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Iran protests: From Green Movement to Arab Spring, how much does current uprising draw from past?

The protests in Iran, which paralysed and rocked the country for almost a week, seem to be waning now. Iran's Revolutionary Guards have declared the "end of the sedition" and said that quiet has returned to the country. General Mohammad Ali Jafari said the Guards only intervened "in a limited way" against fewer than 15,000 "troublemakers" nationwide, adding that a large number had been arrested.

According to VOA News, the Iranian government took cues from the Arab Uprising of 2011 in responding to the worst anti-government protests in the country since 2009. The report said that Iran deployed police in a relatively small number and refrained from using deadly force, leading the protests to die down.

A university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police. AP

A university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police. AP

The current movement in Iran has often been compared to the Arab Spring, which resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. The Iran protests are possibly shaped by the experience of the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at the UK think tank Chatham House told Deutsche Welle that Iran wants to disassociate these protests from the Arab Spring.

However, Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, told Vox that these new protests resemble the Arab Spring protests in many ways.

"From what we saw in the Arab uprisings," he said, "these kinds of movements that have wide popular appeal but don't have leadership or organisation or a specific mission can create momentum that really goes beyond anything the leadership in the country could expect."

The Iranian regime has till now played down the significance of the protests with President Hassan Rouhani saying, "this is nothing". The demonstrations, which initially focused on economic hardships, turned into political rallies. Anger was soon directed at the clerical leadership in power since the 1979 revolution. Iranians started are demanding 'death to dictator'.

Similarly, during the Arab Spring, thousands of protesters demonstrated in Tahrir Square in Cairo against President Hosni Mubarak and the wide-spread corruption in Egypt.

Another similarity is the extensive use of social media in both the current Iran protests and the Arab uprising. In Egypt, NPR reported that Esraa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian democracy activist known as "Facebook Girl" for her social media savvy, fought for a new Egypt. She was also an organiser for the major protest in Tahrir Square. Facebook and Twitter were suddenly blocked in the country and hackers started using proxy computers to beat government censors.

"Egypt was disconnected from the outside world for days and yet the movement never stopped," Sultan al-Qassemi, a columnist based in the United Arab Emirates, told Al-Jazeera.

Rouhani and his government also blocked access to Telegram, Instagram and other social media sites in the days following the present demonstrations. In Iran, Telegram and Instagram, as well as Twitter, have been instrumental in information dissemination when traditional media outlets are tightly controlled. Protestors have been extensively using Telegram and Instagram organise and promote the offline demonstrations. Around half of Iran's 80 million people are said to be active on Telegram, which is quite a popular app in the country.

However, the differences lie in the scope of both these protests.

Unlike the Arab Spring protests, when the demonstrations spread to other countries from Tunisia, there is no sign of any diffusion of the protests in Iran, as The Washington Post reported. It was the regional scope of the Arab uprisings as much as their powerful calls for freedom and social justice that made them appear to be on the right side of history, the report said.

Further, the Arab uprising generated support by bringing a vast number of non-activists into the street. The Washington Post report also said that it is not clear if new constituencies are joining the challenge in Iran and the Iranian protests seem to be quite small numerically compared with the early Arab uprisings or the Green Movement.

In 2009, millions of people descended upon Tehran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured a second term in an election amid claims of vote-rigging. This uprising was the largest since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and came to be known as the 'Green Revolution'.

According to HuffPostthe uprising of 2009 was led in part by defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The Iranian government cracked down on the protesters violently and made sweeping arrests.

Meanwhile, the current anti-government demonstrations began in the city of Mashhad and spread across the country. Iranians vented their anger over a sharp increase in prices of basic items like eggs, and a government proposal to increase fuel prices in next year's budget.

Some protesters also vented their rage over high unemployment and savings that were lost after investments in unlicensed credit and financial institutions turned sour.

Experts told HuffPost that unlike the 2009 revolt, these protests are an extension of Iran's civil rights movement fuelled by longstanding grievances.

Further, the organisers of the Green Movement told NPR that they were completely taken by surprise by the current protests. Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council told NPR that, "they were not part of this. And to a certain extent, they’ve even kept a calculated distance from these protests because they’re not entirely clear of what the direction is going."

ABC News reported that the Green Movement's leaders went out of their way to say that they were not aiming to bring down the system. Meanwhile, videos of the current protests show people chanting "death to dictator" in a clear reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The direction of the current demonstrations is largely unclear because of the absence of a leader. This is significantly different from the Green Movement when former President Mohammad Khatami, the would-be president Mousavi and other prominent politicians gave a base and organization to the protests, as ABC News said.

Despite certain similarities with the Arab Uprising, the current Iran protests do have the capability to effect change. Despite being an equally startling wave of unrest, the new protests are also significantly different from the 2009 demonstrations in Iran.

With inputs from agencies


Updated Date: Jan 05, 2018 17:03 PM

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