The Iranian protesters are here to stay. On 7 December 2009, tens of thousands of students around the country once again raised their voices against authoritarian rule. Foreign journalists were prohibited from reporting the events, mobile-phone networks and internet access were severely restricted. But the news of the protests continued to flow out of Iran almost instantaneously (see Borzou Daragahi, “Iran streets and campuses erupt in protest”, Los Angeles Times, 8 December 2009).
In one of the first films to be circulated, students behind the gates of Tehran University can be heard taunting the surveillance-actions of the security forces. A young man raises his hand in a victory-sign and invites a close-up photo: “Filthy regime sell-out, take it”. A notable aspect of much of the footage is that it is the cameramen seen working for the security forces that have their faces covered, be it from fear or shame. In this case, the masked cameraman draws back from the hand strapped in green ribbons, the campaign colours of Mir-Hossein Mousavi - the man millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of the presidential elections of 12 June 2009.
These iron gates are a famous landmark in Tehran, the surrounding areas full of bookshops always bustling with young students. They have too been the backdrop of many student protests in recent years. Today, the confrontations have moved beyond these gates to campuses that have been politically quiescent since the revolution of 1979.
The call of battle
A striking feature of the protests is the increasing presence of evidently politicised high-school students. What will happen to the schoolgirls who on 7 December were chanting: “Honourable teachers, support us, support us”. Will the authorities deploy the basiji security forces against them, as they did against in a violent raid against university students at Tehran University on 8-9 December? The state media’s depiction of the events on campus was that there were minor skirmishes between “decent students” against a rabble dancing to the tune of its paymasters in the west.
The protesters at Mashhad Azad University - not known for protests in the past - who chanted “basij get lost” had a different take on things. So too did the students at Amir Kabir, who taunted the basij by alluding to an all together different paymaster by waving banknotes at them.
A pair of anonymous cyber-citizen journalists put themselves in grave danger by tracking basij militia as they left Tehran University and then passed through another set of familiar gates: those of the old American embassy compound, scene of the long hostage-crisis of 1979-80.
The prosecutor-general of Iran, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, said on 8 December that “no mercy” will be shown against the protestors. Indeed, the show-trials, mass-arrests and ruthless killings of the six months since the presidential election have removed any expectation of justice from the state.
Against many odds, Iran’s students have shown that they are still capable of mounting major organised street-protests. On 7 December, those at the University of Science and Technology (Elm va Sanat) could be heard voicing what has become a familiar chant: “We are the men and women of war, fight us and we’ll fight back”. The cry is also a claim of ownership by the children of the post-war (the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88) baby-boom who have made themselves visible through the “green movement”.
What is happening here is also a retrieval through very modern methods (including videos, tweets, and blogs) of the moral legitimacy of the Iranian “cause”. It is significant that the contest with an Islamic state is articulated in the Islamic battle-cry Allah-o-Akbar, heard now in every street-rally, and that (for example) the popular micro-blogger persiankiwi’s reports on the fight for democratic rights are threaded with verses from the Qur’an. This new generation is responding to tyrannical violence with democratic non-violence, and - to the outrage of its elders - calls the fallen in its protests shahid (martyrs). It is turning the language and symbols of the regime against it, to the regime’s fury and confusion.
The cry of freedom
This new tech-savvy generation has also managed to find ways of exasperating and outwitting the authorities. On 7 December, student leader Majid Tavokoli’s rousing speech to his fellow-students calling on them to “make a stand against oppression” was soon online. In December 2006, Tavokoli and his peers at Amir Kabir were amongst the first group of students to mount a protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (elected in June 2005) as the president delivered a speech at their university. This was where the now common "death to the dictator" chants were first heard. Tavokoli was among those who paid heavily for it; he endured nearly two years in Iran’s dreaded Evin prison.
Soon after his brave speech on 7 December, Tavokoli was (according to his peers) viciously beaten up and taken away by the security forces. In a typically inept effort at humiliation, the official Fars news agency published photos of Tavakoli in a hijab (see Robert Mackey, “Iran’s State Media Mocks Arrested Student Leader Pictured in Women’s Clothing”, New York Times, 9 December 2009). This met an instant and defiant response online, where Tavakoli is widely eulogised; in solidarity, some Iranian men have even posted pictures of themselves on Facebook wearing the hijab.
Tavakoli’s last post on Facebook, in rough translation, reads:
“Looking at my mother’s tearful eyes and father’s anxious glances, and despite all the difficulties, only the true wish for freedom can maintain my drive and steadfastness. And so once again I welcome and accept all dangers, next to my friends with whom I am honoured and proud on 16 Azar to stand together and shout against tyranny. For Freedom.”
These young protesters will not be outwitted or ignored. Their voices will be heard. In a week it will be Moharram, the annual street-processions that have taken place since 1500 when the Safavi dynasty ruled Iran. The people of the street will use them to vent their anger. They are not going anywhere.