It’s not a Twitter revolution in Iran
— Reese Erlich is a freelance foreign correspondent who covered the Iranian elections and is author of The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis (Polipoint Press) The views expressed are his own. —
Iran is not undergoing a Twitter Revolution. The term simultaneously mischaracterizes and trivializes the important mass movement developing in Iran.
Here’s how it all began. The Iranian government prohibited foreign reporters from traveling outside Tehran without special permission, and later confined them to their hotel rooms and offices. CNN and other cable networks were particularly desperate to find ways to show the large demonstrations and government repression. So they turned to Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter in a frantic effort to get information. Since reporters were getting most of their information from Tweets and You Tube video clips, the notion of a “Twitter Revolution” was born.
We reporters love a catch phrase and, Twitter being all a flutter in the west, it seemed to fit. It’s a catchy phrase but highly misleading.
First of all the vast majority of Iranians have no access to Twitter. While reporting in Tehran, I personally didn’t encounter anyone who used it regularly. A relatively small number of young, economically well off Iranians do use Twitter. A larger number have access to the Internet. However, in the beginning, most demonstrations were organized through word of mouth, mobile phone calls and text messaging.
But somehow “Text Messaging Revolution” doesn’t have that modern, sexy ring, especially if you have to type it with your thumbs on a tiny keyboard.
More importantly, by focusing on the latest in Internet communications, cable TV networks intentionally or unintentionally characterize a genuine mass movement as something supported mainly by the Twittering classes.
I witnessed tens of thousands of mostly young people coming out into the streets in spontaneous campaign rallies in the days leading up to the election – most of whom had never heard of Twitter.
They shared a common joy not only campaigning for reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, but in being able to freely express themselves for the first time in many years. When the government announced an overwhelming victory for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only two hours after the polls closed, people became furious.
Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets in Tehran and cities around the country. They organized silent marches through word of mouth and phone calls since the government had shut down text messaging just prior to the election. Contrary to popular perception, these gatherings included women in chadors, workers and clerics – not just the Twittering classes. Spontaneous marches took place in south Tehran, a decidedly poorer section of town and supposedly a stronghold for Ahmadinejad.
Iranians initially protested what they perceived as massive vote fraud, but that quickly evolved as the protests grew in size and breadth. In the week after the June 14 election, millions of Iranians vented 30 years of pent up anger at a repressive system.
Iranian youth particularly resented President Ahmadinejad’s support for religious militia attacks on unmarried young men and women walking together and against women not covering enough hair with their hijab. Workers resented the 24 percent annual inflation that robbed them of real wage increases. Independent trade unionists had been fighting for decent wages and for the right to organize.
Some demonstrators wanted a more moderate Islamic government. Others advocated a separation of mosque and state, and a return to parliamentary democracy. They are well aware that when Iran had a genuine parliamentary system under Prime Minister Mossadegh, the CIA overthrew it in 1953 in order to promote the Shah as dictator. I didn’t meet any Iranians calling for U.S. intervention; that’s strictly a debate inside the Washington beltway.
Some Iranian friends have asked me why Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei would throw his support behind Ahmadinejad when his presidency was so clearly damaging the country at home and abroad. Initially, Khamenei supported the president because they share common ideological and political positions. Later, the top clerical leaders saw the mass movement that coalesced around Mousavi’s campaign as a direct threat to government stability and their future rule.
Since June 21, the top clerics, military and intelligence services have mobilized their entire apparatus to crush the movement for social and economic change.
The mass movement that sprang forth in the past few weeks has been 30 years in coming. It’s not a Twitter Revolution, nor even a “velvet revolution” like those in Eastern Europe.
It’s a genuine Iranian mass movement made up of students, workers, women, and middle class folks. It may not be strong enough to topple the system today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles.