It Ain’t Easy Being Green

Iran’s protest movement struggles to make its voice heard in an election where they have no good options.

In the Islamic Republic, life imitates art -- or perhaps more accurately, fiction. Take Iran's approach to democracy, for example. For many who remember the 1979 revolution and the purge and massacre of the opposition -- including secularists, socialists, communists, and Kurdish groups -- any notion that the country is a democracy is a storybook fantasy.

But to a generation of baby boomers with no collective memory of that period, it's a different story. These Iranians came of age with greater access to higher education, satellite TV, and the Internet. The heady promise of a freer society presented to them by the "reformist" faction of the ruling establishment captured their imagination and turned them into a political force to be reckoned with. This bloc led the "Green Movement" protests following Iran's 2009 election -- but now with its leaders under house arrest or barred from running in the upcoming election, they find themselves trying to weather this period of even greater conservative dominance.

"Almost every public move made by the Iranian regime is designed to stymie any hope for change," one Iranian intellectual told me in an email. "And I can say, from a very personal perspective, that the regime has been successful."

The hopes of this young generation of Iranians were shaped by the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in the mid-to-late 1990s. Having paid lip service to democracy and put in place a mechanism, however flawed, to elect members of parliament and a president, the Islamic Republic inadvertently created a class of citizens who turned out to vote in great numbers -- and expected it to matter.

But the Islamic Republic's conservative establishment was quick to rein in this nascent pro-democracy movement. By the second year of his first term, Khatami had already capitulated to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president even failed to take the side of the students when protests broke out at Tehran University in 1999, after a dozen or so reformist papers were shut down in a singe day. Many Iranians, disillusioned by the failures of the reformists, opted out of the 2005 election, paving the way for the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was a dismal time for this young generation of Iranians: Civil society diminished, newspapers were shuttered, and fewer permits were granted to make films.

But Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign in 2009 energized reformists again -- and the suspicious circumstances of Ahmadinejad's re-election victory motivated millions to take to the streets to contest the whole thing as a fraud. In the brutal crackdown that followed, Iran's façade of democracy fell for this young generation of Iranians. Tens of thousands of protesters were beaten, jailed, and even shot. From jail, credible reports of rape emerged. Government officials even acknowledged accounts of torture-murders at the Kahrizak detention center. Since then, Green Movement leaders Mousavi and former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest, and what remained of the street protests died off and moved online. 

A mere two weeks before the election to choose Ahmadinejad's successor, the men and women who made up the Green Movement still find themselves shut out from official political life. Khatami threw his support behind former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - and for a moment, it appeared that the lifelong conservative politician could awaken the reformist bloc. In Tehran, Iranians chanted in support of his last-minute decision to run -- a jovial outbreak of street protest that echoed the 2009 demonstrations. No wonder the authorities moved so quickly to extinguish it: Rafsanjani was soon disqualified from contesting the election by the Guardian Council, which whittled the field down to eight arch-conservative candidates.

The regime is also keeping international media on a short leash ahead of the vote. According to a foreign correspondent who was issued a seven-day visa to cover the election, which is slated for June 14 and may well be followed by a runoff a week later, "Everyone's got to be out of Dodge by June 15 midnight."

Green Movement members are now debating whether there is a candidate remaining in the election whom they could support. Their options are the two relatively moderate conservatives left in the running: Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as vice president under Khatami and is a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, or former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani. At a rally for Rowhani over the weekend, Iranians chanted pro-Mousavi slogans -- an act of defiance that got them arrested.

But given the bleak record of the past four years and the ruling establishment's unwillingness to compromise on virtually any front, would any of them bother to vote in the first place?

I was skeptical. Our reporting at Tehran Bureau, however, suggested that many were indeed planning to go to the polls. As registration for candidates approached earlier this month, plenty of young Iranians, some eligible to vote for the first time, said they viewed this election as an opportunity to bring about change.

"I will vote because I can," said Arash, a university student who recently turned 18. "This is a chance to practice my democratic rights." He says those who fail to act are "living their lives like a herd of sheep by putting their fate in the hands of others. We have to try to make changes. By not doing anything, nothing will happen."

