Monday, July 27, 2009

Iran's Protesters: Phase 2 of Their Feisty Campaign

Monday, Jul. 27, 2009

By Robin Wright

Phase 2 has begun. Six weeks after millions took to the streets to protest Iran's presidential election, their uprising has morphed into a feistier, more imaginative and potentially enduring campaign.

The second phase plays out in a boycott of goods advertised on state-controlled television. Just try buying a certain brand of dairy product, an Iranian human-rights activist told me, and the person behind you in line is likely to whisper, "Don't buy that. It's from an advertiser." It includes calls to switch on every electric appliance in the house just before the evening TV news to trip up Tehran's grid. It features quickie "blitz" street demonstrations, lasting just long enough to chant "Death to the dictator!" several times but short enough to evade security forces. It involves identifying paramilitary Basij vigilantes linked to the crackdown and putting marks in green — the opposition color — or pictures of protest victims in front of their homes. It is scribbled antiregime slogans on money. And it is defiant drivers honking horns, flashing headlights and waving V signs at security forces. (See pictures of Iran's presidential election and its turbulent aftermath.)

The tactics are unorganized, largely leaderless and only just beginning. They spread by e-mail, websites and word of mouth. But their variety and scope indicate that Iran's uprising is not a passing phenomenon like the student protests of 1999, which were quickly quashed. This time, Iranians are rising above their fears. Although embryonic, today's public resolve is reminiscent of civil disobedience in colonial India before independence or in the American Deep South in the 1960s. Mohandas Gandhi once mused that "even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled." That quotation is now popular on Iranian websites.

Its impact varies, but Phase 2 has begun to exact a price from those who ignore the popular will. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament, told me that some companies have cut back on TV advertising, and some stores have dropped advertised brands. A new boycott of text messaging could be costing a state company more than $1 million a day. "There is optimism that protests will continue one way or another," says Farideh Farhi, an Iranian analyst at the University of Hawaii, "because people who are normally not rabblerousers are finding ways to counter the government crackdown."

The new camaraderie of resistance was visible at the July 17 Friday prayer sermon given by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at Tehran University. Nonreligious Iranians turned up for political reasons. The devout showed them how to carry out the rituals, with strangers handing out newspapers as substitute prayer mats for overflow crowds. Men and women prayed together, a regime taboo. When Rafsanjani referred to detainees, the crowd interrupted by roaring, "Political prisoners must be freed!" Calling for support of Iran's Supreme Leader, who backed the crackdown, another prayer official intoned, "We are all your soldiers, Khamenei! We await your orders!" But supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi shouted back, "We are your soldiers, Mousavi! We await your orders!" And when told to shout "Down with America!" the crowd instead chanted "Down with Russia!" — whose leaders had congratulated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and hosted him four days later. (See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran's election.)

The protests tap into a long Iranian tradition. The seeds of the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution — which produced Iran's first parliament and constitution — were planted in the Tobacco Protest of the 19th century, when even women in the royal harem stopped smoking their water pipes to protest an exclusive concession given by the Shah to a British company. Protests, strikes and boycotts prevented Iran from becoming a British protectorate in 1920, secured the reappointment of reformist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 and — most significant of all — ended 2,500 years of dynastic rule in 1979 and ushered in the Islamic Republic.

The current uprising is nowhere near as widespread as that of 1979. Yet the activism is creating a new political space in Iran. The public is defining its own agenda, with Rafsanjani, Mousavi and other opposition figures responding to sentiment on the street rather than directing it. After meeting on July 20 with the families of people detained following the election, Mousavi warned the power structure, "You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements."

As Iran's second phase of protests takes shape, the regime's future may depend on whether it heeds that warning.

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