Riots and repression in Iran: eight days that shook the Muslim world

June 20, 2009

Police attack protesters at a demonstration against the election results in Tehran

Ella Flaye

Iran will hold a landmark presidential election today . . . Officials expect a near-record turnout after an extraordinary campaign marked by vast rallies, all-night revelry and unprecendented infighting The Times, Friday, June 12

In the days leading up to last Friday’s election Tehran was in the grip of a carnival atmosphere. A young man weaved through traffic in a joker hat, green ribbons streaming behind him; a car blared out an old Iranian pop classic on a disc distributed by the Mousavi campaign; jokes about the personal hygiene of President Ahmadinejad circulated by text. They were among the last texts Tehranis would be able to send.

On election day policemen tapped their batons idly as people came out in droves to vote. In one queue stretching around the block at the al-Shariati mosque, a Mousavi stronghold, spontaneous rounds of applause kept breaking out. Journalists interviewed Iranians, Iranians filmed journalists on their phones interviewing Iranians. “It’s a souvenir,” somebody explained. In the Ahmadinejad-supporting areas of working-class south Tehran people were also jubilant, equally convinced that their vote was going to bring about change. Their sense of being the victim of an establishment conspiracy eerily mirrored that of the Mousavi supporters up north.

Iran faced chaos last night after Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed to have defeated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by a substantial margin in the presidential election, but minutes later the state news agency delcared that Mr Ahmadinejad had won — Saturday June 13

On Saturday morning, after a dramatic evening of claims and counter-claims, Ahmadinejad’s election victory was announced. “I’m too depressed to get up,” one friend said on the phone. Not everyone was so apathetic; a small group was gathering at the junction of Jakan-Kudak and Africa streets, having got word on Facebook to go there and protest (the site was blocked shortly afterwards). The people were mostly young, and docile. “The Government are big cheaters,” one timid 22-year-old girl said. They didn’t seem to know why they were there except to take comfort in a shared frustration.

Then riot police swept up the road. “Befarama!” (Move on, please) crackling on their loudspeakers. A woman was crossing the road who didn’t even seem to be part of the demonstration, and her mouth suddenly shaped into an “O” as she, along with everyone else, gave a roar of defiance. The police gave chase. One man picked himself up after having been beaten and muttered, in English: “This is democracy.” A woman standing in the same area after the crowd had been dispersed broke in to tears. “They are cheating,” she wailed. “What can we do?”

In the spontaneous demonstrations and crackdowns that took place throughout the day the Iranians went out of their way to help and protect foreign journalists. “Use my internet,” said one man sheltering us in his office during a stampede at Vanak Square. “You have to tell the world what is going on.”

Ayatollah Khamenei ordered all Iranians to accept the re-election of the President, whose vote was put at 63 per cent — Sunday, June 14

Overnight and into Sunday word had got out of the brutalities committed by the security forces. Rumours of arrests were circulating, particularly in the activist community, which were impossible to verify. There were cautious demonstrations the next day — many people preferred to protest in their cars. One interviewee insisted on driving me to my next appointment and her mother and sister leapt in the car with her. “We want an excuse to get in the traffic!” they said – not a statement often heard in Tehran. The mother, wearing a Burberry headscarf, waved a green ribbon out of the window as we sat stuck at the top of Fereshteh Street; the sister, who was driving, indulged in a therapeutic orgy of beeping.

The green ribbons, headbands, shirts and bandanas with which so many festooned last week have vanished — to wear them now would invite a beating — Monday, June 15

A definite time and place was set for Monday’s demonstration but to begin with the atmosphere was heavy with fear. Every chant was muffled with a “ssss” — Persian for “ssh” — as protesters shuffled around Vanak Square, like pilgrims on the hajj.

Then something changed. Protesters were giving roses to the police, and the police were smiling and joking with them. People who had previously been observing drifted in to the march itself, and slowly as it moved silently down Azadieh Street, the realisation dawned on a million faces that it was going to be all right. “There are too many of us to hit,” said one, grinning. People in the buildings lining the street began to toss torn-up shreds of paper into the sky like tickertape. Every single available surface was clambered on: buses, bus stops, footbridges. Riding to South Tehran that night, my taxi driver refused to take a fare. A motorcycle pulled up at the window, leant in and informed us: “Ahmadinejad will be visited by Khomeini in his dreams tonight!”

Dissidents are defying attempts to silence them by distributing photos, videos and reports of protests online — Tuesday, June 16

By Tuesday news had emerged of the shootings that took place at the end of the previous day’s demonstration and there was a renewed caution in the gatherings. Foreign journalists were told that their credentials had been revoked and they should leave the country. A bunker-like atmosphere took hold — should we go out and carry on reporting? What would happen? The attitude towards us at the protests was noticeably different. Nobody admitted to speaking English.

The regime organised a big rally of Ahmadinejad supporters in Vali Asr Square barely an hour before tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters were due to gather — Wednesday, June 17

The internet was doing its work: everyone was discussing the photographs they had seen of people badly beaten, and the raids on universities. One man in the neighbourhood I was staying in had set himself up as the local news service, drawing anyone that came past in to a secluded area to disseminate the latest information.

“Everyone is so energised and pumped up but no one knows how it will end” — Thursday, June 18

Thursday’s demonstration showed much more direction. Instructions were taken from Mousavi’s website and people dispersed when they were told. “The protests are all just policy now,” grumbled one man who had protested against the Shah’s Government in 1979. “Mousavi is not a revolutionary.” Signs were even emerging of a protest economy; one man was selling green balloons at Thursday’s rally, and another had set up a cold drinks stand.

Ayatollah Ali Khameni has told Mir Hossein Mousavi to stand beside him as he uses Friday prayers at Tehran University to call for national unity — Friday, June 19

Tens of thousands of prayer mats were spread out in the streets around Tehran University, as the faithful gathered. When it came it was stark and uncompromising. The Supreme Leader warned of the severe consequences of ongoing protest, to which people chanted: “Our dear leader, we are ready to do whatever you want.” When he denounced Britain they chanted: “Allahu akhbar!” Afterwards a foreign TV reporter started speaking outside to camera. She was immediately engulfed in a crowd of young men in black chanting: “Death to Britain!” who followed her down the street.

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