Iran: “This is nothing like 2009. This is a protest by hungry people”

Protest in Gorgan, in the north of Iran, on December 30.
Protest in Gorgan, in the north of Iran, on December 30.

Towns all over Iran have been host to riotous demonstrations since Thursday December 28. The violent protests have resulted in 21 deaths. The authorities have cut off access to Instagram and Telegram, and have restricted internet access, making it difficult for journalists to speak to people inside the country. The France 24 Observers did manage to get in touch with two Iranians, who say that the protests are nothing like the Green Movement of 2009.

The demonstrations began five days ago in Mashhad, the second most populous town in the country. The protests then grew, stretching from the east of the country towards the centre and starting in the capital, Tehran. During the night of the 1st to the 2nd of January, at least six people were killed when they tried to seize guns in a police station. A police officer and a soldier were also killed.

In front of the theatre in Tehran. Hundreds of police officers wait to put down the protests. Photo published on Telegram on Tuesday January 2.

Police officers in front of Tehran's university, on January 2. Photo published on Telegram.

Protesters are decrying the country’s economic woes. The protests were sparked after the government announced an increase in the price of eggs and petrol in 2018 – an announcement that was then retracted on Saturday, December 30. People are also directing their rage towards organisations that gave out loans and then went bankrupt.

Nearly 40% of the country’s economy is controlled by the Guardians of the Revolution or other religious organisations. Demonstrators are railing against these economic imbalances in the country and the monopoly that religious organisations and figures hold over the country's finance.

"Sometimes I feel like everything is forbidden in my country: it’s humiliating"

Hesam, 30, has been involved in protests in a city in the east of Iran, for the last three days. We have changed some personal details to protect his identity.

I found out the location and time of protests through some channels on Telegram [a mobile social networking app], and I went and joined them, mostly out of curiosity. But I have my reasons anyway: I had to live with my parents until two years ago. I’m an engineer and I could never find a job in my field, so I had to work in other industries and do different little jobs. So yes, I’m angry.

People were protesting corruption and economic difficulties. People are tired of being poor. The protesters in the streets are from different backgrounds. It is anyone who is fed up: people who have lost their money in banks that have gone bankrupt, workers and university students. The average age is about 35. Basically it is a protest by hungry people, humiliated young people.

"I’m not ready to die"

People were demanding different things. Some people don’t want the mullahs to be ruling the country anymore. There was lots of chanting against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Young people are angry that some of the simplest things are forbidden in Iran because of religion: drinking, parties, walking with your girlfriend… Sometimes I feel like my country has banned everything: it’s humiliating.

In Qom, the most fervently religious town in Iran, protesters chanted, "We don't want the Islamic Republic!" on December 29. Photo published onTelegram

The police attacked us so we had to defend ourselves, but I’m not ready to die. I am not the kind of person to risk his life for a cause. What’s going to happen as a result of these protests? I have no idea. I honestly do not know.

This movement shouldn't be compared to the 'Green Movement' that swept the country in 2009. Thousands of Iranians hit the streets to demand a recount of votes in the presidential election, convinced that the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi must have won against the ultraconservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was declared the winner. The protests were brutally repressed, and in the end did not stop the second mandate of Ahmadinejad.

Hesam explained.

No one I know who protested in the 2009 Green Movement is involved in this new wave of protests. The people protesting are very different people, without a common political position. In 2009, the protesters were mostly urban, middle class people, university students, women and human rights activists. This time it’s people from rural areas or small cities, but not uneducated people.

"I protested in 2009 but don’t feel the need to protest now"

Simin, 35, also took part in the 2009 “Green Movement” protests in Tehran. She was arrested and was in prison for two years.

In the 2009 protests, we had a very specific demand: count our votes as we put them in the ballot boxes.

But these uprisings in Mashhad were begun by some ultraconservative religious people as a way of attacking the moderate Rohani government in order to benefit politically from it. But they soon lost control of the protests, which reached other parts of the country and turned into a blind riot.

I can understand that people are angry and tired of the problems with the economy and their lack of personal freedom, and I recognise their right to go to the streets to demand what they want. I went to the streets in 2009 because the system had denied me an election. I could not decide my own future through the ballot box. But after the election of Rohani I feel like I have a say through my vote, so I don't feel the need to protest again.

I’m also avoiding getting involved in these protests because of the violence. I cannot accept violence from any side, not from police and not from protesters.

Protesters attacking a police station on January 1, 2018, in Isfahan. Photo published on Telegram.

According to the World Bank, Iran's rate of unemployment amongst young people is particularly high at 29.2%, and the country has a general poverty rate of 13.1%.