On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from the Iranian city of Saqez, died in police custody after being apprehended and brutally beaten by the notorious morality police, who accused her of wearing her hijab incorrectly. News of Amini’s death spread rapidly across social media, sparking demonstrations that spread to dozens of cities across Iran with calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic.
Millions of Iranians, led by the country’s vibrant and restless youth, saw themselves in Amini — one of the latest victims of an oppressive, autocratic regime that many view as a central source of Iran’s economic and social hardships, alongside crippling American sanctions. But the response by Iranian authorities has been swift and severe, with at least 320 people killed so far in the ongoing crackdown.
The scenes emerging from Iran today elicit a mix of reactions across a region still reeling from the dark legacy of the “Arab Spring,” which itself came on the heels of the “Green Movement” protests in the wake of Iran’s 2009 presidential election. Many Arabs cannot help but recall the sense of hope that reverberated from Tunisia to Yemen, only to be shattered by unyielding repression, war, and the resurgence of authoritarianism. Subsequent protest waves, including those that began in 2019 in Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan, were similarly met with brutality, co-optation, and dissolution.
Despite this record, more recent popular uprisings — including Palestine’s 2021 Unity Intifada and the current demonstrations in Iran — have been accompanied by the phrase “this time is different.” But can this time really be different?
Over a decade on from the Arab uprisings, the path toward democracy and freedom for youth across the Middle East has become more treacherous than ever, as liberation movements find themselves fighting against stronger, smarter, and more entrenched regimes that have adapted to modern challenges to their domination.
Indeed, accumulated experience has enabled authoritarian governments to perfect their divide-and-conquer tactics. Technologies that many hoped would help to evade state censorship and facilitate mobilization have been co-opted as repressive surveillance tools. Autocrats are capitalizing on great power competition to entrench their rule without fear of being held accountable for human rights violations. And many of the region’s youth have become immobilized by revolutionary fatigue left by the tragic, violent trauma of the Arab Spring’s aftermath. These obstacles need to be reckoned with if the people of the region are to have a real chance at affecting revolutionary change — otherwise, they too may be doomed to fail.