Opinion: The Fog of Protest
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
10 Mar 2011 00:35
[ opinion ] The strength of civil disobedience movements is in their decentralization and spontaneity, but as the case of Iran amply shows, leadership is important, as well. After the big boost received by the revolt in the Arab lands and the concomitant reluctance by the regime to be cast on a par with the likes of the Mubarak and Qaddafi regimes, Iran's Green Movement activists spontaneously decided to press on with their demands once a week, indefinitely. For the foreseeable future, everyone decided to protest through marches and other acts of civil disobedience on Tuesday afternoons.
That much is clear. But other crucial details like the exact location of the protests or their preferred shape or the slogans to chant are yet to be worked out. This is not because of the multiplicity of voices in the movement or confusion over tactics. It has been because there have been no recognized leaders -- with the exception of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- to whom activists and sympathizers could listen and for whom they could risk their well-being and in some instances, their lives. It seemed that once the two men became incommunicado, as happened after February 12, the movement might be left without leadership. That was precisely why the regime also arrested and put out of commission almost everyone who was in anyway connected to the two Green leaders.
Slowly but surely, though, some embryonic leadership is being born. Some second-tier individuals -- like Mousavi advisor Ardeshir Amir Arjomand and Karoubi adviser Mojtaba Vahedi -- have joined a nebulously defined group called the Green Path of Hope. About 70,000 people have joined a Facebook page called "25 Bahman." There are also the "Bereaved Mothers," made up of the parents and relatives of those killed by the government. Other smaller cells are in the works. The process is slow and it isn't clear how much longer the regime is willing to refrain from bloody reprisals of the sort it has engaged in repeatedly over the past 32 years. It remains to be seen which will come out on top: whether the opposition can create a viable mechanism for organizing millions of its supporters or if the regime will conclude that the cost of a crackdown is less exorbitant than the erosion of its power and influence.
For now, though, things are progressing in a highly unconventional fashion that is even a bit amusing, despite the gravity of what is at stake. Until a few days ago, for example, it was assumed by everyone that the protest marches would take place exactly as the previous week, that is, walking on the sidewalks on the overlong Enghelab Avenue back and forth. Then suddenly discussions among the 25 Bahman Facebook members resulted in a different direction and strategy. They decided to thin out the security forces by demonstrating and protesting in several different spots simultaneously. The Bereaved Mothers also urged their followers to go to their favorite spot, Laleh Park west of Vali Asr. The Green Path of Hope gave the addresses of four or five strategic locales in the city to its followers.
The result: mass confusion on the part of regime and protesters alike. While the corps of regular protesters (200-250,000 in my estimate) spent most of Tuesday afternoon trying to figure out where to go, the regime's security forces were hard pressed to keep track of all the trouble spots. In other words, every imaginable spot where a demonstration could take shape had to be covered simultaneously. The logistical effort involved in preempting and quashing potential protests must have been stupefying. This is a natural byproduct of a paranoid mindset. For the first time ever, hundreds of children as young as 14 had to be deployed in batons and helmet throughout the capital. Some were wearing mismatched jackets, some wore tennis shoes, and all of them looked dazed and confused. Aside from the "kiddie Basij" that was inaugurated today, there were the "female stormtrooper" contingents. These fierce-looking chador-clad warriors were deployed at select spots throughout the city, presumably because it happened to be the International Women's Day and the image-conscious political leaders of Iran did not want to be accused of misogyny.
Then there was the absurdly large concentration of forces. In Haft-e Tir Square, there were easily over 2,000 security personnel chatting, loitering, and generally making time pass. In Laleh Park, there were more security agents -- including the female fundamentalist battalions -- than ordinary people. In Enghelab Square, there were upwards of 2,500 security forces. At 4 a.m. in Vanak Sqaure, not only were there masses of police and Basij personnel, they had shotguns, tear gas guns, even Uzis.
Outside the courtyard of Farhangestan Honar (Cultural Arts Center) -- of which Mousavi was both director and designer -- hundreds of Basijis and plainclothes officers were deployed. (Last week, a metal plaque identifying him as the architect of the new building was removed.) It was an eerie sight. Putting someone under house arrest and entirely isolating him from the outside world apparently does not exorcize his spirit from a building he has designed!
As for the protesters, having not found a suitable place to demonstrate, by about 7 p.m., they finally returned to the old routine of walking quietly on the sidewalks of Enghelab Avenue. This being the buildup to the Persian New Year, thousands of sometime bewildered shoppers mingled with the protesters, giving rise to terrific traffic jams the like of which had probably not been seen there since the early days of the Revolution. The difficulty of distinguishing between the holiday shoppers, plainclothes agents, and would-be protesters made for unnerving moments of tension but also rare instances of congeniality: protesters offering cookies to the special units of NAJA (the state police) and some young Basijis smiling approvingly at the brave protesters, proving for the umpteenth time that no matter how foul a political ideology, most Iranians in their hearts are revolted by violence and fanaticism.
Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.
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