The class element in recent Middle Eastern elections.

Lost in the chorus of outrage over the Iranian election results and subsequent repression of protest is the socio-economic cleavages evident in the polls. The same is true of the coverage of the Lebanese parliamentary elections held two weeks earlier.  It is therefore worthwhile to examine this dimension.

President Amadinijhad represents not only the militant Islamicist ideological wing embodied in the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij, who are now purportedly in a power struggle with the clerics in the Guardian Council over the direction of the post-revolutionary leadership movement. Amadinijhad also represents, both in tone and demeanour, the urban working and rural classes. Against him are poised the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousani, a former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs who his supporters and Western analysts see as a reformist. He is also a millionaire who receives his support from the urban bourgeousie, secularists, the better educated and university students. In most aspects he is not discernably different from Amadinijhad with regard to major policy issues (such as the civilian nuclear energy program), but he does represent a modernizing element within the revolution, one that is more secular, more technologically savvy and more attuned to Western mores than the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards (at the elite level) and the working classes (at the base) that see Amadinijhad as a bastion against corrosive secularisation of the revolutionary ethos.

The election was a referendum not on Iran’s foreign policy (which the West is obsessed about), but on Amadinijhad’s economic management, which by any measure is poor and which, like in any other country, occupies the attention of the mass electorate. Iran is a net oil importer that cannot feed itself in spite of its large land mass and variegated geography, access to the sea and ample fresh water. It was also a contest between the cell phone and twitter generation and the rest, since only 30 percent of Iranians have access to computer facilities and less than half have access to cell phones. Clearly, Amadinijhad and the mullahs underestimated the power of cellphone and computer access, particiularly when the regime itself is now dependent on computer services and cell phones in order to conduct its daily business (which practically speaking means that universal shut downs or denials of service are nigh impossible). 

My belief is that Amadinijhad won the election, but by a narrow margin that spooked him and his supporters who felt that a close vote would undermine the face of strength and unity they wish to present to the West with regards to the nuclear progam, support for Hamas and Hezbollah and foreign relations in general, to say nothing of their relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of vote fraud so well refined in advanced democracies, the Amadinijhad government–which controlled the balloting–padded their lead too much and hand counted votes too quickly to be credible. Hence the uproar.

But the genie is out of the bottle no matter what happens. Amadinijhad is dead in the water as far as having influence and leverage at home and abroad. In terms of foreign policy, he cannot purport to be the representative of any consensus vis a vis relations with the West, which undermines any bargaining position he hopes to maintain on key foreign policy issues (simply due to the lack of acknowledged majority support for his views). Domestically, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij has been sent a clear message that their ideological project is not shared by a wide swathe of Iranians. Moreover, the class divisions that precipitated the election crisis will not go away just because the government quells the protests. Thus, whether or not the West would like to intervene in the post-election process (a move that has never been proven to be successful over the long-term), the class conflict underpinning the electoral dispute will continue so long as both sides play the dispute in zero-sum terms. In the measure they do, they risk the possibility of civil war, since significant elements in the conventional military (particularly in the more technologically or professionally oriented branches of the Air Force and Navy) will not follow Revolutionary Guard orders to kill their own people  (if nothing else because the officer corps and non-commisioned officers are part of the middle classes), and because the “real” military will be needed to quell any mass revolt. In the measure that the Amadinijhad and Mousavi factions cut a deal and marginalise the Revolutionary Guard and Basij pustchists, the clerics and conventional officer corps will back them. The question is, can they reconcile the class conflicts in a political compromise that is mutually binding, universally acceptable and stable over time?

In Lebanon, Saad el-Hariri assumed the mantle of his assassinated father Rafic and gained a majority in the June 7 parliamentary elections, winning 71 of 128 seats . Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, won 57 seats and accepted the outcome. Hezbollah represents the working class and Shiia vote in Lebanon; Hariri represents the Sunni, Christian, Druze, secularist and bourgeoise vote. The West applauded the result and urged Hariri to proceed with his father’s anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian project, which includes marginalising (and criminalising) Hezbollah. Understanding the realities on the ground, Saad el-Hariri has opted instead to form a  national unity government that includes Hezbollah because he apparently understands that class, not religious conflict, is what drives many to support the Shiia extremists (who deliver on their promises of social services far better than any of their pro-Western counterparts).

 What is remarkable is the unmentioned premise for Western political support in a Middle Eastern (or any other)  election: defense of upper class (read capitalist) interests at the expense of all others. To be sure, religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts are bound up in these electoral contests, but one thing remains clear: even in societies rendered by such superstructural forms of primary identification, it is class that drives the major political divisions, and it is class interest, capitalist class interests specifically, to which the West responds most favorably when it comes to electoral outcomes. All of this is obvious: for the West it seems electoral democracy is not so much about the freedom to choose but about the “freedom” to choose bourgeoise leaders who uphold the national capitalist class interest as well as an affinity for Western economic orientation and macroeconomic logics (in spite of the obvious debacles such orientation has produced in both the developed and developing world). The response to Hamas’s electoral victory is an indication of that view, above and beyond its problematic approach to violence, Iranian connections and  non-recognition of Israel. 

