What happens after the foreign journalists go to sleep? Supporters come out en masse, but not just for Mir Hossein Mousavi.
By JASON REZAIAN in Tehran | 7 June 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] While the last several nights may represent the biggest public display of expression in the history of the Islamic Republic, deciphering what that actually means is proving quite difficult.
There’s a carnival like-feeling to the proceedings. After so long without an outlet, Tehran’s youth are coming out en masse. Small business owners are taking advantage of the situation, selling refreshments to moisten throats, hoarse from so much shouting.
It can’t be defined as simply dissatisfaction with the Islamic system, since there are vast numbers of Ahmadinejad supporters who believe Iran, as it is, is just fine. Last night I rode with some of them in a back of a truck plastered with the incumbent’s photos. These were members of the Basij, young men in their twenties, who are the new generation of the revolution. Their group has years of organizing experience on their side, and when needed, they have weapons. Both these elements the more reformed-minded campaigns lack.
If one were to just look at the makeup of those in the streets, Mousavi’s supporters seem to represent a broader cross section of urban Iran, but that can be deceptive. They come from all walks of life and the thing that sticks out most is the number of young females supporting him. It’s striking to see so many hopeful women, fearlessly taking to the streets brandishing Mousavi signs, wearing green scarves (the chosen color of the Mousavi campaign,) and shouting in the faces of Ahmadinejad supporters.
Furthermore, high school aged girls seem to overwhelmingly support Mousavi, many as young as 10 are handing out fliers in support of the former prime minister. In the past this may have been very significant as the voting age, until recently, was 15. It’s now 18, which seems to be a problem for Mousavi.
That’s not to say that the sisters and mothers of the Basiji are silent. We just won’t hear their voice until the votes are counted.
As we stood in the bed of a pick-up in halted traffic near Vanak Square, one of the hot spots during these rallies, passengers in cars who supported other candidates shouted slogans at each other. Most of them were clever quips like “Mr. Doctor [Ahmadinejad] go see a doctor [shrink],” followed by the unimaginative response of the Ahmadinejad-ists, which was “Only Doctor!”
Two other popular chants of the night were “If there’s no cheating Mousavi will come in first,” and “Ahmadi, bye, bye! Basiji bye, bye!” Historically one might reasonably expect the Basij to react with harsh vitriol, but they just smiled, mirroring the current demeanor of their man. Transcripts of Ahmadinejad’s speeches may read like neo-nazi propaganda, but his performance right now is coming off as that of the pleasant peasant, which works well for him. “Look at his face,” one of the Basij noted, “He’s one of us.” They don’t seem to notice that the statistics he’s quoting in the debates about inflation and unemployment don’t reflect reality.
For the most part so far it’s all been good-natured, and during these nights I’ve only seen a few small skirmishes. It’s a feeling akin to the verbal tussling that goes on between fans of rival sports teams, which sometimes turns ugly.
One of the basij we were riding with had a fresh cut on his nose and an elastic bandage on his arm. I asked him what had happened. “Last night we were out here and toward the end of the night we got into it with some Mousavi guys. It will happen again tonight. A few punches, something to eat, and then we’ll head to morning prayer.”
As the election draws closer, however, I fear violence will become more apparent. The first night of demonstrations the police were hard to find, now coming up on night No. 5, riot police, security service people, and young men serving their required military service are everywhere.
It seems as though those at the top aren’t sure what to make of it all, and if they do they’re not doing much about it. With such a short campaign period, not much in the way of reliable polling information, and being as it is a society that relies heavily on rumor as a source of information, making predictions seems futile.
An elderly gentleman sat alone a few meters away from the action, watching from a stone bench in front of his apartment building. I wanted to know what he thought of all this, as this is something he agreed he’d never before seen in the Islamic Republic. It was 3 a.m. He smiled at me hopelessly and replied, “What do I think? I think there’s no way I’m going to sleep before 5.”
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau