Finding Greens in Tehran
by HANA H. and MOHAMMAD D. in Tehran
12 Jun 2010 15:42
[ dispatch ] "It is going to be a very eventful day," says Aram, 28, referring to the one-year anniversary of the Iranian presidential election on June 12. "I'm sure the people are going to come out like last year. Everyone has been waiting for it."
In the same breath though, the 28-year-old general practitioner concedes that he won't be one of them. "I probably have to be at the hospital."
After an extraordinary year in which the world witnessed the birth of an unexpected opposition movement in Iran -- then its decline and apparent hibernation -- Tehran Bureau set out to find members of Iran's year-old Green Movement and have them speak for themselves. In our quest to find Greens in Tehran, we encountered countless Iranians from different walks of life, some who were happy to share their thoughts and others who were reluctant to give interviews out of fear for their safety. And while the views that were expressed were varied and often contradictory, each was a reflection of a part of reality in Iran today.
Many still remain critics of the Islamic Republic and its government, but abject fear, crushing disappointment and eroding frustration seem to have taken their toll on the opposition.
Afshin, 25, a graphic designer who says he still wears black as a sign of mourning for those who lost their lives in the post-election crisis, did not like being questioned about the viability of the movement.
"Are you crazy? It will always be there," he said, insisting that the movement has become an integral part of Iranian culture and its young generation. "As long as we have a few young people who have nothing better to do than discuss girls and politics, it won't die."
Hamila, 19, a staunch Mousavi supporter who still advocates for the man on her Facebook page, believes the movement allowed for "a demoralized generation to speak up and have a say in building their future."
But there were others, who look at the future with frustration despite fondly remembering last June, when raw bursts of emotion on the streets brought young and old together to demand to know what became of their vote.
"I joined the movement when I was told that every citizen is a medium and our individual needs actually matter," said Amir Hossein. "It was a breath of fresh air" and a sharp departure "from the message of the authoritarian regime we have to live under."
But today he is unsure.
After a strong showing in late December, when many Iranians braved a savage crackdown on the holiest day on the Shiite calendar -- Ashura -- and like their slain Imam Hussein, demanded justice, no one predicted their protests would so effectively dissipate.
As Iranian expatriates the world over prepared for the anniversary to relive the events of last year in Tehran, there was no similar commotion here.
For a few months leading to the anniversary, there was no trace of the once deafening cries of "Allah-o Akbar" -- the trademark signature of the 1979 revolutionaries that was recycled by the Greens -- that resonated through the heart of the city every night after dark.
There has been no online planning for Saturday. There were no signs of the popular internet announcements that called for "silent protest" after the vote. Of course, this could well be the result of the experience young protesters had on 22 Bahman, when the Greens failed to use the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution to stage fresh demonstrations.
Poupak, 31, who with her friends responded to a supposed invitation by the Greens to attend the 22 Bahman demonstrations wearing hats and shades, was picked up by security forces within minutes of joining the rally. She believes intelligence agents were behind the fake invitation.
Even Balatarin, the popular Persian-language website similar to Digg, is no longer the venue it once was for planning protests. The website was previously a platform where netizens used harsh language to vent against the supreme leader and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But even they appear to have been tamed.
Access to Balatarin, along with a slew of other websites, has been made virtually impossible from inside Iran. The Islamic Republic has shut down access to many internet resources and succeeded in convincing a great number of others in the opposition that they can no longer rely on text messaging and other methods of communication.
"A friend of my friend's cousin was arrested on 22 Bahman," said Zahra, 20. "His interrogator showed him a copy of some of the text messages he had sent. He specifically questioned him about a message he had sent three years ago -- a joke about Ahmadinejad and Cheetos [whose advertising logo is a monkey]."
Even outside efforts to support the Green cause have failed to motivate the people.
The HBO-produced documentary "For Neda" -- which has been circulating online since June 1 -- about the life and tragic death of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman who has become the iconic symbol of the Green Movement, failed to revive the movement, as some had hoped.
"It was so upsetting to see a family lose their child and not be able to mourn her passing, even after one year," said Shadi, a 28-year-old Arabic interpreter who watched the documentary on Youtube. "I don't think I can ever join the protesters, but I can sympathize with Neda's family."
While the disadvantages of the opposition in the face of an authoritarian regime is undisputed, some believe the loss of passion did not stem from the obstacles alone.
"Iranians have redefined indolence. Everyone has forgotten about last year's protests. People still talk about wanting change but they don't actually do anything about it," said Mohammad, 27, a computer engineer who did not vote. "If you ask me, no one knows what this 'change' really is."
The average Iranian may express a desire for what other people in the world have: more personal and social freedoms. But throw in higher income, jobs for the youth and better living standards, and they will not be concerned with who is running their country, argued Amir, 28, an architect who voted for Mousavi. "I think 70 to 80 percent of those who consider themselves to be Green will be more than happy with the five demands Mir Hossein made," he said.
In his statement No. 17 issued after the Ashura unrest, Mousavi demanded a new election law, the release of political prisoners, freedom of the press, and permission to hold public gatherings and protests. He also demanded that the government should take responsibility for the post-election events.
"You give them these five and I doubt they will ever bring up Mousavi's name again, or ask for their votes [back]," Amir continued.
The waning interest in the Green Movement may be closely tied to ineffectual leadership. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi has gone from making important leaks about state oppression and prison rape to contenting himself with giving interviews to media outlets deemed counter-revolutionary; and Mousavi has been reduced to an ineffectual spokesman who is heard from on rare occasions.
Still, unlike those foreign-based dissidents calling for "regime change," many in Iran seem content with Mousavi, who they see as the lesser of the two evils.
After failing to bring about a re-vote, or even to get the government to offer a plausible explanation about what happened to their votes, the citizens of the Islamic Republic also failed to press their officials to find Neda's killer or to bring the Kahrizak culprits to justice. They don't even try to hold the government accountable for widespread corruption and the other troubling developments in the country since the election.
"I am not really sure what the Greens are doing. They can't stand up to the regime, that's for sure. They can't even press for reforms by doing what they are doing now, which is basically nothing," said Omid, 35, a real estate consultant.
The attempts by Mousavi and Karroubi to breathe life into the movement by calling for nationwide protests to mark the election anniversary failed when the Interior Ministry refused to issue a permit for any gathering on Saturday.
The two were forced to call off the anniversary rally and instead advise "the people" to pursue their demands through "more peaceful and less costly methods."
Ali, a 29-year-old political science graduate, did not have any kind remarks for the two opposition figures.
"For a movement that captured the hearts of millions, both in the lead-up to the election and in the protests that followed it, the bar was set high for its leaders who at the end of the day failed to organize anti-government sentiments into a practical pattern."
Kourosh, 55, who lived in the Unites States at the time of the 1979 revolution and has been working for different ministries since his return in 1988, believes the lack of noticeable activity in the country is not a bad thing.
"The slower things happen, the stronger the people will be for the next thing .... If it is planned carefully, it will prevent the transition of power into the hands of one person or organization, who I am assuming will be a secular entity given the performance of this 'Islamic' regime."
Leila, 25, a student of fine arts who told us she used to spray paint walls with "O Hussein, Mir Hossein" back when people protested on the streets and lit bonfires, believes there is no reason to be concerned about the stagnancy in the country's political atmosphere. "Students have taken matters into their own hands and the result of their work will emerge in the future," she said. "Some of the Greens are developing an ideology for civil activism and we will definitely hear from them later on."
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