Reflections on the student uprising
By Rasool Nafisi
July 26, 1999
When the son of Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the Expediency Council
and one of the main players in Iranian clerical politics, surfaced in Washington
last year and asked for political asylum, it was obvious that the youth
had had it with the paternalistic structure of the Iranian state. Recent
events supported this view. A simple incident -- banning of a popular newspaper,
not an uncommon event in Iran -- ignited the wrath of the youth. Six days
of demonstrations and rebellion followed in more than a dozen cities. Lives
were lost and many casualties occurred. Why did it happen now? (See Nafisi's
Imagine you are a young person in Iran. These are some of the things
you can't do: choosing your own hairdo or clothes, socializing at parties,
dating, or even hiking without the presence of Islamic vigilantes. Worse
still is that you know the economy is going downhill, the population is
growing at a fast rate, and there is little or no prospect for you to land
a job to support a family. A university degree, once a direct avenue to
status and prestige, is no longer worth much.
Ironically, the student rebellion took place because there is more,
not less, freedom. In his own quiet style, President Khatami brought about
change through relative freedoms. In particular the presence of a somewhat
free press allowed a milieu where students exchanged ideas and published
radical papers that openly criticized the government.
On the other hand, Khatami's reforms did not and could not yield much
more. The oil-dependent economy is not amenable to reform, and social issues
related to women and youth are things that the hardline conservatives are
very sensitive to, and therefore beyond the reach of reform. The only privilege
the youth have enjoyed is a relatively free press. But a new law passed
by the Majlis in early July took away much of those limited freedoms. The
limited range of reforms, the unresolved investigations into the killings
of dissidents, and an atmosphere of dissent had already provided the necessary
conditions for an uprising.
The rebellion began with a very small number of students demonstrating
against the closure of a semi-liberal paper, Salam. However, even
this small protest was received a harsh reaction: thugs and the police
attacked Tehran University's student dormitory before dawn, threw students
out of their rooms (some from the second and third floors), beat them and
set the buildings on fire.
This ruthless tactic was partly inspired by previous riot-control actions
during an uprising in 1995. When the poor demonstrated in Islamshahr 's
shantytown to protest the doubling of bus fares, police surrounded them
and attacked with military helicopters. The debris was immediately cleaned
up, blood washed, and no one ever found out the number of casualties. That
was the end of the uprising.
Thus a swift and brutal measure was meant to quell the students' revolt
early on. However, in this case, the tactic did not work. Students proved
to be of a different breed compared to the unemployed and underemployed
in Islamshahr. Indeed the next day thousands of students demonstrated and
protests carried on for several days. Their ranks swelled, their demands
soared and their slogans targeted the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
The students had previous experiences in expressing their anger in public.
In April 1998 they called for the freedom of Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi,
the popular Mayor of Tehran, who was sentenced to prison on corruption
charges levelled against him by the conservatives. Last June the students
rallied in support of Mohsen Kadivar, an intellectual cleric who was sentenced
to a year and half in prison for his anti-establishment views. Then, just
before the July uprising, there were demonstrations demanding the release
of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, a student leader.
The protests against the closure of Salam and the toughening
of the press law, could have been easily managed without the use of force.
It could have even brought the students closer to the state if their initial
moderate demands had been met. But instead the security forces, backed
by vigilantes, took extreme measures to crush the protests.
The state of course could have showed more statesmanship and given some
concessions to the students by allowing Salam to resume publication.
Or it could have blocked the passage of the anti-press press law. The least
it could have done was to dismiss those in charge of suppressing the student
protests. But the Islamic state seems to be keen on maintaining a tough
stance against dissent.
In fact in his response, Ayatollah Khamenei did not acknowledge the
serious problems facing the youth of the country. Instead he blamed the
student uprising on the schism between the ranks of insiders -- a very
familiar term meaning those close to the original Islamic revolutionaries
who brought down the Pahlavi regime.
Also the insiders include the faithful who have proved their loyalty
to the Islamic Republic in the war against Iraq and in dealing with urban
disturbances. Khamenei demonstrated how out of touch the state and its
old, traditionalist clergymen really are. They don't seem to understand
the growing gap between themselves and the youth -- who make up more than
half the population.
The final coup de grace was the demonstration staged by the traditionalist
wing of the state in which thousands of people, -- mostly called to action
by the mosques -- denounced the usual suspects -- Mojahedin Khalq, the
U.S., and Israel -- as the main instigators of the rebellion. They totally
dismissed all the true reasons for the youth unrest.
The traditionalist wing of the Islamic Republic once again demonstrated
who the "people" are: the lower classes with low levels of education
and strong loyalties to the conservative clergy. According to them, the
students have either deviated from the rest of the population or have been
manipulated by satanic forces.
This attitude has not helped reduce the widening gap between the youth
and the state. Indeed it seems no lessons have been learned from the rebellion,
and this, of course, could pave the way for the harsher clashes.
Rasool Nafisi is dean of general studies at Strayer University in
the Washington DC area. Also see Nafisi's photos
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