I should note that the current trend in both elections indicates a move away from religious militancy and towards moderate-secularism, which to my mind is a good thing. It also represents a specific repudiation of Shiia militancy, either in the form of the Revolutionary Guard ideology or the perspective of its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies in Lebanon and Palestine ( fully understanding the local conditions underpinning their respective support), something that will undoubtably comfort elites in the Sunni Arab world.

For the social democratic Left the elections pose a conundrum: who to support? The “bad guys” (at least in Western eyes) are supported by the working masses and rural poor; the “good guys” are supported by elites and other propertied groups as well as well-meaning sorts such as intellectuals and artists. The class line does not suffice to chart a course of response to such situations. For social democratic governments, this poses a major problem; for right wing governments such as that temporarily governing NZ, it does not. Thus the question begs: when confronted by this type of class conflict viewed through the prism of contested elections, does the democratic Left (in government or in opposition) choose democracy over class interest or vice versa? If so why, exactly? If not, why not?

9 thoughts on “The class element in recent Middle Eastern elections.

  1. thank you so much for this post. it covers exactly the issues i’ve been struggling with, particularly in relation to the iranian election. and your questions at the end are almost impossible to answer!

    one further issue to the mix is that “democracy” that is being promoted is almost always in the “first past the post” format ie there is very little agitation for proportional representation, which i believe is a much better form of democracy. so another question is: if we choose democracy, then which particular form of democracy should we be choosing & which one would be most suitable for this particular country? as an example, i’ve read a suggestion (can’t remember where, sorry) that a move to democracy in saudi would best be achieved by first moving to a bicameral system similar to the house of lords thing as they had in britain.

    anyway, lots of thorny issues & no easy answers!

  2. I can only imagine that the major parties of the democratic left will support the “Good Guys”, and betray class interest, if only for domestic political considerations.
    The class subtleties have had some show on the mainstream media, (if someone mentions Twitter and Iran in the same sentence I’ll scream), but I honestly doubt that it influences to a significant degree viewers perceptions of the conflict. We see riot police beating students, and protesters being shot, and we have an emotional response.
    If the democratic left jumps to the defence of the “bad guys” they’ll be setting themselves up to be portrayed as apologists for a brutal government, and that doesn’t play well on the 6pm news.*

    *Just think of Keith Locke and the Khmer Rouge fiasco, etc.

  3. Interesting, you should read this post by Richard Seymour: A question of solidarity. It adresses this very issue.

    There has been an assumption thus far that Ahmadinejad does well among the poor and working classes, while Mousavi’s supporters are ‘middle class’. But one begins to see a problem with such terms as soon as you investigate what is meant by ‘middle class’. According to this analyst, 46% of the Iranian population is now middle class – but he defines “the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expenditures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary).” Now, if this reflects the common way in which the term is used, then marxists should be saying that what is actually happening is that large sectors of the working class backed the Mousavi camp. Indeed, we have already seen the most politicised and organised sectors in the trade union movement also back the protesters (they declined for obvious reasons to back any one candidate). So, at the very least, the lazy assumptions about the class basis of the vote and of the protests merit re-examination. In fact, the same analyst argues that a substantial layer of this supposed middle class vote comprises young unemployed people. If you’re unemployed, by my book, you probably shouldn’t be called ‘middle class’. As far as this layer goes, we’re talking about young, educated workers who are suffering in the economy and who lack the democratic right to do anything about their situation. They see no future from themselves in the current set-up. That is certainly a class grievance, but it can hardly be reduced to a petulant middle class cultural complaint – it’s not the Gucci crowd, because you can’t buy Guccis on $10 a day. While we appreciate the scepticism that some people entertain about these protests, and understand the reasons for this, the condescending claims and gratuitously nasty language about them does not bear examination. It actually redounds to the massive discredit of those using such rhetoric when the protesters are being murdered in the streets, with far less money and social power to their being than any of those who are deriding them as yuppies.

  4. Pablo,

    The place of the rural land owning poor makes my head hurt in a class analysis. On the one hand they have and exploit capital, on the other subsistence agriculture doesn’t make a profit off their capital, doesn’t employ other labour, and often requires that the land owners work elsewhere in addition.

    Can you enlighten me? Where does the rural land owning poor fit in a class analysis?

    And in the particular case of Iran, where land reforms 40+ years ago redistributed land to the working class, how does one analyse that? To what extent is class cultural and able to persist beyond a change in circumstance, and to what extent is it simply a factor of what one owns and does and is therefore able to change for a single family over night?

    Perhaps because I use identity lenses more heavily than class ones, I tend to aspects of identity in class – that they are about who you believe you are more than what you are/have. Perhaps I should get a slightly more rigourous class analysis :)

  5. My own experience in the Middle East convinced me that the Western tendency to divide the natives into “pro-Western moderates” and “religious conservatives or extremists” makes no sense to those natives, who have their own local interests bearing no relationship to Western opinion.

    Re the current situation in Iran, it may be that the regime has announced the election result it wanted without reference to the actual votes, but that isn’t at all the same thing as saying Mousavi won. I’d lay money on the educated urban types backing Mousavi not having much idea of how the rural conservatives or urban proletariat voted. We’ll never know, I guess – the govt seems entirely happy to kill as many people as it takes to remain in power, so they’ll be writing the history of what happened.

  6. On the face of things, Pablo’s question is for me an easy one: democracy should always win over class interests.

    The problem with democracy in the Middle East is that it isn’t always what we’d call democracy in the West, and that’s (part of) what makes the question complex. Middle Eastern democracies, such as they are, tend to incorporate a great deal more local culture (including religious, ethnic and historical traditions) than democracies in other regions. I had prepared some generalised comparisons of the Lebanese and Iranian electoral systems here, but on reflection I don’t think I’m qualified to make them, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that I think that due to its greater transparency the Lebanese confessional system generally passes a Western liberal-democratic sniff-test of sorts, being considered democratic on balance, while Iran’s system doesn’t. So in the case of Iran at least, it could be argued there’s been the exchange of a poor and dysfunctional democratic system for a non-democratic system which has nevertheless come around to the “right answer” from a Marxist perspective.

    Even having reflected on that, though, the answer for me is still that democracy is more important than class, even if it is an imperfect sort of democracy such as Iran’s. This should come as no great surprise to those who’ve been following my posts of late; orthodox Marxist-based analyses of class are usually a distant third for me behind traditions of liberal democracy (which I consider paramount) and dimensions of identity politics.

    So, on balance, I side with the democracy fundamentalists and with Mousavi and those who wear the green wrist-bands. The core problems here are to do with apparent abuse of political process. It doesn’t matter to me that Ahmadinejad’s allegedly-working-class supporters have gotten their way; the fact that what limited democratic control Iran’s population has had over their government has been taken away from them trumps the outcome, and that ain’t the way forward.

    Likewise in Honduras. Zelaya may have been agitating for change in an unconstitutional way, but to my mind a “technical” breach doesn’t merit military intervention absent some other real and immediate threat. Stability, or ideological motives disguised as putative majority interest, must not be allowed to take precedence over democratic integrity.


  7. Ahmadinjad may represent the poor rural workers in the personal sense that that is his own background, but he doesn’t represent them in the sense that he is carrying their aspirations and policy goals into the policy arena.

    Iran’s revolution overthrew the Shah and his cronies but it didn’t move power out of the narrow, educated elite, it simply shifted power within it. Ahmadinjad is, as far as I know, the first ruler Iran has ever had who doesn’t originate from that class.

    As such he gets enormous support from the rural class just for being one of them. This, ironically means he needs to do very little, and nothing substantial, to actually address their needs, since just by gabbing about his deprived childhood he can win their support very cheaply.

    Any class-based analysis has to acknowledge that having working class origins =/= genuinely supporting the working class. I’m sure I don’t need to cite examples. Unfortunately, even those who are moving beyond the ‘fundamentalist vs democrats’ dimension of the Iranian situation don’t seem to have taken this onboard.

  8. Thanks all, for the thought-provoking replies (and QtR for the good cite). It goes without saying that Western style conceptualisations of what is a “proper” democracy may not apply to newly democratised, non-Anglo-Saxon countries. Yet, as Latin America and Asia demonstrated over the last two decades, some universal standards on which to evaluate ‘democracy” appear to have emerged across regions.

    It also is clear that class consciousness (for better or worse) is mitigated by (non-economic forms of) identity. But there is, nevertheless, a class component to elections in these societies that all too often is deliberately downplayed by Western media outlets and analysts, a component that extends beyond the personal background of individual candidates. Thus, although I like Lew would reflexively opt for democracy over class, upon reflection I would have to consider whether the democracy in question is dominated by elite interests who control the media as well as government, thereby denying subordinate groups an authentic voice in determining their political representation (which is why I agree that parliamentary democracies are preferable over presidential democracies, and proportional representation systems preferable over first-past-the-post systems). Nevertheless, as Lenin noted, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.”

    Due to word limits in a blog post I did not mention the role of Persian nationalism and the ethnogeography of the vote (particularly in rural areas, which, to partially answer Anita’s question is a mix of small and large landholders, tenant farmers, sharecroppers and market gardeners). Nor did I give time to Lebanese civil-military relations as a reflection of the ethno-political divisions within it. These and other factors clearly mattered, but my narrow focus in this post was to briefly highlight the class dimensions involved.

  9. Pablo/Anita, you may find some analogy to the situation in Iran to Spain pre Civil War. Rural land owing poor, strong conservative religion, increasing urbanisation (but not yet a majority), new media/communication inuse, economic tension… And not to forget internal provincial rivalry

    In Spain you had overlapping interests across class and identity depending on groups personal reference point. Rural poor could support the nationalist because of conservative religious views, Urban wealthy supporting Republicans based on reformist views.

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