The reign of terror unleashed by the Iranian government against the demonstrations in the aftermath of the rigged elections did succeed in keeping people off the streets the last 11 days. But yesterday this combustible material ignited once again, as thousands once more took to the streets in a collective show of defiance.
Four weeks ago the polls closed and the government announced that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected in a landslide victory. Then there was a spontaneous explosion that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, shaking the regime to its foundations. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has confirmed the election, and the powerful Guardian Council has certified the results. But this has not pacified the opposition. Four weeks later the mood of defiance remains, in spite of the government’s uncompromising stance and its repeated and violent efforts to restore the status quo.
The government has used different tactics to try to put an end to the turbulence: arrests; the violent suppression of street protests; and attempts to blame the “meddling” foreign nations, primarily Britain and the United States, but also Israel and Saudi Arabia, for fomenting the unrest. The reign of terror unleashed by the government did succeed in keeping people off the streets the last 11 days. People went home to brood over their discontent. But the atmosphere of simmering anger and resentment remained, hanging over Teheran like a threatening thunder cloud waiting to explode.
Although the regime has temporarily succeeded to re-establish some degree of control over the streets by violent means, they have not succeeded in restoring the status quo. The political landscape has been fundamentally modified by the eruption of the masses. Popular discontent has been driven underground, but its effects are felt in the darkest recesses of the Islamic regime. Behind locked doors, unseen to the public, rival factions of political careerists and clerical die-hards are struggling for power.
The splits at the top are only a reflection of the ferment below, which can break out onto the surface at any time, like the smouldering mass of combustible material that lies inert for a time before it bursts forth as a forest fire.
On Thursday, this combustible material ignited once again, as thousands once more took to the streets in a collective show of defiance. The immediate cause of the demonstration was to commemorate the students uprising of 10 years ago. The authorities took measures to prevent communication between protesters. Cell phone messaging was disconnected Thursday for a third consecutive day. The government also closed the universities and declared an official holiday Tuesday and Wednesday, ostensibly because Tehran has been shrouded in a cloud of heavy dust and pollution.
But neither the announced holiday nor the stifling air deterred the crowds. The streets burned with garbage fires. Tear gas settled all around. And on one street thousands of people pushed on, proclaiming their solidarity and defiance. The numbers were not as big as they were a few weeks ago. But the most striking feature of this movement is that is happening at all. After all the brutal repression, the savage beatings, the shooting and arrests, the fact that thousands of people are prepared to come out and protest tells us something very significant: that people are beginning to lose their fear.
A journalist of the New York Times writes:
“But the mood of the street never calmed. One witness said that if it had not been for the overwhelming show of force, it appeared that tens of thousands were prepared to turn out.
“The day was supercharged from the start, with a protest called for 4 p.m. to honor the students who 10 years earlier were bloodied and jailed during a violent confrontation with the police. Under a hot summer sun, police officers in riot gear patrolled the streets in roving bands of about 50. Then the crowds started to form, men, women and children packing the sidewalks. Traffic stopped and drivers honked or stepped from their cars in solidarity. The people chanted ‘Down with the Dictator,’ ‘God is Great’ and ‘Mouss-a-vi’ as they walked along Enghelab Street.
“It was almost festive.”
How strange these words must sound to many people! Under a brutal and merciless dictatorship, faced with the batons, bullets and tear gas of the organs of state repression, with cracked heads and bloodied clothing, how can there be a “festive mood”? The answer is that such a mood always exists in the early stages of every revolution. When the masses are awakened to political life after a long period of inertia, when men and women who have been forced to remain silent, suddenly find a voice, when thousands of people become aware of their own power, the result is a release of long-suppressed emotions, a feeling of elation and euphoria that is indeed festive: it is the festival of revolution.
An article in New York Times on July 10, 2009, with the title Iran Security Forces Move to Crush Renewed Protests describes the situation:
“Thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran on Thursday, clapping, chanting, almost mocking the authorities as they once again turned out in large numbers in defiance of the government’s threat to crush their protests with violence.
“As tear gas canisters cracked and hissed in the middle of crowds, and baton-wielding police officers chased up and down sidewalks, young people, some bloodied, ran for cover, and there was an almost festive feeling on the streets of Tehran, witnesses reported.
“A young woman, her clothing covered in blood, ran up Kagar Street, paused for a minute and said, ‘I am not scared because we are in this together.’
“The protesters lighted trash on fire in the street, and shopkeepers locked their gates, then let demonstrators in to escape the wrath of the police. Hotels also served as safe havens, letting in protesters and locking out the authorities.”
There are a number of significant elements in this report. The remark made by the young woman covered in blood sums up the mood: “I am not scared because we are in this together.” When thousands of people come out onto the streets to fight for their rights, they cease to be isolated individuals and begin to feel their own power. The old fear of the state, which before seemed all-powerful, evaporates like water on a hot stove.
