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Opinion

Spontaneous courage
New signs in the nature of protests

By Shahla Azizi
June 23, 2003
The Iranian

TEHRAN -- For more than a week Iran has witnessed the most widespread protests by students in the past four years. The 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 regime. 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 uprising.

Once again the regime blames the U.S. for homegrown problems. Both Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Council of Expediency, and 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 it.

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 the streets.

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.

The government 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 clerics.

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 very organ that first breathed life into it.

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