Opposition Green Movement lacks clear messages and ability to win widespread backing for protests.
Watching the unrest in Tehran on Feb. 14 from the balcony. (Photo: Mianeh)
Vladimir Lenin had a formula for diagnosing the symptoms of revolution, “Those at the bottom won’t, those at the top can’t.” He argued that revolution required mass involvement, a spirit of courage and commitment, and political engagement. These three conditions do not yet exist in Iran.
The demonstrators who came to the streets of Tehran on February 14 and in smaller numbers on February 20 certainly had courage. They were ready to face anything despite the violence the regime used against mass protests in 2009. And they voiced the most radical slogan yet heard - one that was not heard in the 2009 demonstrations - attacking the normally inviolate Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They also showed judgement by knowing when to shout slogans and when to keep quiet, how to flee from danger and how to avoid being identified.
There are significant differences between the two demonstrations. On February 14, the regime did not appear to be planning violent repression. Two deaths were reported, but it is not still clear how they occurred.
One reason why the regime was reluctant to deploy violence may have been that Turkish president Abdullah Gul was visiting Tehran. But on the other hand, the regime clearly had enough confidence in its ability to handle the protests that it did not postpone the visit.
A more important reason for restraint may have been that the regime wanted to assess the current state of the opposition after the latter’s absence from the streets for more than a year. According to one member of the Basij militia, police would wait for substantial numbers to gather in a given place before arriving on the scene.
The second day of protests this month, February 20, saw a much heavier police presence, outnumbering the demonstrators and in clear anticipation of a crackdown. This deterred many people from coming out into the streets, suggesting that the regime can still count on their fear.
Strangely, some opposition activists used methods similar to those employed by the regime - they tried to censor news of the intimidating security presence, even trying to stop the news getting out on media like the BBC Persian Service, in the somewhat naive hope that this would get more people onto the streets.
It is not only courage and commitment that is somewhat lacking. Many Iranians still lack the motivation to join in opposition protests; the will for change is just not strong enough.
Revolution becomes a real prospect when only the opposition and the regime’s forces are on the streets, and the apathetic stay away.
The February 14 street protests clogged up some streets in Tehran, but did not totally paralyse the city. Much of the video footage shows people walking or driving by, going about their normal business. Shops and cinemas remained open even in areas where demonstration was taking place.
Eyewitnesses say that motorcyclists were offering rides to sightseers who wanted to have a look at the demonstration, and to people just trying to work through the crowds.
While popular discontent with the regime is widespread, people are not so fed up that they are prepared to act. The Green Movement remains smaller than its mantra “we are countless” claims. Its support-base remains largely confined to parts of the middle class.
Despite economic pressures including recent price rises on food and fuel, residents of the poor areas of southern Tehran were not motivated to come out and protest on February 14.
In a speech following the 2009 protests, a veteran Revolutionary Guards commander, Saeed Ghasemi, said the time to be afraid would come if the poor of south Tehran ever “went crazy” and withdrew their support for the Supreme Leader.
Economic concerns did not feature large among the demands voiced by the protesters, and when they occasionally did - complaining about the price of bread - it rang hollow given that these were people who could clearly still afford it.
The lack of blue-collar support for the opposition is exemplified by industrial action at the Abadan Oil Refinery on the same day as the first February protest. Opposition websites tried to play the strike up, comparing it to the mass oil industry strikes during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In reality, only about 50 workers were involved in the strike, which concerned one specific issue, unpaid wages, and did not reflect support for the Green Movement.
Nor has the opposition engaged the wealthy classes of north Tehran. Throughout the unrest, holidays to Malaysia, Turkey, Thailand and Dubai were fully booked up.
All this shows that the Green Movement has not yet created all the preconditions for becoming a dominant force.
It is even losing some erstwhile friends in the Iranian establishment, particularly those hostile to President Ahmadinejad. Among those who are peeling away are
Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi, custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and its economic assets including industries, farms and real estate, provided both moral and financial backing for Mir Hossein Mousavi when he ran against Ahmadinejad in 2009. Now, however, he is describing the participants in the February 14 protests as “seditious instigators who undoubtedly deserve to have God’s verdict delivered upon them”.
Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who heads the Supreme Leader’s Inspectorate, and one of the most influential leaders of the conservative clergies, is another former Mousavi supporter. He has been quiet for some time, but broke his silence after the February 14 demonstration by saying both Mousavi and his ally Mehdi Karroubi lacked political sense and patriotism and recommending they both be put on trial.
“Our enemies need to know that we may have differences among ourselves, but we all defend the regime together,” he said.
The bigger headache of all for the Green Movement is that its aims are unclear, and that it has not translated them into language that convinces people that it is seeking emancipation for all, rather than for specific social groups.
The Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators had an obvious goal - the end of the regime.
When the Green Movement took shape after the 2009 presidential election, its message was straightforward - the vote had been rigged and the electorate cheated. That brought three million people out into the streets.
But what now? Does it still want Ahmadinejad to be removed and a new election held? If so, it is not apparent from the slogans shouted by its supporters. Does it want the Islamic system of government to be dismantled, or just for the present Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down? Does it favour constitutional reform and the abolition of the position of Supreme Leader, or merely better government within the current framework?
Green Movement leaders have not been helpful in disentangling these ambiguities and presenting a clearer message that would recruit more Iranians to its cause. The messages continue to be confused - the February 14 demonstration was supposed to be in solidarity with the Egyptians and Tunisians, but the main slogans heard were against the Supreme Leader.
Leading opposition members say the recent demonstrations were a victory in that they proved the Green Movement was still alive. But did that have to be proved? If their main aim is to show the government that they still exist, street protests are reduced to being a kind of carnival, unfortunately featuring police batons and tear gas rather than balloons and refreshments.
As people cast around for the root cause of Iran’s woes, no one is offering a convincing solution. Opposition activity is confined to reacting post factum to what the regime does.
About the author: Ali Reza Eshraghi is the editor of the Iran Programme at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).
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