The silent protest


Published in “Tageszeitung”, October 2, 2009

The Iranian opposition movement was clubbed off the streets. Now they have changed their strategy.

Not so long ago, the idea of the Islamic Republic as it has been known for 30 years coming to its end was taken quite seriously. This regime, though, has defied such gloomy predictions. However, the soul of the Iranian people has changed profoundly after the presidential elections. For the first time since the Islamic revolution, a large proportion of the population has again experienced a feeling of unity. This feeling is still continuing to have an effect.

The government has been trying with a vengeance to return to the daily political “business as usual” in an attempt for the incidents of the summer to be forgotten. On the international stage of world politics, the Iranian government regains the legitimacy that in their own country is denied to them. At a first glance, these attempts are paying off. For one summer all talk was about democracy, of a civil society, of grassroot movements. Those were unfamiliar terms for the western world to be mentioned in the same breath wit Iran. The summer has gone, though, and the long-known issues are back on the agenda. Nothing left to disturb the Western patterns of perception. The president once again denies the Holocaust, admits to be constructing some secret nuclear sites and has new long-range missiles tested. All this is part of the proven range of instruments to obscure the view on the internal cracks. By diverting international attention, the fragile democratic movement will not survive until after winter.

The ruling powers in Tehran are doing everything they can to prevent the Green Movement from rooting within the society. Fear is the proven and tested pesticide of the authoritarian regime. Of this, the government has been spraying plenty. The old elite of the country was presented in show trials, wearing pajamas and slippers. Reports of rape and medieval-fashion torture happening in the dungeons of the infamous prisons emerged. It may therefore come as no surprise that we do no longer see spontaneous mass demonstrations happen.

However, the democratic movement is still alive, much more than the regime likes to admit. The fasting month of Ramadan, which has just ended, turned out to be the regime’s declaration of bankruptcy. The events delivered an idea of how the power struggle between the establishment and the seemingly powerless could be developing in the near future. In Iran, it is common practice to show, under the guise of religious and political rallies, the support and the unity of its own people.

The events in the weeks of Ramadan, however, did not seem to quite fit into the prescribed schedule. How frightened the regime is, in fact, was revealed in their decisions. For the first time in 30 years, since the founder Khomeini died, the religious Qadr nights in Ramadan were simply called off. For religious Iranians, these holidays are a sacred institution. Several million people were expected to attend the speeches at this event – an uncontrollable risk to the regime, because the opposition had called on their supporters to participate in the celebrations. The official Iranian calendar provides several religious and political duties similar to the Qadr nights.

Nothing currently scares the regime more than such occasions. Too high is the risk that they develop into power struggles with the population. A speech that was to be delievered by Supreme Leader Khamenei at the end of the fasting month was quickly transferred from the location designed for such major events into a much smaller building. The masses had to remain manageable. All public Iftar events – where friends, acquaintances and neighbors meet to break the fast after sunset – were prohibited. For this is where the people come together and talk privately. And where the people is, the regime smells trouble on the way.

Even the mourning ceremonies, most important for the shiite Iranians, for those who lost their lives in the aftermath of the elections, were closely monitored, some were even banned. At public mournings there will also be a growing anger against the perpetrators. Already there are jokes that the regime is even scared of the dead, and the theocratic system had turned into a theocracy without God. And then came the “Jerusalem Day” on 18 Semptember – annual demonstrations led by the government against Israel and their policy of occupation. Actually, the material just perfect for staging a show of force, a show of unity at any cost, even if the loyalist mob has to be carted to the capital in buses. And then produce images that are most familiar abroad: burning American and Israeli flags, noisy slogans of hatred for the imperialists and occupiers – much-needed balm for the battered soul of every Iranian hardliner.

Without further fussing, the regime declared the days around “Jerusalem Day” to be additional holidays. Usually, the residents of Tehran typically use extended weekends to escape the smog of the city and spend a few days in the countryside. Thus, the government hoped that a large number of the spoilsports for the rallies would be out of town. The regime avoids its own people as much as possible. According to agency reports and opposition websites, despite the attempted intimidation by the regime, tens of thousands of protesters dared to carry posters and symbols of the opposition, and chanted slogans of protest against the government. It was a perfect fiasco when a live interview with President Ahmadinejad had to be aborted, as the chants against him could be heard in the broadcast. What was planned to be a government event turned into a show for opposition supporters.

The movement has changed strategies. It was clubbed away from the streets, yet the resistance has just shifted. In the Internet the protest is being maintained and nourished just to pour from the virtual space into reality on official occasions approved by the regime. Since there is no space for spontaneous rallies of the opposition, the religious and political events are now the focal points for the opposition movement to check on their situation and internal dynamics. People attend because they want to know whether the movement still exists, and to steal the show from the Establishment. For the opposition movement each, of these events is a little D-Day.

The movement has responded to the hard facts presented to them by the authorities. The regime is facing a genuine democratic movement, based on a broad social ground. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the personified symbol of the opposition movement, in his official statements speaks of the “green path of hope.” This path is not designed to be walked in terms of political parties, he says. His idea is that of a network organized from the bottom and rooted in all social spheres – in the Quran schools, the labor- and trade unions, in their own families and in the neighborhoods, in schools and universities: They all are the social nucleuses which unite the network. From early on Mousavi has been attempting to avoid the opposition movement focusing too much on him as a person.

An example of what can happen if the millionfold demand for reforms is projected on to one single person is Mousavis peer Mohammad Khatami. A reformist politician can easily be sidelined – even if he is the president. A civil movement producing constant pressure on decision makers by civil disobedience and peaceful protests is much more difficult to control. Mousavi seems to have considered this bitter lesson. He is content in limiting himself to being a generator of incentives. This resulted in the democratic movement organizing horizontally instead of vertically. The movement has adopted its own dynamics and acts without directives from above. Its effects are those of the constant dripping. This will account for its sustainability and strength. It is not about overthrowing the system, but rather about a transition towards an increase of democratic structures that guarantee for constitutional rights to be observed. The greatest virtues for this are perseverance and endurance.


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