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Michael Jansen: Not freedom, but welfare
January 08, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Protests that erupted in the conservative Iranian city of Mashhad on December 28th were sparked by the high price of eggs. Economically distressed working class residents of this conservative city and religious centre were encouraged to take to the streets by hard-line clerics seeking to undermine reformist President Hassan Rouhani.

Although cold normally causes the price of eggs to increase during winter when hens lay fewer eggs, the late 2017 doubling of the price was blamed on culling because of avian flu and the higher cost of chicken feed.

Timing was significant: demonstrations erupted soon after provisions in Rouhani’s 2018 budget were revealed. Fuel prices were to go up and subsidies on food to be cut while the military and wealthy religious institutions were to receive infusions of cash.

In the 1970s and 1980s when neighbouring Iraq was ruled by the Baath party, sufficient eggs at an affordable price were seen as a sign that the economy was picking up. Egg farmers selling eggs on street corners signified well-being. This may also be true in Iran’s provincial towns and cities today.

People who took to the streets in Mashhad, Qom and elsewhere are angry because have been neglected by Tehran for decades. The high price of eggs, chickens, meat and vegetables was the last straw. These people— urban workers and farmers who have been the main constituency of the hardliners — want affordable food, fuel and rents, schools, roads, and jobs with decent salaries. Unfortunately, they fail to understand that the very hardline clerics and politicians they have supported for nearly 40 years have been prevented the needs of the poor being addressed and delivered.

The egg protest has backfired against the hard-line conservatives because demonstrators from their traditional constituency broadened their demands. They called for eradicating endemic corruption and ending Iranian involvement in the wars in Syria and Iraq. Radicals joined the rallies and demanded the fall of the clerical regime and the ouster of supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dubbed the “dictator.” A few upstarts proposed the return of the monarchy or regime change in favour of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a veteran anti-clerical faction. Posters of the group’s leader Maryam Rajavi appeared suddenly and disappeared instantly. Hundreds of liberal students in Tehran also took to the streets, briefly, to call for social liberalisation, democracy and freedom. They were dispersed by security agents on motorbikes.

In addition to having diverse objectives, protesters were not organised and had no identifiable leaders. Although Rouhani said peaceful demonstrations should be allowed, in the provinces protesters became violent, prompting a crackdown by the police and eventually, deployment of the Republican Guard. There have been more than 1,000 arrests and at least 21 deaths, two of them policemen.

The political climate in Iran, particularly, the provinces has soured in recent months because ordinary folk have not benefited from the 2015 nuclear agreement providing for dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy. Following implementation of the deal, oil revenues doubled, inflation reduced from 40 to nine per cent, and Iran’s GDP, at minus five percent, is now growing at more than six per cent.

Rouhani has, however, failed to work out how to ensure the poorest sectors of the society secure relief from economic pressures. Unemployment stands at 12 per cent, with 29 per cent for youth. Since half of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years of age, the number of jobless young people is very high: 4.5 million university graduates are among the unemployed although universities admit fresh students and turn out graduates every year.

The latest protests are quite different from the 2009-10 demonstrations against the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a fraudulent poll. Those protests were led by the well-organised, liberal Green Movement which supported Mir Hussein Mousavi for the presidency. Protesters were largely students and educated professionals from the middle and upper classes who sought the easing of restrictions on social life, liberalisation of the economy, democracy and greater freedom. Protesters were in their millions rather than tens of thousands as has been the case in the latest rallies. Demonstrations took place in Iran’s main urban centres: Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz.

The demand was for Ahmadinejad to stand down. The Green Movement did not call for an end to the Islamic Republic or the removal of Khamenei. More than 4,000 were arrested and between 36-72 were killed as the international community trumpeted its opposition to the regime. This time around, the Green Movement has not been involved or mentioned; no one has even called for the release of its leaders, two of whom are still under house arrest. While Donald Trump has cheered on the protesters sane world leaders have called for restraint, fearing interference could give a boost to the hard-liners and harm Rouhani.

To sum up, the 2017-18 protesters are from a different background and a different generation and have different aims. They are not calling for freedom and democracy but affordable eggs and bread, jobs, and an end to government neglect of their cities, towns and countryside.

The complaint common to both 2009 and 2017 is corruption which is rampant and permeates the government, administration, business and the clerical hierarchy. Corruption was one of the factors that brought down the regime of the Pahlavis in 1979 and should have been a target of the clerics who took power. However, even a few years after the mullahs seized power, corruption had become an issue. Rouhani has tried to tackle corruption but has failed thanks to the vested interests of the “establishment.” It includes the clerical hierarchy and favoured business interests, religious seminaries, well-funded “foundations” which are close to the centres of power, and the Revolutionary Guards Corps which controls one-fifth of the economy through commercial and manufacturing interests.

If Rouhani seizes the moment, he could exploit provincial resentments as well as dissatisfaction among educated Iranians seeking liberalisation and democracy to corner autocratic clerical conservatives and the “establishment” with the aim of cutting corruption, thereby freeing up funds to develop the provinces and provide eggs at prices all can afford.

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