Iran: rising of the dispossessed

Hamid Alizadeh 23/11/2019
A few years ago, a conversation was leaked between a commander of the revolutionary guards, and a group of Basiji militiamen, discussing the Green Movement that shook Iran in 2009.

In that conversation the commander said something along the lines of “these guys [referring to the people in the Green Movement] are just uptown pretty boys, there is nothing to be afraid of, but once the barefoot people of the poor and destitute areas come out, that is when we have to be afraid.” Well, that day has come.
On Friday, the Iranian government made a surprise announcement of deep cuts to fuel subsidies, which is a vital lifeline for poor Iranians. Since then, thousands of youth have taken to the streets, clashing with the police, military and paramilitary forces. Starting out mainly in the south-west of the country, protests mushroomed everywhere on Saturday and Sunday, reaching every single major town and city. It is difficult to gauge the size of the protests, but the Revolutionary Guards-run Fars News let a total figure of 87,000 slip on Monday. This would be a conservative estimate.
Rage of the downtrodden
A report from today mentions the situation in several poor and working-class areas of Tehran:
“In Islamshahr there is an uprising. In Shahre Qods there is war and there is shooting everywhere. They burned down the old mayor’s house. They burned down the houses of [Revolutionary] Guards, all the banks have been burned down. In Fardis, there was real war in the streets. Apart from Sepah Bank, they have burned 24 other banks. Andishe is the same. In Fardis, Shahriar, Shahreqods and Andishe many have been killed… the police forces are tired and don’t have the energy to stand up anymore.”
The regime is trying to portray the protesters as a gang of thugs, looting and rioting. One headline in Jam-e-Jam read: “The disappearance of the voice of the people in the chaos of rioting”. But it is not ordinary shops and stores that have been targeted, rather it is gas stations and banks that have been burned down in their dozens (if not hundreds), along with a few government buildings and police stations, and numerous pictures of Khamenei. In Yazd, the house of the Friday prayer imam, who is also a representative of Khamenei in the city, was attacked by an angry crowd. None of these acts are random rioting, there is a clear class element to the protests.
The reaction of the regime has been brutal. All internet has been shut down and communication has become extremely difficult. News sources have become severely restricted. Even citizen reporting for overseas outlets, which has always been relatively easy, has become almost impossible. More or less all armed wings of the regime have been sent onto the streets, carrying out a brutal suppression of anything reminiscent of protests. Many areas are said to have turned into war zones. One report from Shiraz claimed that, in some areas, helicopters were flying over protesters and shooting indiscriminately on them.
Many schools and universities throughout the country were shut down, although there were still protests inside many universities. One university was shut down due to “heavy fog”. In Tehran University, the armed forces closed off all entrances and almost all exits, leaving only one small door open for students to leave the premises. The regime is panicking, and fears the movement spreading to other layers. It is attempting to push the movement towards aimless rioting and clashes, which in turn would isolate it from the mass of the population. Up to now, that has not worked. While many people stay away, there is widespread sympathy with the youth on the streets.
This eruption is about far more than fuel prices, which have essentially tripled now. The areas where people first rose up were Khusestan, Kermanshah and Fars, all poor, under-developed provinces with high unemployment. Many of these areas are homes to Arab and Kurdish minorities whose protests have been dealt with under particular brutality in the past few years.
The youth taking to the streets spend most of their lives wandering from place to place, doing odd jobs if they are lucky, although many have simply given up looking for work. Those that haven’t are constantly met with the demand for “experience”, which is of course impossible to get if you don’t get a job. Crime rates are higher amongst these layers, who are often from extremely poor, working-class families.
In the past few years, many such families lost their savings after a series of banks went bust. In reality, these banks were nothing but high-level pyramid schemes and their well-connected owners have never been put on trial, although they are well known – hence the attacks on the banks.