A political tremor
Apr 7th 2004 | BAM
From The Economist print edition
The hopeful consequences of real democracy in Bam
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BEHIND the dark clouds, a glimmer of hope. Last week, the mayor of Bam confessed to aid workers that Iran's government had done a rotten job of helping survivors of the earthquake that razed his city in December. Surprise at the mayor's candour turned to delight at the prospect of local democracy when a well-knownsociologist, Siyamak Zand- Razavi, stood up to announce an earthquake of his own. For the authorities are supporting his proposal that the survivors should elect petitioners to present their concerns to the government. The authorities hopethis will prevent a recurrence of last month's rioting, when buildings were gutted and police fired on demonstrators. For his part, Mr Zand-Razavi is attacking the secrecy and paternalism that have made Bam a byword for official
Most of the people in the tens of thousands of tents that line the roads and fill the empty spaces of the shattered city are jobless and glum. Not long agothey regarded the government's main relief agencies as their saviour; now they curse it. UN people rue the government's failure to communicate with the people. From the beginning, government officials neglected to impress on the survivors that most of the almost $500m pledged by foreign donors would come, not in the
form of handouts to the needy, but as help towards rebuilding. More recently, the Iranian authorities promised to provide temporary houses for all by April 5th, yet only a few have been built.
Squabbling between different departments has contributed to the gloom. It took an unseemly public outburst in March before Iran's Red Crescent Society secured nearly $2m of international aid that the foreign ministry had received but
seemed reluctant to hand over. Most survivors believe that powerful institutions have pilfered the juiciest aid.
Behind the disquiet is a collision between two cultures: Iran's nanny state, which resents foreigners, and the freewheeling agencies that disburse international aid. Yaqoub Derijani, a Bam councillor, blames foreign organisations for raising expectations and causing a "division between peopleand the state". The truth is that sustained scrutiny has highlighted Iran's crippling insularity. Many more temporary houses would have been built, were it
not for the authorities' insistence that Iranian firms should build them. Mindful of its obligations to Iran, the UN is said to have earmarked as much as $1m for the government's efforts to reunify families split up in the quake's
chaos, yet UN workers on the ground are quietly seeking out non-governmental outfits better able to do the job.
Despite misgivings, the authorities have had to tolerate unprecedented outside interference. The UN is using school reconstruction as a pretext for modernising teaching methods. The government is being obliged to stifle its ingrained
hostility to independent do-gooding bodies, whether foreign or local.
By the end of this year, Mr Zand-Razavi predicts, Bam will have enshrined popular participation as never before in Iran. It will have two representatives, a man and a woman, for every 30-40 households, plus an operating staff of 120
for the town. Bam's representatives may be the only elected Iranians to escape verification for their loyalty to revolutionary tenets, a process that led to the disqualification of over 4,000 candidates in February's general election. The possible consequences of more democracy in Bam have not been lost on the old
guard of revolutionaries. More reverberations may be expected.