Although the council of elders in ancient Mesopotamia is cited as a form of primitive republic, the Roman Republic is considered the first real republic. However, the modern republic was born in 1789 in Paris. The French Republic heralded a new political era. It proclaimed the birth of a political era beyond the days of empires, princedoms, feudal lords, monarchies, emirates and sultanates. Before long, the whole world had either waged war against that republic or strived to attain it. Revolutions, riots and rebellions followed one after another, all seeking to enter the new political era. Ideals, ideologies, organizations and intellectuals emerged for the new worldview of the republic. Based on a nationalist worldview, a republic had become the fundamental form of government for nation-states. Hence, a political order founded on civil rights, opposition, elections, constitutional order and parliament arose.
A century later, a bigger and different republic was born, this time in Moscow. It was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ideals of a socialist republic reverberated throughout a huge region. It was a form of republic that existed within communism. Hence, it was collectivist. It did not recognize citizens individually. Instead, all citizens were combined into a single citizen. As all citizens became a single one, a single party came to represent the politics of all. The Communist Party took away citizens’ individual freedoms through collective citizenship. The republic merged with the totality of people. With Zedong’s revolution, the People’s Republic of China was also born into communism.
The Ottoman Empire was hesitant of the idea of a republic at first. After a short while, however, it became one of the first entities to recognize the French Republic. It was impressed by the politics emanating from the Great Revolution. Intellectuals turned to it for salvation. Parliament, a constitution and civil rights were adopted one by one. In a sense, Ottomans tried to cope with the emerging republic by assimilating it. The Republic of Turkey replaced the Ottoman Empire as it collapsed. That republic was based on an understanding of nation-state. It talked about citizens, constitution and parliament. But its people were an integrated mass without class privileges and class distinctions. Citizenship had no individual significance. Over time, however, the Republic of Turkey had redefined itself through various openings.
Middle Eastern republics
Beginning with the early 1950s, many republics were established in the Middle East. Most of them were born out of military coups. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the kingdom and replaced it with the Arab Republic of Egypt. In Iraq, the Arab Republic of Iraq was founded. And in Syria, the Syrian Arab Republic was established. In all these republics, there were neither citizens nor civil rights. There was no place for political opposition in these one-party states. The people were embodied in a single party and singe leader collectively. By the mid-1970s, the failure of these republics became evident and Islamic movements began to appear as alternatives. A new republic was born this time in an unexpected place, Iran, with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Emerging in 1979, the Islamic Republic represented the third important political change in the modern era. The first was the nation-state based on the French Republic, the second was the communist Soviet Union, and the third was the religion-based Islamic Republic. All three had replaced centuries-old ancient orders. The first two republics had ended the tradition of kingdoms and the last one, similarly, the rule of shahs. Persian political tradition had been scrapped, but re-emerged in a new body politic.
Actually, the Islamic Republic of Iran is an imamate republic since the tradition of Imamat dominates its fundamental political principles and authority. In this respect, it diverges from modern Republican politics in the West. It is theological in nature, not secular. Also, it takes legitimacy not from the people, but the imamate theology. People served only as an instrument of mass mobilization that toppled the shah and facilitated the establishment of the republic. Similar to the socialist republic, it perceives the people as a whole and does not enable modern citizenship. In accordance with Shiite theology, society, the people, or ummah, do not have a sociological existence in regard to political legitimacy. Shiite imamate theology espouses the principle of the innocent imam.
Accordingly, it designs politics from top to bottom in a totalitarian manner. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of “welayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the Islamic jurists) modified the view on the expected innocent imam. Hence, until the coming of the expected Mahdi, someone rules as a proxy for him. This imam does not rely on popular elections or the people’s allegiance. His political superiority is independent of and beyond the people. There is no boundary between religion and politics. He always has the last say over both worldly and spiritual issues. He is the supreme authority, the guide of the revolution. The Council of Guardians of the Constitution is subordinate to him. Again, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps report directly to him.
If any difference of opinion arises between political parties, the elected president and the supreme leader, the ultimate decision rests with the latter. Indeed, we see it in various instances in the history of revolutionary Iran. Movements that are at odds with the Imamate or offer an alternative to it are immediately excluded and face various interventions. The removal and government monitoring of former President Mohammad Khatami, who served in the early 2000s, along with other elected political leaders, demonstrates this. Several legal and extra-legal groups and organizations affiliated with the imamate exert pressure on and isolate political opponents when needed.
The main reason why protests break out in Iran is that the imamate republic does not allow political participation and interprets the executive and legislative powers in a religious context, making them subordinate to the imamate. The revolution, which had cooled first and then further stiffened later to become more rigid, took on a fanatical and oppressive character. Significant revolts erupted in 2009 against this rigid structure that excludes political participation, but were subsequently suppressed. The protests that broke out recently were more disorganized and apolitical in nature. But this time, the people spontaneously rose up due to poverty and lack of political channels for representation and redistribution of wealth.
Due to the lack of democratic culture in the Middle East, Arab republics hinder political participation, transparency and civil rights, causing various revolts from time to time. The imamate republic in Iran is similar in this respect. Just as Republican politics centered on a putschist general ignores the voices, difference and representation of social segments, the imamate republic does the same. That the imamate republic also pretends to rule in the name of God only causes more serious trouble. Unless it achieves the flexibility to move from Shiite political theology to Sunni political theology, it seems hard for the imamate republic to get rid of this rigid political structure.
* Professor, Marmara University