Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Politicization of Protests

Tomorrow, 14 February, will potentially be a day of unrest in Lebanon and Iran. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri will apparently be giving a political speech tomorrow, the anniversary of his father's death, to rally his supporters. He is using the solemn occasion to defend his decision to renege on the failed Saudi-Syrian negotiations which ultimately ushered his downfall. We can only wait and see what impact this will have on recent political tensions here.

And in Iran, the opposition movement continues to call for a rally despite the government not granting the necessary permission. There appears to be a lot of contradictions related to happenings in Iran. The opposition ostensibly says that the proposed demonstration is to support the Tunisian and Egyptian people, however Green Movement leaders openly admit that it is really a protest against the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile this past week the government in Tehran has been praising the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and yet is refusing to allow Iranians to demonstrate. Indeed security forces arrested some members of the opposition yesterday, including Mohammad Sharifzadegan, the former welfare minister. When I read this news my stomach dropped. Dr. Sharifzadegan kindly shared with me his time during my field research in Tehran during summer 2008. Although we merely spoke about Iran's complex and dynamic welfare system, this meeting may now be used against him because I am an American. As a Revolutionary Guard commander recently threatened on state media, "We definitely see [the opposition protesters] as enemies of the revolution and spies, and we will confront them with force."

The Islamic Republic ought to be worried about spies and Washington's machinations to instigate regime change. While I was doing field research in Tehran, Seymour Hersh published an account of Washington's covert operations to topple the government in Tehran. But ironically, it may be the obsessive fear of this happening which ultimately destroy's the government's own legitimacy. Dr. Sharifzadegan and so many other proud Iranians do not want to dismantle the Islamic Republic, and yet they are persecuted since last summer's election because of the state's paranoia. That being said, the opposition movement will not be successful either unless it reaches out to all Iranians for support, especially the working class Iranians whom many of the elites currently demonize. Otherwise the Green Movement will continue to commit some of the very sins that they are protesting against.

Of course, there is also the Obama administration's contradictory reactions to recent events. The White House has firmly called on Iran to allow the protests to take place tomorrow and harshly criticized Syria for imprisoning a young blogger. And yet the administration has remained silent on the brutal crackdown in Algeria, where police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters yesterday while the government shut down the internet. Hypocrisy seems to be a contagion these days.

Iran's Opposition Planning Protests

Seemingly emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt, opposition leaders call for anti-government rallies on Monday.

D. Parvaz
Al Jazeera
13 February 2011

Amid reports of a low turnout for the annual march commemorating the anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution on Friday, there are calls among opposition leaders for nationwide marches against the government on Monday.

Protesters, including university students, truck drivers and gold merchants are said to be organising marches across the country under the umbrella of the country's Green Movement, apparently inspired by recents demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.

The movement, also known as the Green Wave, made international headlines after the disputed 2009 presidential elections which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a second term in office.

Monday's protests have been called at the behest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, which the movement backed as opposition presidential candidates in the election two years ago.

The governments of both Tunisia and Egypt were successfully toppled via massive and prolonged protests and rallies.

Permission to hold rallies in Egypt was sought prior to the demonstrators' actions but no such permit has not been granted in Iran, and the country's Revolutionary Guard has already promised to forcefully confront any protesters.

Some of the posters advertising Monday's rally on Facebook refer to February 14 day as a "valentine to Iran's freedom". The main Facebook page calling for demonstrations has over 43,000 followers.

While the government says that 50 million people turned up for the 32nd anniversary of the revolution, which, on the Iranian calender, takes place on the 22nd day of the month of Bahman, those numbers are disputed by some independent media.

On the back of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, on Friday, some Iranian officials have suggested parallels between the February 11, 1979 departure of Iran's shah and Mubarak's ousting.


While it remains to be seen if Monday's protests materialise, there are reports that at least 14 activists have been arrested in recent days and that Karroubi has been placed under house arrest.

Among those reportedly arrested are some of Mousavi's inner circle. has named them as Mohammad Hossein Sharifzadegan, who is Mousavi's brother in law and a former welfare minister, as well as Saleh Noghrehkar, who heads Mousavi's legal team.

According to, they also include Mostafa Mir-Ahamadizadeh, a law professor at Qom University, adviser to Karroubi and an ally of Mohammad Khatami, Iran's former president and a noted reformist. says that Mir-Ahamadizadeh has been taken to "a prison run by the Intelligence Bureau of Qom".

The state has also engaged in jamming satellite signals and has blocked the word "Bahman" from search engines.

'Arab envy'

Kelly Niknejad, founder and editor in chief of news site, told Al Jazeera that it is hard to tell what, if anything, may unfold on Iran's streets on Monday.

"The Iranian government did a very effective job of keeping the protest down," said Niknejad, referring to the absence of protests in Iran since 2009.

"They've made it such a high-stakes game to go out and protest."

As a result, Niknejad says she is surprised that Karroubi and Mousavi have called for the protests.

"Perhaps they know Iranians in away that those of us who live on the sidelines don't ... perhaps they know something that we don't," she said.

Niknejad, who has been in touch with people in Iran, said that while some have said they will go out and protest, many are "are scared to death".

She also says there may be a case of "Arab envy" among some anti-government Iranians.

With events in Egypt and Tunisia in mind, it seems that there has been a renewed interest in the opposition movement in Iran - at least in the expatriate community - but while interest outside the country might be a reflection of the mood within Iran's borders, it will not necessarily translate to action there.

"It's easy to raise your fist from behind the veil of the laptop," said Niknejad.

Vested interests

While deposed leaders such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, have often fled abroad, Niknejad says she cannot see the same happening to Iran's leadership should any uprising be successful.

"I can't imagine Mr Khamenei (Iran's supreme leader) going to a Swiss cottage to live out the rest of his days," she said.

Niknejad said the establishment in Iran will "fight tooth and nail" to remain in power and that it seems unlikely that they would have safe havens outside the country.

The powerful Revolutionary Guard in Iran has a major financial stake in Iran, one far greater than even the Egyptian military.

It is heavily invested in Iran's economy, including petroleum development, construction, weapons manufacturing, communication system, and as a result it has been specifically targeted by international sanctions on Iran.

Niknejad also points out that compared to Iranian security forces, who "beat Iranians to a pulp" in the 2009 protests, the military in Egypt - where journalists were still able to enter and talk to people at the height of the unrest - was relatively benign.

"Egypt on a bad day is better than Iran is on a good day," she said.

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