It’s not a Twitter revolution in Iran

June 26, 2009

reeseportrait1-150– 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.

28 comments

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Good report, although your characterization of an all-powerful CIA overthrowing goverments seems a bit naive. The CIA may have played a role, but the revolt was driven by the Shah and Iranians, not the USA. Let’s hope this time around another charismatic leader doesn’t arise to become yet another in a string of dictators.

Posted by Son of a Beach | Report as abusive

History, will never forget the great people of Iran and the day they lit a great torch of freedom. You cast a brilliant light on the world. You are brothers and sisters of all free people.

Posted by Allen | Report as abusive

Fraud in election is not a new phenomenon in Iran.Being an Iranian who lives in Iran I strongly believe that even Mr Ahamadi Nejad’s first round victory was fraudulence. At that time he was known as an inert mayor in Tehran, a corrupt governor in Ardabil and unknown elsewhere but no body cared of this fraud because they were frustrated and disappointed. This time the difference is that people came in to try for a change they find a glimpse of hope to change in this election. They have suffered much in every sense of their life in these four years. They came in for change and such an obvious fraud made them unable to tolerate or ignore any more.

Posted by ak | Report as abusive

I think all of the peaceful protesters had their reasons. The Iranian youth, who are bright, well educated pople want to live in a different country than the repressive one they are now living in. They are wanting change. They wanting someone who is not a hardliner and is capable of working with the rest of the world on such topics as peace, prosperity, and freedom. I do believe at some point, the people will have what they are wanting: to live in peace, not tyranny.

Posted by jtz | Report as abusive

Thank You for your article, there are too few answers.

While some look backward into history, history is being written on the streets of Teheran and in the secret conversations of clerics and enforcers across Iran TODAY!

Despite threats of execution by radical mullahs an estimated 5000 Iranians joined in orderly peaceful protest through Teheran to an area near Qoba Mosque in a show of solidarity and to honor Mohammed Behesthi, a cleric killed in a bombing 28 years ago. Mousavi had called on his supporters to participate and he made a “drive-by” appearance to the crowd but did not address them. This demonstration was the first in a number of days and reports filtering out have been scarce due to heavy electronic jamming. Meanwhile hackers are coming to the aid of the Iranian protesters by attacking websites of the regime and setting up secure networks by hosting proxies outside the nation.

While western governments (and some news outlets) are mostly supporting with words, musician and bandleader Jon Bon Jovi along with Iranian Superstar Andy Madadian went into an LA recording with Richie Sambora to record “Stand By Me” as a musical message of global solidarity in both English and Farsi. This classic American tune will likely become a theme song of besieged Iranian people writing history on hearts.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RASKaZFZt S8
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
– Pray for Peace –
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFyMh2igs hs

The rape of the Green Revolution by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is repulsive, simply repulsive like stomping on the flower bed. It is not only repulsive to those who were brutalized on the Iranian streets but also to certain theologians in Qom who upheld the democratic elements of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It is yet to be seen how the street reacts in southern Lebanon, in Gaza and in Basra. The Iranian Islamic Revolution is mutating in these days into a police state financed by oil money.

This reminds one of 1930s fascism, and it is an anachronism. One cannot say it is fanatical Islam, because the honorable Islamic scholars of Qom are also being victimized. Khamenie can do this as long as he has the money, but the fact that he is crushing Islamic democracy is coming out through all forms of the media. Iranian fascism replaces the Islamic Revolution. Who in the Middle East is going to follow that?

Posted by blmarquis | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Erlich,

Somehow I have the idea that you never have been in Iran.
First of all, what you describe as this would be a middle class revolution, you could not be more far from the truth.
This revolution is shared from the pour to the ritch, from the workers to the highbrow intellectuals. As a documentary filmmaker from The Netherlands I vistited Iran many times during the past years.I can tell you that this revolution is supported by almost every artist, author, composer,conductor, painter, you can name them all.
Next to them is the women fighting for the freedom of there freedom. Next to that is everybody fighting for freedom and a better living. In Iran the people would love to see the church would be separated from the state.
And where did you learn that this election was honest?
Why are all these people on the streets than?
The last thing, in a country where television, internet, mobile cellworks are under the control of the regime a few things are still working. Yes and that is twitter. Maybe not everybody has an i-phone. But one thing is for sure; the most modern way of news-gathering in Iran is done thrue twitter. Updated every 5 seconds as if it allmost is “live-tv”. But to have this updates you must have the twitter-contacts. And I know for sure you don’t have them.

Mr. Erlich, please stop writing about a world you dont know, and never have been close to. You only make matters worse.

With kindly regards,
Harold Jalving

Posted by Harold Jalving | Report as abusive

Harold, can you read? Mr. Erlich never claimed that the election was just a middle class election. In fact, in paragraph 8, he says just the OPPOSITE. Likewise, he mentions the women in the last paragraph. Nor did he ever say the election was or wasn’t honest.

Seriously, before you try and be smart and insult a Reuters columnist– who writes about this stuff for a living– at least give them the dignity of reading thier article first.

Posted by ZT | Report as abusive