Although before June 18, 2021, Iran had experienced twelve other presidential elections during the four decades of the Islamic Republic, what happened that Friday was so different, so unique that showed us a deep cut in history and marked a turning point for us rather than the thirteenth election.
Not because the number of presidential candidates registered this year was much lower than previous terms, not because only seven of them passed the Guardian Council filter, which was no different than previous terms, not because of the vast and obvious manipulation that was done through disqualification of candidates, which was also nothing new, but because of the people’s lack of attention to these constant events, the constant distractions, the forever-faces and staging in the election process, that made this period a completely different phenomenon.
Not because of the declining participation rate, but because of the widespread lack of participation, which was undeniable. Not because of the small number of people who went to the polls, but because of the millions who did not.
In the last days before the election, many officials connected the legitimacy of the regime to the election turnout, Khamenei ordered participation as an objective obligation (made it a religious ruling), and forbade white and invalid votes; Alamol-Hoda declared those who do not participate in the elections as infidels, and it was Kayhan who summed up all these sharp and aggressive positions in “the 1400 (2021) elections are in fact a referendum.”
And the absolute majority of the people voted “no”, no to the Islamic Republic.
What set this election apart from the previous twelve was its boycott by the people, not the intensity of the officials’ statements. The same big “no” that symbolized the denial of the system in the “No to the Islamic Republic” (#NO2IR, #نه_به_جمهوری_اسلامی) campaign. The campaign was a negative struggle, a disobedience, a non-participation, a negative participation – the presence of people who were absent. And the world saw that people are not present. The world saw their “Absence”. Reported and reflected in all media. The indicator that makes the “paradigmatic case” for the June 18 incident, is the negative state of participation. The “absence” that created a huge gravity was not limited to the society, and indeed its most legendary image happened to be revealed in Khamenei’s character at the highest level of government, 10 days after the “voting” ritual / propaganda, during a speech on June 28.
Khamenei fell into tautology that day: “This election was truly and fairly epic; this election was, in the true sense of the word, epic of the people who created the epic.” He speaks of an epic that “did not exist,” and since there was no epic, he repeated it three times in one sentence to make his proposition empty of meaning and to resemble a mantra, so that perhaps an epic would arise from its repetition. That day, Khamenei appeared and spoke of participation, which was non-participation: “People come to the field, line up early in the morning and cast their ballots, and their motivational statements are broadcast on TV that one watches, what are these?” He spoke of the people who did not come, the pictures of the people who did not come were spread by the international independent media, the citizen journalists had recorded the “non-appearance” of people from thousand corners of the country with their cell phones and shared on social media; Khamenei spoke of a field that was empty, of a morning that people had stayed at homes, and because there was no queue for government propaganda cameras, they opened polling stations a few hours later than announced, but still no queue was formed. He was proud of people’s invalid votes, proud of a motive that people did not have any more, and used it in “free tribunes” to shout the name of Navid Afkari, victims of the bloody November, IRGC missiles fired at 176 passengers of the Ukrainian airplane and protesting poverty, corruption, Vilayat-e Faqih (the Supreme Leader),…. Everyone saw that day, Khamenei appeared in front of cameras in new clothes and showed off – but he was not wearing any clothes that day.
Emperor’s New Clothes
Even the most authoritarian and repressive regimes, their political system is not just made of authority alone. Since the norms of governance do not have a physical presence in all moments and parts of citizens’ social life, their existence must be embodied and transformed into social habits and behaviors by members of society, in the very areas and moments of life in which these norms are absent, so the government be able to rule. No government can rule without embodying the presence of its rulings in the minds of the people in the society under its rule. In a simpler note: The ruler, in order to rule, must also rule inside the subordinate’s mind in order to rule over his body and to control and dominate his actions and his “physical presence” in society. This visual / imaginative aspect of governance is very vividly preserved in the fairy tale of the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s “New Emperor’s Clothes”. The “New Emperor’s Clothes” is so well known that there is no need to repeat it here. The events of Andersen’s story are divided into two parts: the first part, which begins with the introduction of the narcissistic and ostensible character of the emperor and continues with the weaving of a clothes for the king’s robe that no one sees but everyone pretends to see and praises the beauty of what does not exist. After the emperor’s clothes is sewed that does not exist and the he wears what is not there, the story approaches to the point when he appears in his new clothes, the garment that is not there, among the people of the street and a child who suddenly cries out for the emperor’s nakedness: “But he has no clothes on”. It creates a turn in the tale, a deep cut in the events and a turning point in the story, after which everything changes at once. The second part of the story is very short. From there to the end point of the fairy tale, there are only a few more sentences. As soon as the child points out the “non-existence” of what others could see too, but pretended otherwise, there is a whisper among people that turns into a commotion at a moment, and everyone shouts the child’s sentence: “But he has no clothes on.”
