Saturday, June 20, 2009

How does this end?

Riots in Iran protesting the stolen election continued for the 8th straight day today. The crowds are staying large, the Basij are staying brutal but not massacring large numbers, the army is holding back, communications with the outside world remain spotty and, as always, it remains unclear what happens next.

These days of street protest, countered by helicopters spraying a chemical agent on demonstrators, by Basij militiamen beating people with electric batons, and by Revolutionary Guard shooting into crowds and killing dozens of people, are fatally damaging the credibility of the Iranian regime. Even if they come out of this still in control, it's hard to see Ahmadinejad or Khamenei making a public appearance in any large city without drawing throngs of opposition protesters. Their legitimacy, and particuarly Khamenei's, is on the line, and the best outcome for them is that they don't lose it altogether.

But one of Andrew Sullivan's commentators makes an excellent point: what can the regime do? They've closed off communications with the outside world, but they can't keep that up forever. They're committing violence against the demonstrators, and losing their moral authority as a result, but they're not stopping anything. The more they clamp down, the more resistance they'll encounter. But if they ease up, the opposition will have a better time finding its voice. They're stuck, and they probably know it, and they have everything to lose, and all that makes them very dangerous. And for a regime brought into being in part due to protests against the killing of protesters, the use of force could as easily backfire as succeed.

And while I'm at it, Andrew Sullivan's done an amazing job of chronicling these events over the last several days. He's become the clearinghouse for information being generated by individuals all across Iran, and the world really, and he's demonstrating the power of new, user-generated media. The historically unprecedented amount of information that's leaked out from what a supposedly closed society during this upheaval is going to be studied for a long time to come, and this is one of the events that will forever mark the establishment of the Internet as a force for journalistic excellence.

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