and Basij paramilitaries violently responded to what would become known as the Green Revolution, and at least 100 protestors were murdered and 4,000 people were detained.

 A message saying "Stop executions in Iran"
A message saying "#Stop Executions in Iran" is displayed on the Eiffel Tower in Paris in support of the Iranian people on Jan. 16, 2023, in Paris, France. Pierre Suu/Getty Images

In 2019, over 300 Iranians were killed for protesting hiked gas prices.

Most recently, anti-government protesters took to the streets when government officials acknowledged that the Revolutionary Guards erroneously shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Thirty people were detained under trumped up charges.

Repeatedly, the Iranian regime retaliated violently in the desperate hope to quash dissent. Yet its citizens continually demonstrate their hope to win.

The Iranian regime thinks by making victims of its tyranny disappear their cries will slowly die away. But each new death adds to the growing list of martyrs who have sacrificed their lives on the altar of freedom. Mohammed Karami. Seyed Hosseini. Mahsa Amini. Mohsen Shekari. Majidreza Rahnavard. Today, their faces are in almost every newspaper of every major news outlet around the world, translated into dozens of languages. With each image of their stoic faces that is shared over social media, the more the world may see through their eyes the evil face of oppression and violence.

The struggle for democracy in Iran may take years, even decades. And the kind of democracy that arises may be different than other democratic nations around the world. But the Iranian regime cannot hold out against the tide. If it continues to arrest and execute its citizens, it condemns itself to certain annihilation. Mohmmed, Seyed, Mahsa, Mohsen, and Majidreza—they are the new faces of the fight for freedom in the 21st century. Their struggle is ours.

Dr. Jessi Hanson-DeFusco is assistant professor of global health policy at the University of Texas at Dallas, in the school of economic, political, and policy sciences. She has worked for over 20 years in international development policy, including governance development and human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.