Other Iranians, however, are disillusioned with the process and want to deny the regime the legitimacy of high turnout. Parisa, 25, who still bears scars from the beatings she received during the post-election protests, is one of the boycotters. "For them [the regime], we are only important to make the election look sensational and successful," she said. "Just before the 2009 election we were practically dancing in the streets. But what happened right after that? I lost my job, our home phone was tapped for several years, and my family and I were regularly insulted. Until just a few months ago, we were all living in hell. We do not have any power against the mullahs."

Even at the epicenter of the Green Movement, members are divided on a boycott. "It's meaningless to take part in elections when questions still linger from the last one, and when Mr. Karroubi, Mr. Mousavi, and other political prisoners have not been set free," one journalist closely aligned with Karroubi told me.

Beyond the dilemma of the coming election, the activists who made up the core of the Green Movement realize that the change they dream of will not come overnight, and they must settle in for the long haul. "I have maintained my spirits not by telling myself, as many of my compatriots do, that the regime will end soon, within, say, five or six years, but by accepting that any substantial political change in Iran will take at least twenty years to achieve," wrote the Iranian intellectual. "We are dealing with enemies much older and stronger than the Islamic Republic: patriarchy, economic exploitation, apathy, and all forms of dehumanization."

"For such a long-term project, I must steel my nerves and find my work where I can find it. This is the only type of hope available amidst conditions of constant defeat."



The Struggle for the Heart of Istanbul

It's becoming clear that it will take more than one chaotic weekend to derail Prime Minister Erdogan's plans.

ISTANBUL — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered in the center of Turkey's largest city on Monday night, preparing to stand their ground against what they feared could be the imminent arrival of riot police.

Roads leading to Istanbul's Taksim Square, known as the "center of centers" in the sprawling metropolis, remained blocked off by gutted vehicles and scraps of wood and metal, which the protesters moved to reinforce. Police pulled back from Taksim on Saturday, and there were few demonstrators in the square during the daylight hours of Monday. But with working hours over and reports of further clashes with the police, the protesters returned to chant slogans against the country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Two young demonstrators said they had been in Gezi Park, adjacent to the square, when they smelled tear gas wafting up the hill from a road along the Bosporus Strait. Police had moved to disperse demonstrators who were trying for a third night to march on an office used by Erdogan.

"It's going to get messy," one young demonstrator said, as a helicopter buzzed over head. "Please support us."

Would they stay in Taksim even if Istanbul's brutal police force moved up the hill to pour tear gas on the demonstrators?

"We will try," one of the demonstrators said. "Will try for as long as we can."

Small kebab shops remained open, and protesters cheered as fireworks popped off and thousands of people rushed to the square.

Even before protesters reconvened in Taksim, the day brought news of the first casualty of the unrest. Mehmet Ayvalitas died after being struck by a car that drove into a group of protesters. It is unclear if the incident was accidental or not.

A teenage protester sitting next to an improvised barricade in Taksim said he'd come from a faraway neighborhood, "because I hate the government." There had been no sign of the authorities since Saturday, but he believed there was only so much longer that the protesters could stay in Taksim before the police moved in.

Public anger at Erdogan has been building for some time -- and boiled over during the past weekend due to what protesters describe as his authoritarian nature.

"There's never been other protests like this in Istanbul or in all Turkey," said Yaman Kuleli, a 36-year old bank employee.

Like the majority of demonstrators, Kuleli focused his grievances on the prime minister: Erdogan was limiting personal freedoms, such as recent restrictions on alcohol, to promote conservative religious values. He'd bullied the country's media into submission through arrests of journalists, and by intimidating or co-opting media barons -- a fact obvious to anyone with a television set, as most local stations opted to broadcast music and cooking shows rather than covering the protests.

Having won three elections since coming to power a decade ago, each time with a larger percentage of votes, Erdogan appears to believe he has a mandate to lead Turkish society as he sees fit. He is focused only on his supporters, Turks that are "like him" -- Sunni Muslim and nationalist -- Kuleli said. The demonstrators feel that he treats the rest of the country as a minority that should be unseen and unheard in their own country -- a sentiment reinforced by Erdogan himself, who described the protesters as "arm-in-arm with terrorism" and said Turkey's intelligence services are investigating their links to foreign actors.

This mentality, coupled with police brutality against a peaceful sit-in by activists who wanted to prevent the destruction of Taksim's Gezi Park, the last green space in the center of the city, came together to drive thousands of mainly secular Turkish citizens onto the streets for mass protests.

