By Yasaman Baji , Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
A recent demonstration in Tehran that went further than before in targeting the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shown a new level of bravery from protesters ready to stand up to the security forces.
What Iran calls the National Day of Campaign against Global Arrogance on November 4 - the anniversary of the occupation of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979 - was marked this year by a demonstration against the regime which crossed a new and significant boundary.
Students protesting at Amirkabir University in Tehran on December 7
Protesters tore down and destroyed a poster of Khamenei, and chanted slogans against him and the institution he represents. Students from Tehran University and other protesters stood their ground in the face of attempts by security forces armed with batons and tear gas to disperse them.
Some stood and argued with members of the security force about their readiness to use weapons, showing some at least have lost their fear.
Many of the demonstrators were supporters of defeated presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who believe that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the June presidential election in a widespread campaign of cheating.
Many died or were arrested in widespread demonstrations after the election, which were suppressed by the security forces.
Although the slogan "death to the dictator" had begun to be heard shortly after the elections and was often implicitly directed at Khamenei, people generally did not directly insult the supreme leader.
The exception was a few who ended their nightly chants of "allah-u akbar" (God is greater) by calling out "death to Khamenei" from the rooftops under cover of darkness.
Protesters had refrained from such insults during public protests in order to allow the regime space to discuss the discontent with the protest movement. However, three factors worked against Khamenei and produced a more aggressive reaction from the people and some criticism from members of the elite.
Khamenei is seen as lacking the charisma of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; he has backed Ahmadinejad; and he is perceived as having a harsh and threatening manner of speaking.
A week before the latest protests, a student chosen by his peers at Sharif Technical University had bravely voiced his discontent in front of Khamenei and 1,000 other spectators, to the cheers of some. However, what happened on November 4 went beyond criticism; it was a fundamental breach of the law that until now would have been treated as a major crime.
In the incident that many saw as crossing a line, a young protester holding a huge placard of Khamenei jumped onto a ledge in Vali-asr Square, publicly tore the picture up and threw it to the ground where it was trampled.
That same day, Tehran University students, who had been locked in their university in order to allow the official commemoration of the hostage crisis in front of the American embassy to proceed smoothly, hung from university gates and chanted "Death to the Supreme Leadership" and "Rape, murder = death to this guardianship", challenging Khamenei and the institution of supreme leadership.
Khamenei's position of supreme leader embodies the principle of velayat e-faqih or the guardianship of Islamic jurisprudence, which is increasingly being questioned.
According to a law student at Tehran University who was involved in this protest, "These chants are the result of the irresponsibility of the supreme leader in fulfilling his duties. The duty of someone with great power is not to constantly threaten people and issue suppressive measures. Now people want to eliminate principles that allow individuals such irresponsibility."
A university professor said, "If protesters had been treated correctly from the beginning and if Khamenei had used a better tone in speaking to protesters who had initially insisted on respecting the sanctity of the state's pre-eminent official, events would not have turned out the way they did.
"The resistance of the regime to protesters and its reliance on suppression itself led to an increase in popular demands. Now, returning to the way things used to be is impossible."
On the question of breaking the law, or crossing boundaries, he added, "There is direct and indirect criticism of the supreme leader but its widespread manifestation, in the form taken on November 4, will slowly solidify these criticisms into serious demands. It will allow opponents of the supreme leadership to theorise against its institution and will endow political activists with greater bargaining leverage in case any negotiations are to take place."
In another recent incident, protesters not allowed to gather adopted a new tactic.
In Hafteh-Tir Square, security forces held back protesters with batons and tear gas in order to allow the procession of a demonstration by pro-government students who were members of the basij.
The two sides began to engage in something of a lively debate.
One anti-government protester called out to a pro-government student, "Why don't you let us gather? Don't you claim that we (the protesters) are the minority? Well, let us assemble so we can not only voice our demands but also show you our numbers."
A man who introduced himself as an employee of the interior ministry told the protesters that their rejection of the election amounted to a violation of the law.
In response, a woman who claimed she had worked for the interior ministry during the era of former president Mohammad Khatami, countered, "The law does not ban protest. In fact, the people's right to protest is in the constitution. Do you support the violence that is directed at us?" The man responded that he did not.
Unfortunately, these debates were constantly disrupted by the security forces, who seemed to oppose any kind of dialogue between the two groups. To older men and women, these discussions were similar to ones that took place between different factions during the time of the revolution.
The discussions were remarkable and caught the security officials off guard. While being beaten, people would ask the security officers why they were hitting them. Some asked them how much they got paid for hitting people. In the end, many officers tired of the process and left.
An officer begged a shaking and bruised girl, who he had just struck on the shoulder, to catch a taxi home. The girl responded angrily, "Don't tell me what to do. You get paid to hit us, which you do, and I came to protest and will not go home."
It is still not certain whether security forces, including basij and revolutionary guards, are yet tired of clashing with people, even though many of them are disturbed and unhappy at the gulf that has been created between them and the rest of the population.
The protests have demonstrated a victory of anger over fear among the people. In the past, armed attacks by security forces always acted as a deterrent but now the fear of the guards' baton has begun to fade.
On November 4, protesters no longer fled the police, but looked them straight in the eye and questioned them. Now the security forces are having to rethink their tactics.
The Green Movement is hoping that by showing patience and determination, it has demonstrated that the law is valid as long as people respect it.
About the author: Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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