x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Shades of 1999, but bolder

Unlike protests over press freedoms a decade ago, this time older people and middle class are involved alongside the students.

The popular discontent seething in Tehran today has echoes of the spontaneous eruption of unrest by pro-democracy students in 1999, when the capital's streets were gripped by the worst turmoil since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. The events of a decade ago do not augur well for those now bitterly contesting the allegedly fraudulent results that handed Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a second four-year term. The 1999 protests were crushed by gloating security forces within just six days, followed by mass arrests. Mr Ahmadinejad on Sunday dismissed the post-election unrest as unimportant, flippantly comparing it to passions after a football match, and clearly hoping his opponents would simply return to their homes shocked and bewildered. There is no sign of that happening yet. The protests, albeit just days old, are bigger and more widespread than those of 1999, and involve not just students, but older people and the middle classes. Defying an interior ministry ban on protest rallies, tens of thousands of Iranians converged peacefully on a Tehran square yesterday to chant support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the president's nominally-defeated challenger. Moreover, today's outcry is being led not by students, but by the defeated candidates who feel robbed. And they are senior insiders of the system's power structure. Mr Mousavi, the wartime former prime minister, has the support of fellow presidential candidate ­Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker. Backing them is Mr Ahamdinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad ­Khatami, and another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It is a powerful alliance. Given the dangerous and unpredictable situation, they will work to ensure that voters who feel cheated by the election do not give the security forces any opportunity to launch a bloody suppression on the streets. There were reports that plain-clothed militias have been authorised to use live ammunition for the first time. Mr Mousavi has repeatedly called for calm. Instead, he and his allies are finding inventive ways for peaceful protest that capture the imagination and carry a historical resonance to embarrass the regime. Today, as in 1999, protesters are taunting the security forces and Mr Ahmadinejad with chants that were used during the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah. Cries of "Death to dictatorship!" were heard 10 years ago, as they are today. And, in a non-violent form of opposition, protesters are heeding a call by Mr Mousavi's charismatic wife, Zahra Rahnavard, to go onto their rooftops and chant "Allahu Akbar". It was a precise and deliberate echo of the call made three decades ago by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as he united the people against the Shah. Mr Mousavi has also threatened to hold a sit-in protest at the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini. That would put the authorities in a bind: embarrassed by a demonstration at the sprawling shrine south of Tehran, but possibly unwilling to risk clashes at the hallowed site. The protests 10 years ago erupted after hardline Islamic vigilantes violently stormed a dormitory at Tehran University where students were holding a small, peaceful demonstration against new press curbs. There were similar scenes on Sunday night at the same university when police and hardline militias ransacked a dormitory and arrested dozens of students.

Ten years ago, Mr Khatami, the charismatic standard-bearer of the reformist movement was president, but effectively acted as a leader of the opposition, constantly thwarted by an entrenched old guard that controlled most levers of power. He baulked when the street protests turned violent, insisting that the disorder was damaging his reform order. Mr Khatami, committed to the Islamic system, as is Mr Mousavi, wanted evolutionary change, not another revolution. His ruthless enemies, capitalising on his humanity and timidity, succeeded in stuffing the genie of democracy back into the bottle. This time it may well prove more difficult. The anger is deeper, the opposition more powerful and ­organised. The regime appears rightly concerned by the vigour of the opposition it is facing. Yesterday, Mr Ahmadinejad cancelled a trip to Moscow. And there was a sudden intervention by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called on the top election supervisory body, the Guardian Council, to examine Mr Mousavi's complaints that he was fraudulently denied victory. Mr Ahmadinejad's opponents will be very sceptical of Ayatollah Khamenei's move, suspecting it is aimed solely at restoring calm before the Guardian Council declares there was no electoral malfeasance. After all, the supreme leader had already endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad's "divine" victory. The Guardian Council is a highly conservative body loyal to the supreme leader. It is known for its hostility to reformists and has consistently backed the regime. Yet Mr Mousavi and his influential allies will seek to scrutinise the Guardian Council's investigation. If unconvinced after exhausting legal channels, they can be relied upon to maintain their challenge through peaceful means. Mr Mousavi is aware that he has become a vessel for the aspirations of millions of Iranians. Their supporters are already calling for a day of industrial action today. The Islamic Republic is entering unchartered political waters. How the regime responds to any continued challenge is unclear. The unrest in 1999 took the authorities by surprise, yet they crushed it swiftly. Today, heightening suspicions that the elections were fraudulent, the system was well prepared to crush dissent. Near the close of polls on Friday, large numbers of security forces poured into the streets. Two days earlier, the Revolutionary Guards issued a chilling warning that they would crush any "velvet"-style revolution by Mr Mousavi's supporters. But if they open fire on the streets, protests may only spiral and popular outrage deepen. It is a scenario that Mr Mousavi's ruthless opponents, determined to maintain their power and privilege, appear ready to confront, by violence if necessary. The unexpected surge of exuberant, youth-driven support for Mr Mousavi emerged only in the final weeks of the election campaign. Mr Ahmadinejad's camp will hope that the well of anger will subside just as quickly, and that disappointed and demoralised reformist supporters will return to their state of passive disenchantment they lived with since the end of the Khatami era. But there is no sign that they will. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae