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Tehran's Annus Mirabilis

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

29 Mar 2010 23:405 Comments
hollywood.jpg[ comment ] The stunning birth and flowering of Iran's democratic movement this past year has largely been the work of Tehran's courageous residents. These battle-weary street fighters are now taking a well-deserved vacation from politics during the holiday season of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. They have been joined in this by many a regime supporter, creating a curious union. For the first time in memory, Tehran is emptied of its inhabitants.

Come each Nowruz, millions of Tehranis, poor and rich, take to the roads, escaping from the drudgery and grinding tedium of life in the capital. Officially, over half the city usually leaves in the days after Nowruz. It isn't hard to see why. A large percentage of the capital's residents come from other parts of the country. They take advantage of the two-week holiday to flock back to their hometowns and villages. Many others among the capital's middle and upper classes also routinely take advantage of the holidays to visit the country's tourist attractions or to take repose in the countryside.

But this year was an altogether different affair. Even a cursory survey of the capital's densely populated residential sectors showed that as many as 80 percent of the inhabitants had left their homes during the first week of the holidays. As of today, March 29, Tehran remains blissfully quiet and serene, almost like a quaint small town in the provinces. This is partly attributable to a new national trend. This past Saturday, March 27, the government announced that the number of out-of-town Nowruz trips nationwide was up a remarkable 20 percent over last year. Clearly, the economic and political crises are taking a toll on everyone. But Tehran clearly far surpassed the 20 percent increase registered by the country as a whole. "We are dealing with a mass exodus, not a simple holiday excursion," said a University of Tehran academic to Tehran Bureau.

Exhausted Street Warriors

This mass exodus is clearly tied to what sociologists call "battle fatigue." Anyone who has attended one of the several rallies and marches in the last few months could testify that, along with the thrill and catharsis of confronting the dictatorship, there is concurrently a great deal of stress. Even the most peaceful mass event of the year, the June 15 march to Azadi Square involving more than 2 million people, ended in bloody skirmishes, half a dozen deaths, and the arrests of a couple of hundred marchers. Every protester -- male, female, devout, atheist, young, infirm, or elderly -- knows that arrest likely means intense interrogation, beatings, and worse. Even the occasional nightly Allah o Akbars now involve a certain degree of risk.

Even many of those who do not attend the protest actions are indirectly affected by the trauma. Everyone knows someone else who has been arrested or tortured or still languishes in jail.

While a good portion of the protesters have been young and middle class, a look at the backgrounds of those killed in the streets or the prisons shows that they come from different age groups and various socioeconomic backgrounds. Every parent whose child has been involved with the democratic movement can recount countless nerve-racking stories of waiting impatiently at the door or jumping each time the telephone rings. In sum, a large portion of the citizenry has suffered psychologically from the ongoing strain one way or other. Yet the protests continue.

It is a tribute to the tenacity and courage of the protesters that the movement is still strong and vibrant, particularly given the brutality of the regime and its readiness to make good on its threats of violence. In fact, despite the disappointment of 22 Bahman (February 11), an informal survey of the Greens shows that few seem to be ready to give up the fight and pack it in.

It is reasonable to conclude that this year's mass flight from Tehran represents no more than a breather, a temporary lull before the next round of battles, and not a weakening of resolve and determination.

Weary Soldiers of the Faith

Interestingly, it isn't just the Greens and their supporters who have been exhausted by the events of the past few months. The regime's forces and its supporters are equally, though differently, affected by the ongoing tumult. It may seem bizarre to see battle weariness among the fanatical security forces and plainclothes vigilantes who cite faith as their motivation, but that's exactly what has developed.

True, wielding a club and being on its receiving end are totally different experiences. But the regime's forces have never previously had to deal with anything close to the events that have followed last June's election. To brutalize members of small political or ethnic groups is one thing; to beat the sense out of perfectly ordinary, unarmed, peaceful civilians is another. We are clearly witnessing the beginnings of an ideological crisis within the regime.

As many observers have noted, much of the regime's resiliency has rested on the notion that it is the undisputed champion of the weak and the innocent against the forces of tyranny and injustice. But the stream of propaganda that claims the protesters are the tools of foreigners has had only limited impact. And the regime's club-wielding vigilantes and interrogator/torturers can handle only so many cases per week. They are not mentally equipped to manage the avalanche of tens of thousands of people that have been beaten and detained. Many of these men have spent countless sleepless nights performing their dark duties, preparing for them, or attempting to recover from them. A good part of this milieu consists of inveterate bullies and outright proto-fascists. But many others are our fellow citizens who have been duped into the belief that they are doing God's work. If we are to avoid a bloody outcome to this struggle, it is incumbent upon us to maintain an open dialogue with an eye to winning them over to our side.

