New signs in the nature of protests
By Shahla Azizi
June 23, 2003
TEHRAN -- For more than a week Iran has witnessed
the most widespread protests by students in the past four years.
protests began with demonstrations
against privatization of universities but soon turned anti-clerical.
The demonstrations come as a precursor to the July 9th anniversary
of the student uprising four years ago that was violently suppressed
by government backed vigilantes.
These protests are different from those of a few
years back in many ways. First and foremost the people have lost
hope in President
Khatami and the reformists who did nothing to protect them the
last time around. Both the popularly elected President and reformist
members of parliament are now seen as either incredibly impotent
or as virtual collaborators. The increasing frustration of the
majority of the population is expressed through the different tone
that these protests have taken.
The students, backed by ordinary people in the streets,
are no longer asking for reform but for the removal of the clerical
They are chanting “death to Khamenei,” the Supreme
Leader, which is by law a treasonous act. What makes these protests
more serious than those of a few months ago in support of Aghajari,
a professor who had been condemned to death for speaking against
the regime, is that even after thinly veiled threats of use of
force by Khamenei, they have continued.
There are reports of many
having been wounded and a few killed by Bassiji vigilante forces,
but no sign of the protests slowing down. Also, the protests have
now spilled into more areas than the streets around Tehran University.
There are rumors that the youth of Naziabad, one of the poorest
and traditionally most religious sections of Tehran, have extended
their support to the students and offered to do the dirty fighting
for them. Even in the well-to-do northern residential areas of
town young and old have taken to the streets in support of the
Once again the regime blames the U.S. for homegrown
problems. Both Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Council of
Khamenei have accused the U.S. of agitating and meddling in Iranian
affairs. The chief of police, Baqer Qalibaf, claimed on Sunday
that no students had been arrested -- only U.S. backed “hooligans” who
have infiltrated student ranks.
The speaker of the Majlis, Mehdi
Karrubi, defensively claimed on Sunday, “We already have
democracy in Iran. The national elections are symbols of democracy
in the country.” He even went as far as to remind people
of the 1953 U.S. backed coup that brought the Shah back to power,
claiming that American-style democracy is not what Iranians need.
But anti-Americanism here is staid. Tired of theocratic
hard-line rule, the people are happy to get whatever help they
can from abroad.
The opposition radio and satellite television are widely used even
in the poorer sections of Tehran. Accusations of American backing
actually have given courage to the demonstrators. Unlike the streets
of Paris, Berlin or Berkeley, anti-Americanism is not fashionable
in Tehran. The regime, having adopted it for the past twenty-five
years since the Islamic Revolution, has beaten the life out of
People are encouraged by the presence of U.S. in both the East
(Afghanistan) and the West (Iraq) of Iran. The influence of opposition
media from abroad cannot be under-estimated. But the accusations
of American meddling are exaggerated and betray a certain helplessness
on the part of the rulers in the face of their mounting unpopularity.
This is a spontaneous uprising coming from the university and spreading
out. It is an uprising that is unorganized, without leadership
or ideology. A massive protest that comes from the deep discontent
and frustration of a people tired of being bullied.
This is an
indigenous movement of a youth who wants individual freedom and
who has finally mustered enough courage to stand up and face the
knives, clubs and guns of government thugs. It is exactly the improvisational
nature of the uprising that gives it weight -- it is difficult
for the regime to paint it as anything but genuine and indigenous.
There are no leaders to assassinate or arrest and no ideology to
detract - only an ever-growing frustration that has spilled into
Can the uprising keep enough momentum to topple
the regime? This is the question that is now on everyone’s mind. Several factors
are crucial to the success of this uprising. One is that international
pressure has to be strong enough to keep the regime from shedding
too much blood. Protesters hugely welcomed remarks made by George
Bush that Iran should free imprisoned demonstrators.
uses the plain clothes thugs as scapegoats, even claiming that
it has arrested some, but the students claim that they have found
security forces I.D.’s on the ones they have captured. No
one in Iran considers them anything but servants of the hard-line
Another key factor to the success of the uprising
is if and when it spills over and instigates widespread strikes
by industrial workers
and the bazaar. The bazaar played a key role in the over-throw
of the Shah in 1979 and in bringing Khomeini to power. If the
bazaar supports the uprising then the regime will have lost the
that first breathed life into it.
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