Eye of the Storm: 18th Tir
08 Jul 2009 14:53
The day before the Iranian election took place, a tornado swept through the landscape south of Tehran. A friend recalled to me how he watched it whirl madly as a fierce rain pelted down on cars inching towards Imam Khomeini airport, terrified of its angry and ruthless power. As the election results were announced the day after, it was as though this crazed weather pattern, the likes of which had rarely been seen around Tehran, was an omen of what was to come.
Now three weeks on, the Iranian people's fearlessness is still steadfast. Despite horrific street violence, deaths, arrests, torture and the severance of communication networks, people have still come out onto the streets where possible, organizing themselves as best they can, and coming up with innovative means of protest to exacerbate the powers that be. Their latest campaign, the boycott of SMS usage, is a witty "two fingers up" to the government's attempt at suppressing informal communication.
This social movement has captured the world's attention on a huge scale, with high-profile musicians singing tribute songs wearing touches of green, to Facebook pictures of 'Where is THEIR vote?' and Twitter clocks set to Tehran time in support of Iranian bloggers at risk of arrest. Suddenly, the human face of Iran has surfaced internationally, and for the first time it is not clad in swathes of black cloth -- it is young, savvy and framed in green, it has an opinion and rights, and the simple desire to have them respected.
Overnight a nation of terrorists have become champions for human rights, with the face of Neda as their emblem. An Iranian flying out of New York reported to me that instead of the usual suspicious looks and "random searches" at airport security, he was met with friendly concern and fellow passengers were eager to know more about Iran and what was happening there.
As the atmosphere in Iran continues to thicken, with the number of arrests rising daily, and several hangings (reportedly on the charge of having been involved in protests), everyone is looking towards the anniversary of the 1999 student uprising at Tehran University on 18th Tir (9 July). Exactly ten years ago, the students of Tehran University began to protest against the regime's policy on social freedoms. In reply, scores of Basij militia raided the university halls of residence with the sole aim of extinguishing the protest, beating students, throwing tear gas, throwing people from the third floor windows shouting 'Ya Zahra', and causing several deaths including Ezzat Ebrahim Nezhad who, much like Neda, became a symbol of injustice.
This clash created a ripple effect in which people all over Tehran came out onto the streets in support of the students who had been treated so brutally. It was only President Mohammad Khatami's promise to find and try the perpetrators of the violence that managed to quiet down the people, but again they were let down when he failed to provide evidence of a serious trial and reports of the horrific torture of imprisoned student leaders leaked into the public realm.
On June 15, the Monday after the recent election, the university of Tehran's halls of residence were raided again, but this time evidence remains in the form of videos captured on mobile phones which were shared instantly with the world, thanks to the crucial role of social networking and digital media sites. Unconfirmed reports state five deaths and a significant amount of arrests. It is clear that the government, threatened by the reams of people demonstrating in the streets, tried to frighten the masses into submission by attacking what they thought of as the seat of social upheaval. But they may have been shocked to discover that people were still willing to come out on the streets and protest again the next day, showing that the demographic reach of Iran's opposition has filtered way beyond the student community, and that people's fear of governmental retaliation is dissolving.
As of now there is information circulating via the internet in preparation for the 18th Tir anniversary. Websites and blogs have published lists of the locations in each of Iranian's main cities -- Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, etc. -- where protests are being organized. This anniversary is remembered each year, but it is loaded with a new significance this year, and with a determination to, perhaps, finish what was begun ten years ago.
18th Tir is going to be a crucial turning point in the Iranian election saga; it is likely to result in more violence and arrests, no doubt. The question that remains is what will come of another outburst? Will it boost the opposition's power in a climate where the arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi is only a clap away? Or will it push the Iranian people further towards an abyss of hopelessness and international isolation?
While the outcome is unpredictable, what is certain is that the 70% of Iranian citizens under the age of 30 are children of the revolution; the experience is in their blood. I recall a quote from a protester outside London's Iranian Embassy:
'As children of the revolution we have been conditioned to be revolutionaries. We grew up with the glorification of revolutionary songs, slogans, political graffiti, and stories of fearless characters standing up to the Shah's army to topple the regime. While these were fed to us as propaganda of the Islamic regime, what they don't realize is that they've trained us to revolt for what we believe in and now we're putting all those years of revolutionary fervour into practice. The fearlessness Iranians now show towards the police, the slogans and perseverance in pursuing their cause, are all building towards something -- we can't go back from here, only forward.'
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau