I can almost see it…The first ray of sunlight flashes into the sky, fragile and alone in the early morning gloom. Beneath the dawns first light, a hopeful city, awake and restless, stirs. The air is thick with anticipation. The young, with the confidence of the untried, are positive that a bright future is theirs to grasp. Even the old, who know from long and bitter years that nothing ever changes, can feel the thrum, the vibration of millions of hearts beating to the same rhythm.
To an American, the candidates seem politically indistinguishable. While their foreign policies are practically identical, their domestic policies varied enough to excite the youth, and the more progressive elements of Iran, in the weeks leading up to the election. Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, the incumbent, was intent on maintaining the status quo, as he had for the previous 4 years. Mir Hossein-Mousavi supported increased freedom of dress and culture, and the privitization of the presently government run media companies. Contrasted with Ahmadenijad’s “Vice Police” (An initiative started in November of 2007, the Iranian police created a list of “Vices” which they intended to arrest people for, including “makeup, un-islamic dress, and decadent movies”) Mousavi’s call to relax the strict Islamic code of dress and behavior was refreshing.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Pro-Mousavi youth held rallies, Mousavi’s Facebook page was frequented, word spread over the internet and through universities, via text message and commercial, by word of mouth and flier. As the somewhat less conservative candidate emerged and gained a vocal following, fundamentalists struck back. On June 1st, a Mousavi campaign office in Qum was torched. The Jerusalem Post had reports of another candidate being the target of a failed assassination attempt. In the streets, things were heated.
It was in this condition that the sun found the city of Tehran as it rose on election morning, Friday, June 12th. Though the day proceeded peacefully, the seeds of dissension were being sown from the very start. Cell phone service was patchy, text messaging was completely unavailable, and world news organizations have reported that high powered “electronic jammers” were used to interfere with (in fact, completely stop) their transmissions, effectively silencing them. No government agency has taken responsibility for any of these conditions, but many Iranians believe that the inability to use text messaging on election day was a ploy to suppress the young vote, by Ahmadenijad, who’s voter base consist primarily of Middle-aged and older Iranians from rural communities.
Because of the tremendous voter turnout on election day, the polling places were forced to revise their closing times more than once. Reports on election day vary, though they all describe lines of people stretching down city blocks, waiting to vote, some also include reports of militia men intimidating voters. These claims point to Ahmadenijad as the originator and main beneficiary of this intimidation, but no reliable news organization has been able to confirm these complaints. In fact, after the election the Iranian government began a systematic campaign of censorship which seemed to have only one aim: keeping any word of the election aftermath, including the accusations of vote tampering and the ongoing protests, from getting out.
On June 13th, having counted 1/3rd of the vote, Ahmadenijad was declared President by a margin of 62%. In provinces which, during the 2005 elections, had given him 20% of the vote, he won 70%. He did equally well in rural and in metropolitan areas (Contrary to all trends in Iranian electoral history). He not only handily won nearly every province, he even carried Tabriz, the capital of Eastern Azerbaijan and the home city of Mousavi, his chief competitor.
Having no election controls whatsoever, faking these results would be very simple. But would even the most inept government official do it so badly? Protests began immediately, Pro-Mousavi Iranians hit the streets with signs that said “Where is my vote?” among other things. They marched in the thousands and the tens of thousands, and later, the hundreds of thousands. The Iranian government went on the offensive. They went on the offensive against the biggest threat to their continued existence…the press corps. An Italian reporter was beaten by riot police, his camera confiscated. German and British reporters fared no better. American reporters for NBC and CBS also report having materials and film confiscated by Iranian security forces. At the direction of the government, Iranian ISP’s restricted access to world news sources, cutting off Iranian citizens from sites like bbc.co.uk and cnn.com.
After Sunday, no international news organization was broadcasting out of Iran. Many sites were blocked for Iranian citizens. The flow of information in and out of the country had been dramatically reduced, in 24 hours. Few news organizations even reported on what was happening in Iran, either because they couldn’t verify their information, or because the Iranian government asked them not to. The government was accused by Al Jazeera of instructing local newspapers to change their headlines.
What happened next was surprising. Over the weekend, #IranElection became one of the most popular words in use on Twitter.com. Twitter is a free site which allows its users to post brief messages, limited to 140 characters, which can be seen by anyone. Iranians inside the country, and relatives of Iranian citizens, were using Twitter to post updates about the situation. They listed meeting times, posted warnings about the Basij militia groups who were beating and killing protesters, and spread the word to a world that had no other source of information about what was going on in Iran.
Though the reports disseminated through twitter are unverifiable, they have served as a vehicle for the spread of a rich media context that brings into sharp focus the picture of a people in chaos. Images of men clasping bloody legs, tying off tourniquets, of women insensate being loaded into ambulances, and video of gunmen firing as they progress up a residential street, may not tell us the whole story, but they tell us that there is a story, which is more than we heard from the sources that we rely on for news. That, coupled with Iran’s continued campaign of misinformation and and refusal to operate with any sort of transparency is frightening.
From the standpoint of an American citizen, Mousavi is no better a candidate than Ahmadenijad. Who wins this election isn’t important. What matters is that, for the first time in a decade the people of Iran are fighting for their rights. In larger numbers than we’ve seen in 30 years, the nation of Iran is demanding a change. Because of a website designed for the delivery of short messages and used frivolously by millions, the world knows in more intimate detail, in more vivid color, with more immediacy, exactly what it looks like on the streets of Tehran, a week after the most promising sunrise in the last 4 years.
This is what the Internet has wrought: we are no longer separated by distance or time, by wealth or all the forces of a corrupt government. We can know, to the minute, what’s happening on the streets of Qum without the filter of an Iranian press secretary, or a CNN correspondent.
What is happening? The people continue to protest. Some reports say that there have been Pro-Mousavi marches with more than a million attendees. At these marches, people are beaten and arrested. Basij militia groups are going door to door, taking down satellite dishes which may grant unfettered internet access. The Iranian government has raided several university dorms. They are tracking down and arresting bloggers and those who use twitter to post messages. And still, the people march. They go onto their balconies and into the streets knowing that they could face death. I came across this during my research for this article, and felt it was timely.
Whether or not our sharing in this struggle will benefit the people of Iran remains to be seen. Even if it doesn’t, even if they endure 4 more years of Ahmadinejad’s “status quo”, we must realize that we’re seeing a revolution. Information can no longer be held back. Like fine sand, it slips through, and is blown across the world on strong winds.
Twitter has broadcast a revolution in the way that we interact with the world. We’re no longer consumers of news, handed to us by media organizations. We can talk to the people on the ground. We can see things through their eyes. If you’ve been watching the messages filed under #iranelection on Twitter, as I have, I expect you feel much the same as I. You may feel that this situation is closer to you. You may find that you know more about it than your friends and coworkers. You may discover that you sympathize, if not with the ideologies, then with the plight of the people of Iran.
Did you feel that way, a week ago? Pretty revolutionary, if you ask me.
You can find David Eagle on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/cdeagle