The initial police response was Erdogan's worst enemy. The security forces attempted to push the demonstrators away, firing excessive amount of tear gas into the crowd, some of the canisters hitting demonstrators and journalists in the head. The demonstrators, meanwhile, fled down the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal. A small number threw rocks and pieces of cement at the police, but most remained peaceful. They communicated via cell phone and social media to try to find small streets to push back into Taksim, but were continuously blocked by police.

"The more violent the police got, the more people came," said Betul Tanbay, one of the founders of the Taksim Solidarity Organization, which organized the initial Gezi Park sit-in. "We knew when the bulldozers arrived there would be a huge reaction, because Taksim represents a lot in Turkey."

Realizing the protesters would not give up and facing an international outcry over the crackdown, the police ceded the square on Saturday. Protesters soon flooded in: An estimated 100,000 people held what amounted to an impromptu street party, complete with beer and kebab from nearby shops. Some protesters even slept in Taksim and Gezi Park to make sure authorities did not return.

Many pundits have argued that demonstrators were from multiple segments of Turkish society. It is true, to an extent -- but the majority appear to have come from segments of the population already inclined to dislike Erdogan. Most were middle class youth, somewhere between 20 to 30 years old, with liberal sensibilities that clashed with the Turkish government's social conservative bent.

"These are not people who are demanding bread. These are people who are demanding freedom," said Aykan Erdemir, a parliamentarian from the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's largest opposition party. 

"This is what I think the prime minister is missing. What he is doing is in stark contrast to the every day life of [these] youth. You have 20 years of freedom and then you suddenly get a new father who is very authoritarian and abusive."

Socialists and communists were also a major presence in the Istanbul protests -- at night they clashed with police across the city, especially in Beskitas, a neighborhood where Erdogan keeps an office. A large delegation from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) also appeared on Sunday, waving banners showing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed icon of the Kurdish movement. They received many glares from the Turkish nationalists and their flags did not stay out for long, but the traditional rivals were able to coexist in Taksim.  

Why did they make the point of being there with the Ocalan flags? "Kurdish people are the most pressured society in this country," said 17-year old Kurd named Baran."We want freedom."

Amid the tear gas and angry, smartphone-wielding crowds, I experienced an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. The protests were similar to demonstrations in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007, which I had witnessed as a university student. Following Hugo Chávez's decision to close opposition television station RCTV, protesters gathered in a central square and banged loudly with pots and pans at their windows -- the clamor of a minority that felt powerless before the majority. 

Turks raised their windows to bang pots and pans in support of the protesters as well. But much like the Venezuelan protesters, it was quickly apparent that any success would be limited, if achieved at all.

It's going to take more than a few days of protest to stop Erdogan's push to remake Turkey in his own image. On Sunday, the prime minister said that there were no definite plans for the construction of a shopping center in place of Gezi Park -- but, he insisted, "a mosque will be built in Taksim." Protesters also cited the third bridge being built over the Bosphorus Strait as another example of Erdogan's divisiveness: The bridge will be named for Yavuz Sultan Suleiman, or Selim the Grim, a 16th century Ottoman sultan known for massacring members of Turkey's Alevi community, a branch of Shiite Islam. Today, Alevis make up between 10 to 30 percent of Turkey's population.

"Why did you select this name? Is there not other names?" Kuleli said. "The bridge is against the Alevis and the Shia."

The Turkish government's support of rebels in Syria was another major grievance of the protesters. According to a recent poll, only about 28 percent of Turks believe the country's Syria policy is being handled effectively.

Assad might be a dictator, Kuleli said, but "I don't know." More concerning to him was the May 11 car bombings in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkey-Syria border, that Erdogan's government blamed on Syrian intelligence. "52 people are dead. Who killed them? The government's policies."

The unpopularity of Erdogan's Syria policy was echoed by Can Taskiran, who stood in Gezi Park on Sunday with his wife and teenage daughter.  "We don't want pressure on Syria from Obama," he said, pointing out Erdogan's close relationship with the United States.

"We want to protect our environment, our park in Taksim Square," he said. "We want to protect Ataturk's ideas and thinking...Recep Tayyip Erdogan is against Mr. Kemal Ataturk." 

For some Turks, there is no greater insult.