Why Iran's absentee voters will probably remain absent during Friday's election

Update: Though the Interests Section said in an email that a voting booth would be available at the UN mission, voting in New York will actually being take place at the Imam Ali Mosque (Razi School) in Woodside, Queens. For an updated list of voting locations, see this map.

On Friday, Iranians will take to the polls to choose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's successor. For some, the election was over before it began when, last month, the Islamic Guardian Council excluded the participation of the two candidates who held the most possibility for change -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Brian Murphey, reporting for the AP, paints an elucidating juxtaposition between the vibrant political scene surrounding 2009's Green Movement when " four years ago, girls on rollerblades sped around [Tehran's Melhat] park delivering fliers for the reform camp's candidate-hero Mir Hossein Mousavi" and the current state of affairs where "there are just a few subdued election placards for candidates considered fully in sync with Iran's ruling clerics."

But we need not look as far as Tehran to get a feel for how different things are this time around. As Iranians in the country gear up to vote, Iranian voters in the United States are making significantly less noise about casting absentee ballots as compared to 2009.

Four years ago, Iranian Americans took to the polls in record numbers. Energized by the candidacy of Moussavi, 41 polling stations in the United States were staffed by volunteers who encouraged voting as a political gesture against the establishment. The U.S. Department of State even weighed in with a gushing report on Iranians in the United States contributing to the vote. Quoting then State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, the article pronounces that the United States "is 'always encouraged' by free and lawful expression."

"I remember a lot of hullabaloo about absentee voting in 2009, and a lot of people -- particularly to compare it to years past -- did participate in voting in the United States," says Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council. He admits his own father, who had never voted before in his life, even turned up to cast a ballot. "They wanted to get Ahmadinejad out of power. It turns out their voting didn't matter."

Four years later, the effects of 2009 do seem to be playing out among U.S. absentee voters. According to Iran's permanent ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, there will be half the number of polling stations available in the United States. And as of Wednesday, the Iranian Interests Section -- which functions in Washington in lieu of a formal embassy -- has confirmed the location of two of these: one at their own office in D.C. and another through the U.N. Mission in New York. According to the Interests Section's website, more places will be made available, though their precise locations are to be determined. Part of the logistical difficulty is that, due to the absence of Iranian diplomats in the United States, volunteers typically staff polling stations. According to Marashi, they may be less inspired to participate in this year's presidential election.

Iran boasts a unique approach to absentee voting. Rather than having voters mail in ballots, citizens are required to show up at designated polling stations in person with an Iranian Passport and cast their votes -- a system that is proving challenging elsewhere as well. In Syria, for example, Iran has taken pains to enable its citizens to vote in the beleaguered country, setting up a station at the embassy as well as two mobile ballot boxes. Meanwhile Canada -- which severed diplomatic relations with Tehran last year -- has found itself locked in a blame game with the country over its own absentee voters. Tehran accuses Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government of failing to cooperate with Iranian efforts to set up polling stations in Canada, while Canada's foreign minister, John Baird, charges Iran with dropping the ball on the necessary arrangements, saying such "sidelining of the sizable Iranian diaspora in Canada ... makes this upcoming election even more of a sham."

While the United States has not taken any ostensible steps to discourage voting, some Iranian Americans have rejected the election on their own. "I don't think many Iranians will vote this time because a lot of Iranians are boycotting the election," says Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Rutgers professor and founder of the American Iranian Council, who made headlines this year with his own quixotic bid for president. He acknowledges that while there are certainly those in the United States who support the religious establishment, they do not make up the majority of the roughly one million Iranians who reside in the United States.

Compared to 2009, Iranians might feel they don't have a viable candidate. "Over the past four years, the range of political views has systematically shrunk," Marashi says. While Hassan Rowhani -- the country's former nuclear negotiator -- has came out strong among liberals after the debates, garnering the support of reformist figures like the disqualified Rasfanjani, he still does not represent the level of departure held by the 2009 opposition. "If you were to compare it to a color scale," Marashi explains, "prior to 2009 it was light gray to pitch black. Now it's dark gray to pitch black. There's not a lot of diversity of views around that table. In the bigger scheme of things, who's the anti-establishment candidate? There really isn't one." 

But even for those in the United States who may want to vote, the experience of 2009 holds another lesson. Though an admittedly less-than-definitive source, a small glimpse into voter attitudes can be seen in this Reddit thread (because, yes, there's a Reddit thread for everything) about voting as an Iranian-American. While some users reflect interest in participating in the process for "symbolic" reasons, others voice skepticism as to whether absentee votes are even tallied. As one user advises: "You can vote, but don't. It's not like it's gonna get counted."    

Marya Hannun is a freelance journalist and PhD student in Georgetown's Islamic Studies program.



Libyans to militias: "Get lost."

The people of Benghazi have a clear message to armed militias: "You are no longer welcome in this city."

This weekend, over 31 people died and more than 100 were wounded during clashes in Benghazi between protesters and the militias paid by the government to act as a reserve security force. The militias have assumed a self-appointed role as the country's peacekeepers while wreaking havoc in their own quest for power. This incident will only further incense Libyans who have been forced to endure rule by militias for more than two years while the country's military is being rebuilt.

The unique arrangement came from the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, which led to a security vacuum. In the environment of extreme instability, armed militias were able to operate outside the law and even run their own parallel justice system where citizens could be detained in illegal prisons, tortured, and sometimes even killed. Some members were part of the revolutionary forces fighting Qaddafi, but enlistment surged as unemployed and uneducated young people and ex-criminals started joining ranks.

The government has done little to quell the growing influence of armed groups. Many Libyans have criticized it for providing financial and legal backing while marginalizing the professional standing army and police forces. For reasons many don't pretend to understand, militias are afforded better equipment and higher salaries despite the fact that they don't obey orders, break the law on a daily basis, and are generally considered a prime cause of the lawlessness pervading the country.

After months of growing frustration, hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday outside the headquarters of the Libya Shield militia brigade (one of the most powerful government-sanctioned groups), demanding that it be disbanded and removed from the residential area. As the violence started to intensify and the militias pushed back, Defence Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi ordered the army Special Forces unit to intervene and stabilize the situation. Army chief of staff, Youssef al-Mangoush, who is a frequent target of public ire, resigned the following day.

This is not the first time that militias have fired on anti-militia protesters. In September 2012, protesters stormed a militia compound in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate. In response, militias fired back, killing 11 and injuring more than 70. Despite claims by Libya Shield and their backers that these militias are actually a legitimate force sanctioned by the government, the reality is that rarely obey the authorities' orders. Their main loyalty is to their commanders and their political backers, above all the Islamist movements and the Islamist bloc within the General National Congress (GNC).

During a GNC session convened to discuss the killings the day before, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the army chief both stressed that Libya Shield does not always follow the government's instructions. Members of Libya Shield and other affiliated militiamen besieged government ministries in Tripoli for more than two weeks last month to force their will on the national assembly and pressure them to pass the controversial isolation law.

The message from the militias is clear: "We're the only army and police that Libyan government can rely on. Support us or else." But the reality on the ground shows something completely different. The deployment of members of the Special Forces Unit (a 16,000-strong professional army unit) in Benghazi to improve security has been welcomed by the people of the city. As expected, militia leaders aren't happy with the apparent success of the Special Forces Unit.

Any decision on disbanding these pseudo-armies can only be taken by the General National Congress (GNC). Unfortunately, the political commitment of GNC members is increasingly questionable amid the ongoing political infighting among various narrow-minded interests. This infighting is causing rising frustration among political parties that are accused of working for their own interests and not for those of nation. Many believe that some factions have benefitted from militia violence in order to secure political gains.

Urged on by the growing outcry, the GNC passed a resolution on Sunday urging the government to take "all necessary measures to stop the presence of unauthorized armed groups." It also called for Prime Minister Zeidan and his government to come up with a plan for integrating former rebel fighters into the army.

However, the families of the recent victims in Benghazi criticized the GNC statement. The families called the resolution weak, and demanded that the government and GNC openly name the groups that are hindering efforts to rebuild the national army and police forces. In addition, the families urged the government to stop issuing payments to "legitimate militias" that have, for the second time, killed large numbers of Benghazi residents.

The security situation in Libya and the rebuilding of the army and police have become a political circus between the different political forces in Libya and the national interest has become secondary in this political infighting over control.

Many Libyans like me are frustrated at the fact that the militia card is being used as a political bargaining chip with complete disregard for the national interests of the nation. The lack of a united political will towards the existence of militias by our politicians is the main obstacle in the way of disbanding militias and the rebuilding of proper army and police force. Tension is growing by the day, and frustration is building. Politicians need to pay more attention to the people's demands and stop backing armed groups pursuing narrow-minded political interests.    

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.