It wasn’t supposed to end like this, but there was blood today in Tehran.
The last time I saw so many people on the streets of the city was in November 1978 (I was 11), when the media reported that 3 million people took part in demonstrations against the Shah of Iran. Today, there were at least half that number walking along the same route from Revolution Square to Liberty Square. “We walk this along this route because from our revolution to liberty is a long way,” said Ahmad, a 54-year-old academic who didn’t want to give his full name. Ahmad took part in the 1979 march as well. “I see many similarities between what happened then and now. In both case we had a clear mandate. Then we wanted to overthrow the shah. Today we want this little man who has stolen our votes to resign and accept people’s votes.”
The “little man” is President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, and the hundreds of thousands who came to the streets today to protest his reelection and show support for defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. They ignored the government ban on public demonstrations and its consequences. From morning until the march began around 4 p.m., the state-controlled radio and television broadcast announcements that “the Interior Ministry didn’t issue any permit for today’s demonstrations,” and that “those who do not observe the law will be punished.” Many people expected that they might get beaten up or shot at like they were on Saturday and Sunday.
I filmed the demonstration. In the beginning, people were reluctant to be filmed and asked for my press card to make sure that I was a journalist and not an intelligence officer. But as more people joined the marchers, people seemed to relax, even posing for the camera.
What may have put everyone at ease was the silence. Today’s demonstration was a peaceful protest against what Mousavi supporters call an electoral coup d’etat. People asked each other not to clap or even say “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), which has become the main chant of Mousavi supporters over the past few days. When they passed by police and security forces, who had brutally beaten them as recently as Monday morning, people smiled and even gave them flowers. When Army helicopters flew over the demonstrators, they waved and flashed V signs.
Such were the early symbols of today’s demonstrations. Still, whenever the crowd passed by a base of the Basij paramilitary group, there was tension in the air. “In the past few days members of the Basij have been infiltrating our group in our neighborhood and provoked violence,” says Emad, who also didn’t give his full name. “They broke all the shop windows in my neighborhood. When a shop owner caught one of them, he realized that he is a member of Basij.”
The Basij originally started as a volunteer force to protect the security of the nation and fight against foreign enemies. Mousavi himself famously said, “I’m proud to be a Basij member.” But the organization has recently become identified with hardline vigilantes. Even though many neighborhood Basij members did not take part in the beatings of the past few days, the thugs who clubbed the young demonstrators called themselves true members of Basij.
Along the march route, Basij members looking through the curtains at their compounds seemed wary of the passing crowd. They were right to be. As the demonstration drew to an end, some marchers gathered around a Basij base just north of Liberty Square. Basij members on the roof started shooting in the air. The shots provoked the demonstrators, who started to chant more slogans against the Basij. And then someone threw a rock at the building and then someone else threw another rock. The Basij inside fired more shots into the air. That angered marchers even more, and the crowd attacked the building, bringing down the fence and jumping over the wall. Then the Basij members started shooting people.
I saw one person shot dead and two more injured. After that, the crowd went wild.
“We’ll kill those who killed our brothers,” the crowd chanted and then “Death to the Islamic Republic,” a slogan which was in contrast with the objective of the marchers during the day. “Hush. Be Quite! Change the Slogan! Allahu Akbar!” screamed most people. “We haven’t come here to say ‘Death to the Islamic Republic’,” said one man. “We’re here to support Mousavi,” said a woman. “Those who chant these damaging slogans are infiltrators who want to provoke Ahmadinejad’s government to announce martial law and stop any reform.”
When I tried to film the demonstrators who were chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic”, they tried to take my camera away from me. I managed to leave the scene only with the help of a group of silent demonstrators. Mousavi’s supporters are planning to stage another peaceful protest tomorrow. They are also talking about a national strike on Wednesday. Tonight, it is difficult to predict what that will bring, or what the end result of the cycle of demonstrations will be.