Vol. 196
Changing of the Guard

Just ask the US Congress right now: transitions of power can be commonly complicated. As we approach the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, we're dedicating this week's Field Guide to the changing of the guard around the world.  

Around the world, changing political leadership has been long fraught and frequently led to violence; it's also been an opportunity for democratic values to shine—Brazil's recent election of President Lula da Silva has been both. We examine these moments—from Burkina Faso's first free and fair elections in 2014 to the 2019 ouster of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir. In our lead story, featured in our Tehran guide, Narges Bajoghli looks at how the Basij, Iran's powerful volunteer militia in Iran, has transformed over generations. 

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"Revolutionary" Children
By Narges Bajoghli

“The only similarity between the Basij of today and the Basij of the war is that we share the same organizational name. Those in the Basij today are horrible,” Mehdi Kermani, a war veteran, former Basij and pro-regime filmmaker said to me one day as we sat in his office in Revolution Square, steps from the University of Tehran’s main campus, sipping tea. Over the years, I have interviewed numerous members of the Basij, the volunteer militia that rose up alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, across several generations. Kermani served in the Basij before going to work at the Chronicles of Victory, a prominent pro-regime media center, in 1989. He had been pushed out of the center during the second term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013). Kermani found the environment in Iran too suffocating after his 2009 suppression, and decided to leave rather than open his own production studio like some of his colleagues. He spent most of his time in Lebanon, making films with Hezbollah’s media team. He came back for short stints in Tehran to see his family and friends. “We’re all so embarrassed.” He stared off into the corner of the room, his right hand mindlessly spinning a sugar cube on the glass table, his jaw tight.

Breaking his silence, he continued, “Basijis used to stem from the people. The Imam [Khomeini] meant for us to serve the people and the nation when he created the Basij. But what they did this past summer [during the 2009 Green Movement] was disgusting. They turned everyone against us.”

“It’s so painful that people think of the Basij in negative terms now. We were created for a different purpose at the beginning of the revolution. We went to defend the country against the invading Iraqi military, not to get better jobs or get into university, like the Basij of today. Or to beat our own people, for God’s sake!”

Kermani’s cell phone rang. It was another filmmaker named Hosseini on the line, his good friend and a leader of pro-regime filmmaking in Iran. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to see if we would grab lunch with him. One of his favorite sandwich shops in the city was on the same street as Kermani’s office. We picked up our things and joined him.

Kermani filled Hosseini in on our conversation. Hosseini turned to me as he took a bite of his kabob sandwich and said, “I’m embarrassed to tell you that I don’t know what the Basij is today.” He had spent all morning in an editing room, where the filmmakers were putting the finishing touches on yet another narrative film about the ways in which the newly minted Revolutionary Guard suppressed the Kurdish uprising in 1979.

Hosseini stared off into the corner of the restaurant as he chewed on his sandwich, looking for answers about how to define an organization that he joined with conviction as a fifteen-year-old. He shook his head, as if in disbelief, before turning his attention back to his sandwich. Hosseini could no longer define the Basij, much less defend it: “During the war, everything was clear: the Basij was a training ground. But today, I honestly can’t tell you what it’s about. There is not one definition of the Basij. I guess we all believe in the Imam [Khomeini] and the revolution, but beyond that, we’re mixed. And this new generation of Basijis,” he scoffed, “forget about them.”

The younger Basijis, on the other hand, feel that their elders have sold out on the ideals of the revolution and tried to refashion themselves as the secular elite. “They used to be revolutionaries,” Ahmad, a third-generation Basiji said to me, “but they aren’t any longer. They’ve become the very people they fought against. We’re the ones who have to continue ensuring the revolution stays intact.”

Read the full story on our website.

Did You Know

In the Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most state of India, election pollsters have to walk between six and 28 miles to conduct polls at the district’s nine polling stations. According to Chawm Ganguly, a communications strategist in India, “Such is the effort put in by the administration to enable every eligible elector to exercise his/her democratic right to vote.”

Citizens of Burkina Faso in West Africa had their first free and fair elections in 2015. The New York Times reported that people poured onto the streets of its capital Ouagadougou, while its new president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, elected out of a field of 14, “vowed to get to work immediately ‘to open up the opportunities for a better tomorrow’.”

Did You Know

Mass protests in the spring of 2019 in Sudan, which resulted in the ousting of longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir, began in December with high school students demonstrating against austerity measures and the steep rise in the cost of bread. Security forces responded with violence and Bashir's government clamped down on social media platforms. But on April 11, he was removed in a military coup after 30 years in power. Ironically, he had assumed the presidency after instigating his own coup d'état in 1989.


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That laws of history tell us that only when the old is gone can the new take its place. Now that the old is gone, the people have been anxiously waiting to see what the new will bring; gods never betray the faithful, they thought. But what they've long awaited is none other than a grandiose promise called the Four Modernizations. Our wise leader, Chairman Hua Guofeng, along with Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, whom many consider even wiser and grander, have finally crushed the Gang of Four. There is now the possibility that those brave souls whose blood flowed over Tiananmen Square might have their dreams of democracy and prosperity realized.

Wei Jingsheng, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings

Everything teaches transition, transference, metamorphosis: therein is human power, in transference, not in creation; & therein is human destiny, not in longevity but in removal. We dive & reappear in new places.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Photo illustration, Photographs from Prokudin-Gorski
Library of Congress

(Alexei Navalny)
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(Democracy's Optimism)
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