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Stealing a Funeral

On Monday, February 14, protesters returned to the streets of Tehran and a number of other cities (including Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Rasht) in response to a call by the leaders of the Green Movement.  While the presence of the Basij and the army on the streets prevented major crowd formations, pockets of several thousands of protesters were filmed in various parts of these cities – particularly Tehran.  The event which has been hailed as the return of the Green Movement attracted much media attention worldwide.

While the attention to the movement is understandable, a more important aspect of the recent events is the confused and conflicting manners in which the Islamic Republic has been trying to handle the situation. The latest in this series is a letter featured in the Daily Telegraph (Feb. 18) written supposedly by the officers of the Revolutionary Guards to their commander pledding to be allowed to hold their fire on the protesters. If proven to be authentic, this letter supposedly seen by Telegraph would indicate a major crack in the forces supporting the Supreme Leader.   Even without this document, the unfolding of the government’s reaction to last week’s demonstrations reveals serious confusion on the part of the regime and major divisions in its decision making ranks.

The initial reaction of the government to the call of the Green Movement  for a peaceful march on February 14 in support of the Egyptian uprising, was silence.  Days before the march, however, the internet went down, long distance calls were disconnected, and extra security forces made their presence felt on streets of Tehran and other cities. Psychological warfare was stepped up too. For example, randomly selected individuals received text messages that said they have been identified as being influenced by foreign propaganda. If they spoke with any foreign news agencies, they would be punishable according to law: http://www.iranpressnews.com/source/images/01/sms-1.jpg 

Furthermore, Mr. Karrubi and Mousavi were both placed under house arrest. On February 14, the state-run television reported calm streets in big cities and business as usual. It made a passing reference to sporadic unsuccessful attempts by a few hundred agitators who had tried to march but had been dispersed for lack of sympathy from the general public.

This picture was to change dramatically in less than twenty-four hours. By Tuesday morning, the media was reporting 1500 arrests, nine injuries and two deaths in Tehran alone. By the time the parliament was in public session on Tuesday morning – the sense of threat to the country was echoed by the representatives with such urgency that Speaker Ali Larijani suggested special investigations into the matter by the parliament’s security related committees. The suggestion met with a strange show of support in the form of representatives gathering around the speaker’s podium waving clenched fists and chanting “death to Mousavi” and “death to Karrubi.”

As the day went by and citizen journalists, mostly youth, managed to post on the internet the brief clips they had captured on cell phones, the protests turned out to be fairly extensive in size and intensity: http://www.iranian.com/main/2011/feb/25-bahman

Once again, universities emerged as the informal headquarters, and the heartbeat, for this loosely coordinated event.  Not surprisingly, Sharif University in Tehran was at the center of action: http://www.rahesabz.net/story/32619/  A marked difference between the February 14 protests and the ones that were put down a year before was the increase in the anti-Khamenei slogans.  A particularly popular chant went: “Mubarak, Bin Ali, the turn has come for Seyyed Ali” referring to Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the Supreme leader.

An incident particularly embarrassing to the Islamic Republic was the visit to Iran, on February 14, by the Turkish President Abdullah Gul.  Obviously, the government had not deemed it necessary to postpone the visit. And obviously, that was a mistake. The Green movement leaders extended an invitation to Mr. Gul to participate in their peaceful march. Whether in response to that invitation, or simply out of curiosity, apparently the Turkish President took a surprise drive into the center of Tehran were a group of protesters were in action. Later, the Turkish media described the incursion as an attempt on the part of Mr. Gul to visit some bookstores located near Tehran University.

Whatever the initial purpose of the foray, the Turkish President witnessed some of the brutality of the security forces firsthand. Later, in a joint press conference with his counterpart Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Gul commented that reform is necessary and “if peoples demands are ignored, they will take matters into their own hands.” To make matters worse, other foreign dignitaries were also found (and sometimes arrested) observing the protests. The Japanese and Austrian Ambassadors to Iran were among these.

Only two weeks before the Turkish reprimand, the Supreme Leader had received a direct rebuff from the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Muslim organization in Egypt. In response to Mr. Khamenei’s claim, in his Friday sermon, that the Egyptian uprising was an Islamic revolution inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood retorted on their main website: “Mr. Khamenei, this is not an Islamic Revolution! It belongs to all the people of Egypt.” The Message was clear, stay away from our uprising!

Of all these blunders, none are as disastrous as the attempts on the part of the Basij forces to appropriate one of the student casualties of the Monday Protests as theirs. Sane Jaleh, a Kurdish student at Danishgah-e Honar “College of Art” died on Monday after being shot. He was presented by the media as a member of the Basij attacked by armed protesters. These claims were disputed immediately by Mr. Jaleh’s classmates who despite danger to themselves spoke to foreign media. To them the claim was false and added insult to injury. Images circulated on the internet showing Sane visiting with the dissenting clergy, and supporter of the Green movement, Ayatollah Montazeri.

Weblogs posted a musical clip which parodied the Islamic Republic and to which Mr. Jaleh had contributed.

Despite all of this, the government went ahead with its scenario portraying Sane Jaleh as a martyred member of the Basij.  On Wednesday morning, as the students gathered in Farabi Hall in the College of Art to participate in their friend’s funeral, they found themselves locked inside the hall and surrounded by security forces. In the meantime, the Basij went ahead with a funeral show specially staged for the official media, one without the presence of a single friend or family member of the deceased. In the heat of stilling the funeral, the forces had forgotten to invite Mr. Sane’s parents, something entirely unheard of in the Iranian tradition. An alternative scenario could be that the parents had refused to participate in the event that presented their son as a member of the organization they considered responsible for his death. The student’s ordeal did not end with the funeral.   Once they were release form Farabi Hall, some thirty of them were arrested and made to sing an official letter vowing not to participate in future “illegal” gatherings.

Needless to say, the Islamic Republic is evermore shaky and angry.  With a single protest, the Green Movement seems to have inflicted serious harm on the front erected carefully over one year by the supreme leader’s supporters at home and abroad. But the truth is that much of the harm is caused by an erratic decision making process rooted in the uncertainty and the deep divisions within the regime.

In the meantime, the Green movement’s call for an official protest on Sunday to commemorate the death of Mr. Sane was heard by the supporters.  This was an attempt to take back the stolen funeral which is gaining monumental symbolic significance. Large cities in the province of Kurdistan, the place of Mr. Sane’s birth, closed down in a full strike. The news coming out of other cities indicate that although forming large crowds is nearly impossible, the protesters have been making their voices heard way into the night on Sunday: http://www.rahesabz.net/story/33003/   There is already talk of more protests.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.

 

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