The six days of protests beginning on July 7, 1999 will undoubtedly go down in history as the signal for the start of a new era in Iranian politics. The new era which will have its twists and turns, and even its surprises. Despite these the road leading to the total overthrow of the Islamic Republic will be one way. The significance of those six eventful days could be summed up:
1. The numerous schemes to reform the existing system have hit an impasse and Khatami's administration is paralysed by its own contradictions.
2. The crisis of the legitimacy of the existing political order has reached extraordinary dimensions and is fast moving towards a crisis of authority and control.
3. Institutional channels and permissible outlets are incapable of responding to the peoples' grievances and demands. It is not surprising, therefore, that people resorted to "direct action". We saw how a large section of those who had taken aim at the heart of the system used this first opportunity that came their way since 1981 to take a shot at it.
Transcend the campuses
To have a clear grasp and accurate assessment of the historic place of the current events we must first of all explore its specific features. The most important detail is that the students who started the protest managed to go beyond their own circles and involved other sections of society in particular other youth (the unemployed and high school pupils), creating a mass movement with broad popular support. Three factors in particular account for the spread of the movement beyond the narrow confines of student circles:
Firstly, the extreme violence of the attack on the students' dormitory shocked a wide section of society and legitimised the furious reaction to it. Secondly, people were conscious that the ultra-conservative factions are determined to re-impose a total repression, which had partially lifted since the presidential elections of two years ago, and were increasingly willing to resist it. Thirdly, the general dissatisfaction with unemployment and rising prices, and the mounting sense of desperation as individual attempts to combat this poverty proved futile, especially amongst the young.
In the background was the split within the Islamic regime. There were also the experience of the various mass movements of the last two years. One can single out the presidential elections of May 1997, the mass reception for the Iranian World Cup soccer team, the defiant celebrations of the pre-Islamic Chahar Shanbeh Suri festivities last spring (banned by the regime as a pagan festival), the municipal council elections, and previous protests by students, intellectuals, as well as the activities of the semi-independent media, all of which helped to tone down the atmosphere of terror.
Autonomy and internal independence was the second feature of these protests. On the one hand they were a direct action in confrontation with political power. That is they took form outside legal and officially tolerated channels which in one form or other are amalgamated in the system, and stood up against them. On the other hand they were spontaneous. There was no prior leadership, no organisation and no pre-conceived slogans and demands. These all evolved in the process of the protests. Neither political parties and groups, nor student organisations had any significant control over them – at least not initially.
On the contrary one could see that the spontaneous protests forced the official student organisations to follow suite, and radicalised the slogans of the student movement. This feature clearly distinguishes the recent protests from the events of 1981, where political groups and organisations had a major guiding role. It also marks them out from previous student protests where official student organisations took the lead.
Indeed the autonomy and the spontaneity of these protests places them in the same category as riots of the poor and shanty town dwellers between 1992-1995in Mashad , Ghazvin, Arak, Shiraz, and Eslam Shahr.
In trying to explain this situation, firstly it is important to remember that there are no institutional channels for expressing discontent and protests, or to present demands. In other words two years of efforts by the reformist elites in establishing the rule of law, creating "civil" organisations and increasing participation in politics within the framework of the existing order based on velayat [absolute rule of the supreme religious leader] and guardianship have patently failed. The Khatami administration’s political reform programme remained on paper.
Second these events marked the absence of a trusted, radical and independent leadership in the student and popular movements. The limitations of formal institutions as well as failure of political parties and organisations to link with grass root activities and to influence emerging collective actions made spontaneous moves from below inevitable.
Step over the "Red-line"
The July protests also went beyond acceptable and tolerated slogans. It had overstepped the undeclared "red line", radicalising the strategy of the student protest and with it the mass movement in its collision with the ruling political power. Strivings for political reforms within the framework of the existing system, were replaced by clear calls for a renewal of the political structure, and even looked beyond it, for the overthrow of the religious state. There is widespread frustration and gloom amongst the masses, and in particular among the students and intellectuals, at achieving political reforms without attacking the structure of power and the main pillars of the religious dictatorship. These were the most important elements shaping an intellectual climate that directly challenged the ruling power. The intellectual climate for such about turns has also been strengthened by increasing tendency in the last few years to formulate a more basic critique of the regime, and to highlight the structural and institutional obstacles to reformist platforms.
Moreover, the spontaneous and the mass action-like forms of the movement and its independence helped them transcend institutional limitations, and the usual counsells for prudence. Without mass protests the slogans would not have moved so quickly to question directly such "taboo" subjects as the rule of the religious leader. In a matter of days slogans jumped by leaps and bounds. Instead of "Ansar haya kon" (shame on Ansar Hezbollah) the demonstrators shouted: "Khamenei’ boro haya kon" (Khamenei’, have some shame, go), and even slogans implicitly comparing him to the deposed Shah.
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