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A New Kind of Protest


Source: Mianeh

Jasamin Baji | Tehran | 13 August 2009

A single scene during protests against the inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad encapsulates how different sectors of Iranian society have come together in a common cause.
On the day of the ceremony, a boy was arrested by the police while crossing the street in front of Tehran's Saa'i Park and beaten. Suddenly, a woman standing by him began screaming and begging people to help prevent her brother from being taken into custody. She tried to grab the boy's hand and screamed even as she was surrounded by riot police, and being hit herself.zahak

A crowd of mostly women gathered and forced the embarrassed police commander to free the boy. The crowd retrieved the lad, his shirt completely torn and his hands tied, from the police, clapping and cheering in appreciation.

The woman whose shouts had triggered the crowd, asked whether the boy really was her brother, smiled and said, "No, but what difference does it make? All of these boys are our sons and brothers and we can, we must, defend them.

"To separate me from the boy, the officer had his hand around my neck and I almost choked, but I still could not stay silent."

It seems that traditional Iranian and Islamic roles of sisterhood and motherhood take precedence over contemporary values.

It was a beautiful act of humanity as people angry with the trials of reformist leaders and their forced confessions took to the streets on the day of Ahmadinejad's confirmation as president by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei on August 3.

They were showing their disagreement with what to them looked like a coup, shouting slogans such as "Death to the dictator" and "Bombs, tanks, and confessions don't work anymore".

The plan was for the crowd to walk from Vanak Square toward Vali-asr Square. As people gathered, Sepah troops came to the aid of traffic police at junctions. Protesters were waiting for the right opportunity to assemble and to begin chanting.

Finally, they moved to a bus station and pretended to be passengers, massing before walking down Vali-asr Street while chanting "Allah-o Akbar". People in cars honked in support as the procession grew and the chanting of "Death to the dictator" and "Free political prisoners" increased.

People came out of hospitals, offices, and stores on the route to show support and join in the chants. At Saa-i Park, riot police appeared, using tear gas to disperse the crowds, which soon re-assembled elsewhere.

The slogan "Praise Abtahi" was chanted repeatedly. Mohammad Abtahi, the chief of staff of former president Mohammad Khatami and a supporter of Mehdi Karrubi in the elections, was recently imprisoned and his confessions were released as trials began on Saturday, August 1.

Many people have been shocked and angered at the haggard appearance in court of this once plump and comical blogger, the cheerless eyes of other accused who were once important figures of the Islamic Republic, and rumours surrounding their torture and even the forced administration of disorienting drugs.

People do not believe the reported confessions and many gathered the next day in front of the office of Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi, the head of the judiciary, to protest.

They have been angered also at rumours that reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh has been so badly tortured that he has been unable to appear in court and at the treatment of Behzad Nabavi and Said Hajarian, as well as the way in which the confessions were announced.

Iman Marati, a journalist for state broadcaster Seda va Sima and Fars News Agency, who was also the television anchorman for the trials, eventually had to suspend his internet blog due to furious responses from viewers.

People have been more concerned about the trials than the confirmation ceremony, which was marked by the absence of figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mir Hussein Mussavi, Mehdi Karrubi, Hassan Khomeini, and a number of important religious figures such as Ayatollah Taheri Khorram-abadi (a representative of Isfahan in the Council of Experts), Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Amini and Mohammad Bahonar.

The formality of the ceremony was so reduced by the empty seats that the government invited TV personalities such as the host of the popular children's show Amu Pourang, athletes including Afshin Ghotbi, the coach of Iran's national soccer team, as well as artists to fill in the empty seats.

The decision by Seda va Sima not to broadcast the event live, the tired and restless looking faces of the participants, and the stringent control over broadcast images - pictures could only be published after confirmation by the office of the supreme leadership -further showed the ceremony's lack of credibility.

The demonstrations along Vali-asr Street continued well into the night with cries of "Death to the dictator". For the first time, protests spread to streets of southern Tehran, where people in Nazi Abad confronted government motorcyclists and defended themselves against uniformed and plain-clothes officers by throwing stones. Police helicopters circled over the district until midnight.

People rejoiced at news of the protest and it made it to the headlines of popular blogs and websites. The action brought together the different layers of what is normally a segregated, Islamic society - such as the north and south of the city, men and women - in a common cause.

For the first time, men and women prayed together at Friday prayers, which is one of the most political and religious occasions in an Islamic regime. They were defying the separation that is meant to be such that women pray in an area where men cannot see them.

The sexes demonstrated together, while in the 1979 revolution, male and female protestors stood in separate rows. This and a deepening and spreading popular movement, have triggered changes in people's religious feelings and actions, which under normal circumstances would have required a fatwa or an announcement from the hierarchy and religious clerics.

Plain-clothes officers used masks to cover their faces and moved around in groups of at least 15. It is as though they fear recognition more than the people do. A professor of sociology believes that the alienation and isolation of the Basij forces from the demonstrators and society as a whole have the same effect on them as the solitary cells used for "breaking" prisoners and obtaining confessions.

This enforced isolation will eventually mean that ordinary Basij and Sepah officers, even those with higher ranks, will lose their faith in the current situation and will be ready to confess and unite with the people, the professor said.

The internet has played a role alongside the movement on the streets. People have assessed the words of the supreme leader during the confirmation ceremony in their blogs and websites. In his speech, the leader said that enemies would try to liken current demonstrations to those of the revolutionary period.

However, to the demonstrators the former are only a caricature of the latter. People have welcomed his admission of a comparison between the current situation and the early days of the revolution. Some responded with comments like, "Mr Khamenei, you are also a caricature of Ruhollah Khomeini." In his speech, Khamenei said that some of the elites had received a failing grade, but in response, people said that those elites, which, in reality, means Hashemi Rafsanjani, have received passing grades from them.

There has been detailed analysis of Ahmadinejad's behaviour at the ceremony compared to four years ago. In that earlier ceremony, Ahmadinejad kissed Khamenei's hand while Khamenei hugged him affectionately and kissed him on the cheek. Before the recent ceremony, the unofficial news and popular sites used a picture of Ahmadinejad kissing Khamenei's hand in their advance coverage.

As it turned out, Ahmadinejad did not repeat the act and only kissed Khamenei's shoulder. People saw this to mean that Ahmadinejad wanted to show that he is no longer dependent on Khamenei, and that the recent protests, which mainly have been directed at the supreme leader, have led him to think he can use the situation to take more power. It may very well be true that he has greater support among his colleagues.

This act of Ahmadinejad reminded Iranians of a story that children have been reading for years about an uprising against despotism.

According to the myth, Ahriman, a Zoroastrian demon, tricked Zahak, an ancient Persian king, into letting him prepare a delicious meal. As a sign of gratitude, Zahak asked what he wanted in return and Ahriman asked to kiss the king's shoulders.

Two snakes grew out of the shoulders and needed to be fed daily on the brains of two Iranian young men. Eventually, people tired of this brutality and revolted against Zahak under the leadership of Kaveh Ahangar, who imprisoned Zahak in the mountains and placed Fereidun on the throne, becoming the hero who rescued his people from a tyrant.

The moral of the story is that Zahak was ultimately doomed by the snakes on his own shoulders.

Yasamin Baji is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.

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