Disenchantment of Tyranny
In the first part of the story, all characters, from the emperor to the ordinary citizens, despite their better judgement that there is no cloth or clothes, praise and admire the beauty of something that does not exist. The emperor calls it glorious. The emperor’s trusted ministers admire the new dress, the courtiers exaggerate, and the people of the street speak of its elegance and uniqueness. In the first part of the story, sovereignty is balanced and “works” both in the physical world and in the public mind. There is no difference or inequality between the imagination and the behavior and speech of the ruler and those around him and the people under his rule. The first part of the story depicts a phenomenon that Michel Foucault calls the “microphysics of power” in “Discipline and Punish”; a phenomenon that defines power not as a “property,” not as something that can be appropriated by a particular individual or entity, but as a set of strategies, discourses, techniques, and relationships, in a seemingly fragmented and incoherent way. The apparatuses and institutions of state, even the state itself, are derived from the very microphysics of power, which they apply it and appeal to it. In the “microphysics of power” the most fundamental particle, which in itself is a perfect embodiment of sovereignty and domination, is a construct called the “soul”: “The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”  In these lines of “Discipline and Punish”, the mechanism of the sovereignty and the “magic” that creates the non-existent emperor’s clothes is revealed. Like a children’s illustration book, the story suddenly takes on color and shape. Suddenly, the spell by which a dictatorial system that oppresses its people, tortures them, imprisons them, executes them, and plunders their wealth, survives and the people who nevertheless submit to the laws and rules of the same system, go to the “elections” polls for four decades which are considered “Obeying the Holy Order” and “Covenant with the Ideals of the Supreme Leader” is demystified. The spell by which Khomeini, a person whose ignorance and prejudice rains down from his thoughts, words, face, life and all his written works, but by his disciples and spelled people was considered a “charismatic” figure, a divine wiseman, the Supreme Leader, and was likened to the Imam, to all that he was not and did not have, is broken at once.
“But he has no clothes on” is the simple formula of change in the microphysics of power, the elixir of “civil disobedience”, the meaning of “no to the Islamic Republic” and “vote, no vote”, upsetting the balance of power, is the beginning of the second and final part of the story. The point at which the emperor’s dress, as the critical school would say, is “disenchanted.” June 18, 2021, was the day of “disenchantment of tyranny.” The day when everyone expressed what they had seen for years and acted the opposite of it, like the enchanted: “The Islamic Republic is not my choice” and when Khamenei came and calculated the “invalid votes”, everyone saw that “he has no clothes on.”
This historical moment itself is nothing short of fairy tales. In a letter to his friend Max Brod, Franz Kafka explicitly depicts this moment in the words of Soren Kierkegaard: “But as soon as a man comes along who brings a primitivity with him, so that he does not say that one takes the world as it is but says: Whatever the world may be, I relate to an original principle which I do not intend to change at the world’s discretion — the moment this word is heard, a metamorphosis takes place in the whole of life. Just as in the fairy tale when the word is spoken and the castle which has been under a spell for a hundred years opens up and everything comes alive, just so life becomes sheer awareness. Angels get busy, watch curiously to see what will come of it, for this interests them. On the other hand, the somber, grumbling demons, proper limbs of the devil, who for a long time have been sitting inactive and chewing their fingernails, leap to their feet for here is something to do, they say, and they have waited a long time for that.”
Following the appearance of Khamenei in his new clothes on June 28, statements were made by a number of regime officials and affiliates in continuation of pre-election eulogies and praise for the “legitimacy of the Supreme Leader’s clothes,” such as:
“The enthusiastic presence of the people in the elections is a manifestation of national dignity.”
“The honorable people of Iran showed their intelligence and insight in the elections”,
“The presence of the people in the elections was a manifestation of the brilliance of the Republic of the Islamic Republic”,
“People ended the argument against the officials with maximum participation in the elections”,
“Participation in the elections was another response to the Supreme Leader’s call by people”,
“People responded positively to the heavenly call of the leadership in the elections.”
The fairy tale of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” ends with these words:
“The whole town cried out, ‘He has no clothes on!’ The emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So, he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”
Translation of this article by Sahar.
1- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
2- Kafka, Franz. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Trans. Brod, Max, Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991. Print.