No survey of the regime's pillars is complete without mentioning the so-called yummies (young upwardly mobile Muslims).These are the thousands of privileged regime cadres and supporters who have benefited disproportionately -- that is, relative to their actual intelligence and competence -- from family ties or direct support for the state. Many hail from Imam Sadegh Univeristy. They have all been distressed and discomfited this past year by the possibility that their good life might one day be affected by the deteriorating political situation -- not to mention seeing their own children sneer at them with contempt.

Finally, there are the upper echelons of the regime itself -- the members of those myriad factions who make up what passes for the power structure, particularly, but not exclusively, those up-and-coming elements clustered around the present hardline government. For these men, for there are few women among them, sleepless nights started months before the June 12 election. As far back as November 2008, when Nategh Nouri floated the idea of a national unity government, they started to fight it out over the nature of the next presidency and a piece of the future pie. There is also evidence that preparation for the hardliners' June electoral putsch was under way at least by January 2009, when Ahmadinejad initiated a massive restructuring of the Interior Ministry.

Together with their families, the members of these pro-regime groups collectively number up to 1.5 million Tehranis. They too have left the city en masse for Nowruz, with many true believers heading to Qom and Mashad.

Onward Soldiers of Democracy

Meanwhile, the country's major vacation destinations, not to mention its roads, have been overwhelmed. For example, according to the latest government statistics, close to 3 million people have traveled to Shiraz, more than 1 million have visited the midsized city of Kermanshah, 3 million have flocked to Mazandaran, 1.8 million have traveled to Mashhad, 1.7 have gone to Yazd, and twice as many people as last year have made their way to Baluchestan.

Despite the monster traffic jams and lack of accommodations, so far few have opted to return, preferring to make the most of their remaining holidays. Unlike the usual vacation, however, this one will be a time for contemplation and reflection.

A year ago this time, no one in their wildest imagination could have foreseen the events that have since rocked the country. A city known for its soullessness, profligacy, and consumerism surprised everyone when it suddenly stood up to the mighty fundamentalist Goliath with one single voice. The most surprised of all were the country's hardline leaders, who had hubristically bought into the myth that Tehranis were bunch of effete and overfed monads incapable of caring about anything aside their individual material well-being. It is doubtful they would have so recklessly rigged the presidential election had they foreseen the consequences. Too late for that.

Today, Tehran is a changed city. In place of yesterday's Hobbesian world of one against all and all against one, we finally have a communitas: a sophisticated, mutually dependent, tolerant form of citizen-activism that is fully conscious of its interests and resistant to tyranny, self-delusion, and demagoguery of any kind.

Meanwhile, the regime is in near disarray, as each faction blames the others for its travails. Its international problems are multiplying and there is little prospect of solving the country's myriad crises as long as the present constellation of groups remains in power. Short of war or major acts of provocation, the future belongs to the Green Movement. All this has been wrought in the space of just a few months.

So, as we mourn the passing of those who have fallen and reflect on the difficult experiences of the last few months, we shouldn't for one moment lose sight of what has been achieved.

Hamid Farokhnia, a pen name, is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report. Photos/LGOIT.com

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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5 Comments

As always, depending on which angle one wants to view the glass. The glass looks either half empty or half full. From outside Iran, the regime looks a lot more stronger than it was last June. Even some Israeli generals are speaking of their surprise at the IR system's ability to withstand all the troubles, self created and externally imposed, and come through.They were of course hoping the system would collapse and thereby save them from having to inflict war upon IRI. However they have been thwarted and they will also be thwarted in their war plans too, enshallah.

Of course all systems need introspection from time to time and changes for the better but these should come about through a genuine national dialogue not through street protests and riots.

rezvan / March 30, 2010 4:37 AM

"Informal survey" of Greens? Please, a citation please.

Travel vacations on this scale belie the narrative of a massive economic meltdown.

What exactly has been achieved besides the marginalization of the reform element of Iran's political spectrum?

Pirouz / March 30, 2010 6:54 AM

Happy Nowruz to you and all Iranian, Afgan, Kurd, Tajik,.... Nice article. Wishing all Iranians a very Green year.

Nematkhoda / March 30, 2010 7:26 AM

Great post!

Tehran Bureau, keep up the good work.

Sahand / March 30, 2010 1:28 PM

rezvan - I think you are an hypocrite. Even looking
from outsite there is no doubt: The Iranian people are strong and - you are lucky - you get a repetition of a sentence you obviously didn`t understand: "We are clearly witnessing the beginnings of an ideological crisis within the regime". You understand? Because sentences like
this are always a spring of green hope - and I like this kind of sentence.

gunni / March 31, 2010 12:42 AM