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The Power of Plenty

How the sight of massive protests can change a nation’s mind.

The panoramic view on Thursday of more than a million Iranians filling the streets of Tehran, on the sixth straight day of swelling popular demonstrations against the Iranian regime's mangled election and ensuing street violence, has been an undeniable inspiration to the tens of millions who’ve seen it. But posting a photograph on a wall in an office in New York, or watching a few YouTubes in an apartment in Paris, doesn’t begin to convey what the protesters have accomplished by creating such unprecedented new public space in Iran, and how much they’ve altered the psychological and political reality on the ground.

I am reminded of something that a Gdansk shipyard worker said about people power in Poland. The worker was Anna Waltentynowicz, and her firing at the Gdansk shipyard triggered the strikes that forced the Polish communist regime to legalize Solidarity in 1980. She recalled that a year before, when John Paul II returned from Rome to visit his country for the first time as pope, the government declined to involve itself in what it saw as a religious event, so the Catholic church and civil society had to organize everything. Never before had so many ordinary people been involved in such a massive public undertaking. Thousands of people got on-the-job training as organizers. The culminating event was an open-air mass in Warsaw's central square where three million people assembled--the largest gathering in Polish history.

"We could do all kinds of things by ourselves," one organizer said. "We didn't need the authorities." Suddenly millions of people who had lived under repressive rule all their lives looked in the mirror and saw themselves as stakeholders in what was happening. "We became braver," Walentynowicz said. Even after Solidarity was temporarily brought down by martial law, all through the difficult years underground, those organizers and the people who followed them didn't surrender their determination to succeed. And the leader of the 1980 strikes, Lech Walesa, became president in 1990.

Another instructive precedent might be the massive civilian involvement in protests and political organizing that preceded Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, which Augusto Pinochet called so he could change the constitution and run for a third term. Just as with the Supreme Leader in Iran, he was forced to permit an open campaign in order to establish the perception of the vote's legitimacy. That campaign released enormous, fervent energy for change. When on election night an independent vote count showed that the opposition had won, Pinochet advised his fellow junta members that he was going to disregard the results and crack down on any action in the streets. Two of his fellow generals refused to go along, because they knew that most Chileans would resist--and, with the defection of the navy and air force, Pinochet realized that he had lost his capacity for effective repression. So he stood down. Eleven years later, one of the leaders of the ’88 opposition asked a filmmaker how many Chileans could say, on the morning after the plebiscite, that they had accomplished this change, and then he answered his own question: "Seven million," he said.

Regardless of whether or not the Green Revolution in Iran succeeds in the coming days, the collective recognition by ordinary Iranians that it is, after all, their country--that its guidance and direction are not the property of one ideological faction or certain privileged clerics--is unlikely to fade. Once you learn how to drive a car, you don't forget. Once you've created space that has commanded the world's attention and caused armed rulers to hesitate, you are a factor in history and a force to be reckoned with, whether a million people come back on the street for another six days, or 16 days, or 60 days.

The Green Revolution has already created a new cohort of political organizers, the ability to mobilize and discipline Iranians of all social and economic backgrounds to comprise a major new political presence in Iranian life, and a stunning contrast in global images, between a self-confident, articulate Iranian people, and a balking, benighted government. If they persist, the new Green civilian army may even succeed in giving pause to the uniformed officers as well as the soldiers who would be summoned to put them down. The precedents for that are numerous. Aside from the Chilean example above, the People Power Movement against the Marcos regime in the Philippines divided his military to the point of ineffectuality. When Ukrainian armed forces were called to clear a half-million people out of the central square in Kiev in 2004, senior officers of the army and one other security service realized their own sons and daughters were in that square, and they thwarted other units who tried to follow orders. A revote in a presidential election was ordered.

But no outcome is inevitable. Success in civil resistance depends on the shrewdness of a movement's strategy, the quality of decisions made under pressure, and the resilience of people at all levels in its ranks and leadership. The one thing that can be said with certainty about events in Iran, however, is that six days of steady bravery, a serious new unity, and steadily growing nonviolent discipline have created the opportunity to alter the course of a great nation’s history--and that new capacity for change will not easily be unlearned.

Jack DuVall is the co-author of A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2001).

By Jack DuVall