A comrade from the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists' Tendency wrote to us today:
“A few thousands in spite of harsh warning and attacks of police (the same day) participated. The participation of young women was prominent. They came with gym shoes and ready to fight and organize. The busiest scenes were around Tehran University. Among other slogans they chanted were: free all political prisoners, Death to Khamenei, Death to the dictator, etc.
“However, not many workers participated. They were mainly youth and students (although you see in one of photos attached an older woman of about 50 or so demonstrating). Mousavi and the Reformists had not called for the demonstration, which was spontaneous, although some shouted slogans in support of Mousavi.”
Another striking feature of these protests was the fact that the principal opposition leaders stayed away. Mir Hussein Moussavi, who claims he won the election, Mehdi Karroubi and the former president Mohammad Khatami have agreed to pursue their complaints through the legal system, and to protest only when a permit is issued. Since such permits are never issued, they are always conspicuous by their absence! But the movement on the streets has a logic and a dynamic of its own. It is not organized by anyone and therefore the absence of the reformist “leaders” does not make the slightest difference to it.
Under such conditions the repeated use of repression is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The NYT article continues:
“One witness gave this account: ‘The crowds are too huge to contain. Riot police running up and down Fatemi Street, beating people, barely got out of the way. The crowds just get out of their way and come back.’ […]
“There were scenes like that reported all over the city, though the main skirmishes seemed to have occurred near Tehran University and at Enghelab Square. Police shot tear gas into Laleh Park. As night fell, the scene grew more severe. The air filled with acrid smoke and soot, and police officers and Basij militia members ran along the streets.”
According to witnesses, the security forces did not fire on protesters, and it was unclear how many people were injured or arrested. Most of the repression is clearly the work of the Basij thugs and provocateurs in civilian dress that mingle with the protestors, as the NYT article makes clear:
“A man in a business suit pulled out a collapsible baton and beat a person with a camera until the baton broke. A middle-aged woman ran through the crowd, her coat covered with blood stains. Protesters hurled rocks at security officers. Two men held a huge floral arrangement of yellow and purple flowers on green leaves in commemoration of those killed last month and in 1999, a witness said.
“But still, no matter who stopped to talk, witnesses said, there was a sense of mission and unity that seemed almost validated by the brutal government response. A 55-year-old woman on the streets in support of the marchers said: ‘This is Iran. We are all together.’”
The report continues:
“Many people thrust their hands into the air, making the vee sign for victory. Even as they watched, and sometimes tried to stop, police officers and militia as they beat unarmed women and men — and there were a lot of women on the street as there have been throughout the crisis — the crowds remained mostly peaceful, an eyewitness said.”
The people are no longer prepared to be cowed and intimidated by these tactics. Some of them are even prepared to confront the Basij. The NYT article reports that a crowd of people chanted “please stop” and chased two Basij away.
“Tell the world what is happening here,” one 26-year-old engineering student told the New York Times journalist. “This is our revolution. We will not give up.” And when asked what he wanted, he said simply: “We want democracy.”
These words correspond closely to what I wrote in a recent article.
“What we have witnessed over the last two weeks is only the first act in the revolutionary drama. It is a scenario that is very familiar to all students of the history of revolutions. At the beginning of every revolution, when the working class does not play the leading role but is submerged in the ‘masses’, the latter bring their prejudices into the movement, creating a phase of ‘democratic illusions.’ This is an absolutely inevitable phase in the Iranian Revolution, as was the February Revolution in Russia, April 1931 in Spain and even the first eighteen months of the Great French Revolution.
“In the period of ‘democratic illusions’ the powerful thrust of the mass movement creates the idea that victory is in sight. Everything seems possible and the processes seem very simple. There are naturally big illusions in the ‘democratic’ leaders. This was very clearly expressed yesterday by my young Iranian friend. It will be necessary that the movement must pass through a period of great difficulties, defeats and suffering before receiving a harsh education in political realism, which will finally enable it to leave its illusions behind.” (Iran: regime steps up terror – a general strike is needed!)
The defiant demonstrations this Thursday are a clear indication that the revolutionary spirit of the masses is not broken. Because of the lack of leadership, the present wave of protests can die down for a while, but only to re-emerge with even greater force at a later stage. The main weakness of the present movement (as against 1979) is that the working class has not participated in sufficient numbers and with sufficient determination.
We have no doubt that the next round (which is inevitable) will be on a qualitatively higher level, and that the revolutionary ferment that has inevitably expressed itself first among the students, will spread to the factories, building sites and oil wells of Iran, as they did in tsarist Russia in 1905. The Iranian equivalent of 1905 is being prepared. When that hour strikes the whole world will shake!
London, 10 July, 2009.
Tehran, July 9, 2009: Demonstrators shouting "Down with the Dictator"