Q&A: Iran's rural unrest a reminder of Egyptian and Libyan revolutions

  1. 'People are fearless, they don't have anything to go back to'
  2. 'Almost every second, they get a message that is either outraging them, or encouraging them'
  3. 'The government has used violence to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, so it is definitely not hesitant to use it'

Protests against Iran’s government began on December 28 and then spread across the country, evolving into the country’s most widespread unrest since 2009. Veteran Tehran correspondent Nazila Fathi told WikiTribune that these demonstrations are striking as the protesters come from groups that traditionally support the government – though the result is likely to be the same.

Born in Tehran, Fathi was the New York Times correspondent in the Iranian capital from 2000 until the unrest that followed the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, when she was forced to flee press repression (as recounted to Vogue). Her book, The Lonely War, is a memoir of Iran from the 1979 revolution to 2009, which traces the roots of dissent against the Islamic republic. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. A full transcript can be read here.

Q: Can you put these protests into a longer-term context – has there been unrest bubbling under the surface for some time?

A: There have been a lot of protests in the past. Over the first two, three days, usually the government allows protesters to vent their frustration, then it asks them to withdraw from the streets and it says it has heard them. Then, there are some warnings. Then, if protesters are still out there, they are usually dealt with quite violently. That seems to be the case going on right now.

Once protests reach a point like this, that people are fearless, they don’t have anything to go back to and despite the violence, they’re still out there … and they are willing to face the violence … it can get quite dangerous.

What’s happening right now is a reminder of what happened in Egypt and in Libya. These were the kind of protesters who were coming out in those countries.

When you listen to some of the interviews with these people, a lot of them have really reached the end of the line. They actually were supporters of the regime at some point. Many war veterans are saying that they can no longer afford to get their medication, or they have children in their thirties who have been unemployed all their lives.

So it seems that the regime is faced with a group of people who are economically under huge pressure and if their demands are not addressed relatively quickly, their anger and dissent is not going to go away. It will keep on simmering beneath the surface.

How much is this anger due to [President] Hassan Rouhani, promising a lot and failing to meet expectations?

Well, that’s one thing, expectations have been raised, not just by Hassan Rouhani, but by the previous president, Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad gave out a lot of handouts, a lot of loans, and the quality of life did improve in a lot of smaller towns and villages, and it was after a lot of those policies, a lot of handouts that were given out without any kind of policy backing that led to inflation – the kind of inflation that the current government of Rouhani is dealing with.

People talk about the reformists and a sort of “deep state” in the establishment preventing reform – is that a realistic, or useful, way of looking at the Iranian government?

Things are not so much about reform, but I think the reformers have unintentionally unleashed this anger. … The reformers have not publicly sided with the protesters. They have said that their grievances are serious, that they have every right to protest, they have said that they will try to address their problems, but they have condemned the violence that some of the protesters have engaged in.

But in the meantime … the breakdown of the budget [a draft budget was revealed by Rouhani in December] that showed how much the religious and the military organizations were getting that has triggered this anger. A lot of people are saying that huge funding is going into religious and military foundations that are spending the money overseas. If this funding is used to create jobs, to boost the economy, our living standards would be a lot better.

So, it’s a little bit tricky. How much can the president do to help them? I am not sure, because he doesn’t have the money, he doesn’t have the funding to help them.

There have been estimates that mobile phone usage has grown rapidly in Iran since 2009. How significant do you think that is given that these protests don’t have leaders, but sprung up organically?

Huge.

Not just in Iran, in any other country around the world, you can create a movement like this without a leader, just with the help of some kind of communications tool. Before these smart phones, we saw similar protests break out with the advent of satellite television. All those protest that broke out after the 1999 protests in Iran were led, organized, and very much orchestrated by satellite television networks operating out of California.

At that time, people had to go to their homes to get tips and messages from these stations. Now they carry their phones with them and almost every second, they get a message on their phone on [messaging app] Telegram, or some other app that is giving them some kind of news or information that is either outraging them, or is encouraging them to do something.

Do you think these protests will prove to have long-term significance?

Well, making predictions is a fool’s job, especially in the case of Iran – it’s a country of surprises.

Just based on what we’ve seen in the past, I don’t think the government will have a difficult time crushing these protests. The government is quite adept at ending protests. It’s not afraid to use violence. It has used it to keep Bashar al-Assad in power [in Syria], so it is definitely not hesitant to use it to keep itself in power.

I think that the regime has been a little bit reluctant to use too much violence in these [predominantly rural] areas because these were the recruiting grounds for the Islamic republic. Always. Not just for the kind of [pro-government] protest that we saw today [Wednesday], but also during the war with Iraq. A lot of people who fought in that war came from these towns.

A lot of people who are part of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard come from these areas, so [the government has] been quite hesitant to go after these people with too much violence. And they have the funding and the willingness to go to these areas to pay off some of them, at least for some period of time before they, I hope, ultimately address these economic issues. But temporarily [they will] silence these people.

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