By Yasaman Baji for IWPR
After the crackdown that followed post-election protests in 2009, Iran’s opposition went to ground, so that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described it as not only “seditious” but “dead”. This week’s demonstration in Tehran suggests that his obituary was premature.
Thousands of Tehran residents took to the streets on February 14 to express solidarity with their peers in Cairo whose mass rally had just succeeded in ejecting President Hosni Mubarak.
This Monday morning began with a sense of foreboding, even for those who planned to have no part in the protest.
The unusual events of the day kicked off with a boy in a green headband climbing a crane at the busy Ghasr junction. Onlookers watched with some surprise as dozens of police cars arrived, sirens wailing, as if ready to take on a massed enemy. Angry police officers hurried to fetch down the boy, who by now had raised an Iranian flag well beyond their reach. He was eventually bundled away to an unknown location.
Later in the day, people began emerging en masse at the appointed hour of protest, heading down Enqelab street to join the flow on both sides of the roadway. Their route took them from Imam Hossein Square in eastern Tehran to Enqelab or Revolution Square and on to Azadi (Freedom) Square in the west, all placenames redolent with meaning for Iranians.
As they went along, many could be heard contrasting the behaviour of the Egyptian army with that of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Noting the heavy security presence on the streets, they asked if the numbers were really all that necessary if, as Khamenei had suggested, their movement was a spent force.
There was an air of satisfaction, even surprise, as if no one had really believed such a large crowd would turn out after such a long period without street protests.
One middle-aged man could be heard saying, “The Egyptians learned from us and now we’re learning from their protest.”
Waiting for them mid-route on Ferdousi Square was the familiar mix of uniformed police, Basij volunteers and plainclothes officers – the latter, interestingly, wearing masks and avoiding forays into the crowds. Officers on motorcycles would sometimes take off down the road. shouting “mashallah Hezbollah!”
Five hundred metres west was an area swarming with officers and black military vehicles. Even so, the now tightly-packed crowds were able to squeeze past along the pavements. It was here that Tehran’s chief of police was assaulted by protesters and Revolutionary Guards dragged from their motorcycles in December 2009.
Protesters streaming in from the east were forced to stop and turn north so that they would not get to their final destination, Azadi Square. This had the effect ot dividing the demonstration into two parts – east and west.
The physical surroundings shaped what happened next. In the east, the protesters marched in silence through business districts offering no escape routes in the event that things turned nasty.
By contrast, the western part of the route had numerous private homes and side-alleys where they could seek refuge. The demonstrators here shouted slogans and goaded the security forces, who appeared reluctant to resort to violence. Local residents threw down newspapers so that protesters could set them on fire to counter the effects of teargas.
What they shouted was new and highly significant – not only “Death to the Dictator”, but “Death to Khamenei”. It was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whom they compared with the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hardly got a mention.
This is a complete reversal of the position in 2009, when the focus was on Ahmadinejad, and no one would have dared cross the line of respect traditionally accorded to the Supreme Leader.
“The switch from anti-Ahmadinejad to anti-Supreme Leader slogans has occurred gradually and naturally,” a 47-year-old female protester said. She indicated that it was Khamenei’s failure to heed people’s demands that had turned them against him. “People have come to realise who the real problem is,”
So it seems for now at least that the Green Movement is back, reinvigorated. The pro-Egypt, pro-democracy demonstration gave people a taste of the sense of physical solidarity they have been missing for over a year, and revived hopes dampened when the 2009 protests failed and the regime claimed total victory.
A history teacher in Tehran said the opposition movement had risen “like the phoenix from its ashes”.
“The only way of surviving for the Islamic regime is to recognise this movement,” he said.
The deaths of two students, Sane Jaleh and Mohammad Mokhtari, during the protests have added to mounting unrest at Tehran’s universities. The authorities had already closed the gates of three universities because they were on the protest route, and on February 15 and 16 security forces moved against the Amir Kabir, Sharif and Tehran universities.
The regime is trying to hijack the death of Jaleh, a Kurd and a Sunni Muslim, by claiming he was a member of the Basij, although his friends and classmates dispute this.
Both young men were buried on February 16 at a ceremony staged by the regime. But the Green Movement claims them as martyrs and plans a return to the streets on February 20 to commemorate their deaths, one week on.
Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran.