Thursday, June 25, 2009

A frightening Clear Message

His message was frighteningly clear, stop the protests, or face serious repercussions. The leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led the Friday prayers and made sure everyone knew where he and the government stood on the matters regarding the presidential elections.
Ayatollah Khamenei had had enough. For a week people were pouring into the streets to demonstrate against the results of the elections. The protest rallies were massive, as millions had come out in support of Mir Hossein Moussavi. But now if anyone wanted to come out and demonstrate peacefully, they were going to suffer consequences; going out now would be going against the word of the leader.
Friday’s speech was as hard-line as you could get. We all wondered what would happen next, would people still come out in defiance of the leader? What would Moussavi say? The optimism from past rallies was drowned out by the words of Ayatollah Khamenei. Many thought this was the final nail in the coffin of the presidential elections.
The following day, a rally was scheduled for 16h in downtown Tehran. I ate a big lunch with my friends, and by 15h we got in a cab headed towards Enqelab Square, where the demonstrations were going to take place. The air was as tense as ever in Tehran. Our collective hearts were racing while sitting in the cab. None of us knew what to expect downtown, and whether people were going to show up or not.
The driver let us out a few blocks before the square as traffic was heavily backed up. As my friends and I walked towards Enqelab, we noticed that security had been heavily beefed up. Every street corner had more than a handful of riot police and Basij forces. We walked through a park, and many more Basiji members were sitting around, observing the public. Fear began to penetrate my body as I walked by, since these security forces had been given the green light to quell the protests, as ruthlessly and violently, as they wanted to.
As we approached Enqelab, we saw scores of people walking in the same direction. Thousands had come out to demonstrate and show support, and more importantly, they had come out against the word of the leader. While walking, my friend stopped us,
“We gotta get out of here, this is a death trap,” he said.
Security was on everywhere you looked. Perhaps ten thousand or more security forces were out, ready to pounce on protesters. We decided to leave the area and take haven in a nearby hotel café.
As it turns out, if we did not leave Enqelab Square when we did, we would have been in for a very rude awakening. Police had blocked off the square after a few minutes, and the people inside the square could not get out, while the people trying to get inside the square could not get in. Forces then moved in and attacked the trapped demonstrators in Enqelab Square. Luckily we had already left to go get a cup of tea at a café.
While sitting and drinking tea, we heard gunshots fired, and loud screams from outside. People were running into the hotel lobby to seek refuge from security forces. Those who came into the hotel were escaping the painful tear gas that was fired, and begged others in the lobby to blow cigarette smoke in their eyes, as smoke dispels the effects of tear gas to a degree.
For hours we sat in the café, waiting until things in the streets settled down so we could get home. The traffic was very heavy as we tried to leave; Tehran seemed as if it was on fire, smoke and flames filled the air around the city. Bricks, and stones were littered in the streets, as protesters had hurled them at police earlier.
Driving down the street in a taxi, little groups of people had gathered on the side of the road, and held up their middle and index finger to put up the peace/victory sign, symbolic of the Moussavi campaign. Cars were honking, and people clapping as we drove by. Our hearts were filling up with hope and optimism yet again.
By the time we got home, and watched the news coverage, the hope and optimism began to escape our bodies. The news had shown brutal images and footage of security attacking protesters. As time went by, more deaths were being confirmed; they showed a video clip of young women, getting fatally shot in the chest, while she stood and watched the demonstrations with her father. Our hearts sank in our stomachs. Ayatollah Khamenei had warned people of the consequences they faced if they dared come out on the streets; the footage we were watching was proof of how serious he was.
The crowd was substantial today in Enqelab, but so was security, and they were well prepared. A week of protests that were generally peaceful had now turned into bloody battles between demonstrators and security forces. Tehran was slowly turning into a large battlefield, and the government showed no sympathy to those coming out in defiance of the leader.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

“Iranian Elections: A divide in society”

Today, we were to meet at one of the major hubs in the city centre, Hafte Tir. The fifth day after the elections, and the third organized protest, planned for 17h.
It was 16h38 as we precipitated towards the southern corner of Parkway intersection, where taxis usually stand in line to fill up with passengers headed towards Hafte Tir Square. There were a couple of dozen people waiting under the hot sun already and no taxis were to be found.
As per Tehrani taxi-summoning custom, people stood in the street yelling their destination to passing cars. “Hafte Tir!” “Hafte Tir!” But, no cars were going to the center of the city, especially not for the standard fare of 30 cents per person. Judging from the massive crowds that have been gathering on a daily basis, heading in the direction of a Moussavi rally would mean sitting in a highway turned parking lot.
Taxis in Parkway are usually eagerly seeking passengers, but today passengers were desperately seeking taxis. As we inched up towards the front of the cue to be the first to jump in any car that was going remotely close to Hafte Tir. Just as we did so, a public bus pulled up with “Hafte Tir” written on its windshield. The little crowd that had amassed surged through the doors.
The bus driver yelled back that he would get us as close as we could go, since the roads were already blocked off well before the square. The bus filled up fast as it made it’s way down Modaress Highway.
This was already quite a crowd considering the national football team was playing a qualifying game for the World Cup that afternoon. But even talk of the national team echoed political undertones. One person on the bus announced that the Iranian players were wearing green wristbands while out on the field.
Green is the color and trademark of Moussavi’s campaign and has developed into a cultural phenomenon since a couple of months before the elections. Green ribbons, green headscarves, green t-shirts and even green facepaint permeates almost all parts of Iranian society. After the elections, the color green has come to symbolize protest, resistance, and hope. Hope and solidarity was the reason that drove these people to get on the bus.
Every whisper on the bus concerned Moussavi, and the rally that was forming in Hafte Tir Square. While passengers were having their own quiet conversation, one passenger got up and, yelled out:
“Allah Akbar!”
The whole bus responded in unison, “Allah Akbar!”
“Death to the dictator,” the passenger yelled out.
Once again, everyone followed suite. The bus was about the only place, where the chants could take place; the Moussavi rallies have all been silent rallies, to avoid commotion, and provocation that could lead to violent confrontations, and also as a way to pay respect, to those that lost their lives over the past few days. In the gatherings from previous days, anytime a chant would get started, people in the crowd made sure to tell everyone to stop. The bus was the exception for today.
Traffic was light for about fifteen minutes, until we got closer to downtown. We got to an area called Abbas Abad, and the bus driver informed us, that this was going to be the last stop he would be making. Everyone got off in a hurry, and began walking to Hafte Tir. The sun was very hot, and clouds were rare; everyone stopped at a corner store to get some water. Slowly as we got closer, the crowd grew larger.
It was just yesterday, where the government had planned a gathering for President Ahmadinejad’s supporters, in the same vicinity. The contrast between the two crowds was very large. Yesterday downtown was filled with women covered in “chadors”, a head to toe black covering, and mostly bearded, husky men; it was rare to see someone not belonging to either group. The crowd in today’s rally was much more diverse; you had your chadori women, but also those who wear their headscarf towards the back of their head and use it more as an accessory, then the mandatory head covering. There were young college students, mullahs, and some of the older established merchants.
Today’s gathering was much greater than yesterday’s event; it was at least ten times the size. We were probably less than half a kilometer from Hafte Tir Square, and the crowd was already immense. The walk was the exact same walk we made from yesterday; we walked by an empty football court, and I recalled that yesterday it was full of kids. No traffic made it through the streets today, while yesterday cars drove by next to us. Listening to people talk yesterday, you heard different accents that were from surrounding provinces, today it was nothing but the local accent of the people from Tehran. The government is notorious for busing in people from surrounding villages, to fill up the crowd for the president’s rallies.
For the last few weeks crowds have been amassing at night, to show support for their candidate. Each night, the crowds were segregated, Ahmadinejad supporters on one side, and the Moussavi/reformist supporters on the other; it was a big face off. Taunts would go back and forth, riling up both sides. Everyday leading up to Election Day, would raise the excitement level of the people. The presidential debates really took the excitement to another level. Crowds began to gather in larger sizes at night, and the talk of the town was nothing but the elections. It was only a few months ago, where most analysts, had assumed that the incumbent would win re-election with great ease, and without much hooplah. As the weeks winded down, the Moussavi campaign gained more and more momentum. By the final days, many believed that Iran was not going to re-elected a president after his first term, for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history. Moussavi’s campaign was very creative in spreading its message, and used alternative means to do so. As television, and radio was dominated by the president, the Moussavi campaign team turned to cyberspace, and text messaging to get through to the masses. It began to spread quickly, as the youthful population of Iran (the greater majority of Iran is under the age of 30), took notice.
By the time Moussavi and Ahmadinejad faced off in their televised debate, it was a big showdown. Over fifty million of Iran’s seventy two million people tuned in, as the president was going up against his toughest challenger. Election fever had griped the entire nation. It was on this night, where the rift between the population opened up. The president had a bold strategy during the contest, in which his stewardship of the economy, and foreign policy came into question. Instead of a defense to the accusations, President Ahmadinejad brought up a powerful figure in Iranian politics, who is known throughout the country as “Hashemi”, while the rest of the world knows him as former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad accused him, and well known politicians around him, as being corrupt, and accused them of being in Moussavi’s political circle. It was a rather shocking move by the president, trying to paint his opponent as someone who works with corrupt individuals. He did not stop there, and went on to hold up a document in his hand, which was Zahra Rahnavard’s, Moussavi’s wife, doctorate degree. Ahmadinejad claimed that she earned her degree illegally, and fraudulently.
While Moussavi criticized the president’s various policies, and preached change, Ahmadinejad focused his attacks on past politicians and corruption claims.
After that night, the crowds became more intense. Throughout Tehran, the Moussavi crowds would dominate the streets, while the president’s supporters would drive by on motorbikes, sometimes with three on a bike. Looking at the crowds from those nights, many began to think, and believe that a new president was on the horizon. The crowds also symbolized something special, the fact that people believed in the system, and believed in democracy in Iran. It was a great sight to see, as political talk was lively throughout the streets.
From polling station to polling station on election day, everyone mentioned the same thing; change. Many had come out to vote for the first time in there lives, because they truly believed in change. After visiting over a dozen polling stations across the city, I was convinced that Moussavi would win in the first round. The enthusiasm that filled the air was unbelievable. The lines were over four or five hours in some areas, under the hot sun, but almost everyone had a smile on their faces, happy to take part in something so historic.
The polls stayed open four hours after the originally scheduled time of 18h. As night approached, I remember all my friends being so excited and eager to hear the results. By the time midnight came and went, we started to get some updates. My friends phone rang, and could not believe what I had heard.
“Al-Alam is reporting that Ahmadinejad has won,” said my friend after getting off the phone.
The polls had closed for just over two hours, how could this be possible? We went through a few news channels on TV for a few minutes to see if we could get a more credible update. Press TV was the first to give an update with numbers. President Ahmadinejad had gotten over sixty nine percent of the counted votes so far. Then Moussavi and his campaign held a press conference declaring victory. We are all confused, while all news outlets were saying Ahmadinejad was in the lead.
Everyone was in disbelief. How could this be, if everyone at the polls thought they were taking part in a landmark moment in the Islamic Republic’s history, that was to bring about some changes to the current system. At first they announced, twenty percent of the vote had been counted. Optimism slowly turned into worries. A few hours passed, and another update. Now over 30 percent of the vote had been counted, and there was no change in the president’s lead.
Worries now turned into despair. By the early morning, stations were announcing that the president was securely in the lead, with over eighty percent of the votes being counted. I was in and out of sleep all night, and at one point thought everything was a bad dream. But by noon time every news outlet was announcing that Ahmadinejad, had won in a landslide victory. Everyone seemed to be in disbelief.
By the afternoon, the envelope of the elections had been sealed shut. The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei had a prepared statement read over state radio and television. He hailed the impressive turnout, which was reported at eighty five percent, and confirmed the results, that Ahmadinejad had won with over sixty percent of the votes cast.
People did not know what to make of the situation. By night time you could hear grumblings in the streets. The government called in extra riot police, and security forces, to patrol the city. The following day, little spontaneous crowds began to gather sporadically and chant slogans like “Only Moussavi”. But this was not the time of the debates, where people poured into the streets, supporting their candidates, singing, and dancing in the streets. Within moments of the first chant, riot police, sitting two by two on motorbikes, raced into the crowd, and the officer on the back of the bike would rise up and attack the people with his baton. It was going on all over downtown. Cars were honking their horns out of protest to the election results, causing the wild scene to sound ever more chaotic.
By nightfall there were widespread protests across the city. Riot police went after people, while protesters threw rocks in defense. It was only a few days ago that the streets were so lively and full of fun, leading up to Election Day, and now it was a battle zone. The following day, protests grew more intense, and violent. The basij, a paramilitary force, loyal to the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, had been unleashed on the public. They viciously stormed through the city, weapons in hand, to try and quell the protests. Beatings took place on streets all over. Horror stories of innocent bystanders getting brutally beaten began to circulate the air. Things were starting to get out of hand, and ugly very fast; nobody expected this to happen.
Moussavi who had been silent, after declaring victory a few hours after polls had closed, finally broke his silence, and announced a gathering the following day, to take place from Enghelab (Revolution) Sq. to Azadi (Freedom) Square. We were all curious to see what the turnout would be like.
This was the first, of what was to be several gatherings, to protest the elections. I was amazed by the crowd that had come out to show Moussavi support; climbing up a few structures, I took a peak out the crowd. There had to be close to a million or more people. People stood on top of their buildings throwing papers in the air, while the crowd cheered and roared. It seemed to be a peaceful rally, as Moussavi drove by with his wife, former president Mohammad Khatami, and presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, in a big jeep, much to the delight of the crowd. Everyone around us was so happy and optimistic about the event. The size of the crowd seemed to boost everyone's defeated moral. The feeling didn’t last long, as we began to get some troubling news.
A friend called and said she witnessed three people get shot, in the front of the crowd, in Azadi Square. When we got home, news outlets had eyewitnesses who were reporting that at least four people were shot dead in the crowd. We heard reports of university raids, in which students were killed. A day filled with the same hope, that the Moussavi campaign had promised, was now filled with horror and sadness. The final report, confirmed seven people dead at Azadi Square. People were very shaken up, but the rallies would not stop.
The next day, another gathering was to take place in Vali-asr Square at 17h. The state-run media reported a “unity rally” of Ahmadinejad supporters in the same place earlier in the day. To avoid problems, the Moussavi crowd relocated to another area, Vanak Square. In Vali-asr, the Ahmadinejad crowd paled in comparison to the crowd from the day before. After checking out that crowd, we headed up towards Vanak to see what kind of gathering formed. Once again the crowd completely filled the streets, swallowing up the few cars that dared to be on the road. People were out again to rally against what they saw as a corrupt verdict of the counted votes.
It was today, where we found ourselves at Hafte Tir, to take part in the following rally. The crowd blocked traffic from going through the square. At least half a million people were out again, protesting silently and peacefully. Walking through the crowd people would inform each other on the following day’s gathering. It has been the norm of all the previous events.
“Tomorrow at 17h, Imam Khomeini Square,” someone shouted out.
The crowds have continued to come out in strong numbers, and show no signs of stopping. By nightfall, people honk the horns of their cars to show protest, while those at home take to the roof and shout “Allah Akbar” and “Death to the dictator”. The protests don’t seem to slow down, while the government is trying to come up with some kind of a solution to end the commotion. The 2009 election has seemed to create a big divide in Iranian society, between those that seek more change and reform, and those who want to stay within the traditional framework of the Islamic Revolution. It remains to be seen, which side will get there way, when the smoke clears. The rift between the two sides continues to get bigger as more protests are on the horizon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


This is my first post at this blog. I will be writing about the events in Tehran. Would be glad to hear your comments!