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Saturday, February 13, 2016
- Tehran’s relatively tranquil week ended with large protests commemorating the tenth anniversary of attacks on the dormitories of Tehran University in 1999, making Thursday yet another significant day in the short post-election history of protests since Jun. 12.
Students have marked the occasion every year on the Iranian date 18 Tir since 1999, but this was the first time that the anniversary of the violent attack by plainclothes officers was turned into a general protest.
The protests clearly showed that Iran’s turmoil is not over and many are still serious about their objection to the authoritarian turn they think the country has taken since the disputed election.
Since the poll, Iranians have watched not only what some believe was a stolen election, but the subsequent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, mass arrests of campaign and political staffs as well as ordinary protesters, and silencing of communications networks, including blocking newspapers sympathetic to the opposition and arresting journalists.
This year for 18 Tir, the protests were also a commemoration of a similar dormitory attack that occurred on the night of Jun. 14, 2009 leading to the reported deaths of seven students.
Tehran’s police chief Ahmadi Moghadam had explicitly warned that no permit was issued for the rally and protestors would be confronted.
Efforts were also made to prevent the gathering. There were rumours of Wednesday being made a holiday because of air pollution that had overtaken Tehran. The hope was to inspire people to take a vacation and leave town. It didn’t work and a large crowd showed up.
In Enqelab Square, there were only uniformed police at first. Later some members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) came and attempted to frighten people with the sound of revving motorcycles. They shouted and asked the crowd to leave. When they failed to disperse the group, which was chanting “death to the dictator” and “Allah-o Akbar”, they turned to tear gas.
But even tear gas did not work. Some protesters left, but others simply congregated again in another part of the square, chanting. Their persistence finally led the IRGC and police to attack the crowd with batons, indiscriminate of age or gender.
This was apparently the first time that the police force itself openly attacked demonstrators, a task that had previously been left to plainclothes officers and the Basij militia, the IRGC’s special riot control forces.
Along Krgar Street leading to Enqelab Square, people walked or rode in their cars, raising their hands in a victory sign and blowing car horns. “Death to the Dictator,” “You Are the Dirt,” and “You Are the Enemy” were among the most prevalent chants.
This situation continued for at least an hour until an attempt was again made to disperse people with tear gas. Even when the security forces entered the street, they did not know who to attack. People from all sides were blowing their horns and chanting. So the security forces began taking photographs as people tried to cover their faces.
The transformation of one of Tehran’s main streets into a garrison belied the statement of President Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad in his television appearance on Jul. 7 that he was opposed to the securitisation of the society and would put an end to it.
The protests were also again a direct challenge to the words and authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who in a recent speech accused the foreign media of identifying people as ‘rioters’.
Instead, he identified them as people saddened by the loss of their candidate. His tone was more conciliatory than his Jun. 19 Friday Prayer sermon – precisely at the time when opposition at the street level turned openly against him. It is not yet clear how Khamanei will react in the face of such sustained opposition.
Ahmad Khatami, one of Tehran’s four temporary Friday Prayer leaders, said on Wednesday that the rumour that the Council of Experts is thinking about making the leader’s position a multi-person council is false.
But this public denial is itself a testimonial to the fact that the recent protests have been directed against the leader and the widespread dissatisfaction about his office’s inability to be an umbrella under which all political sides can stand.
The dissatisfaction became clear with people’s presence everywhere – at multiple protests throughout Tehran, as well as, reportedly, in other cities.
Demonstrators burned garbage cans in order to counteract the tear gas, were beaten, and ran into homes that opened their doors to them. Some were also arrested. The license plates of some cars whose drivers were blowing horns were taken by the police and other cars had their windows smashed.
Still, most people are expressing their anger calmly. In the words of one protestor: “Our anger is natural and logical, but they are nervous because our coming together warms our hearts and makes us happy. When they see us they become nervous and humiliated.”
After the initial convulsive post-election protests, the city was essentially turned into a large prison. Although the deputy prosecutor general announced that 2,000 to 2,500 people arrested previously had been released and 100 others will be released in the next few days, more protestors were identified through pictures and were arrested.
In addition, the renowned human rights lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, and his colleagues were detained.
News that 20 people had been executed on drug trafficking charges also raised fears that they were in fact demonstrators. Perhaps the government was sending a message that a new more violent phase was beginning, people said.
But this fear has so far not led to inaction. The city has indeed turned into a large garrison. Mobiles and text messaging systems are still cut off. But the presence of people is felt more than ever.
Crowds, along with stones and gravel found on street pavements, have become the only means of resistance and confrontation. And people know it.