Azad Ahangar — June 28, 2019
The green movement predominantly — but by no means exclusively — was composed of urban middle classes who supported reformists in the 2008 election. This stands in high contrast to the uprisings of lower classes and the subalterns in January 2018 who “had nothing to lose but their chains”. In distinction to the ‘decentralized’, ‘headless’, form of the January 2018 uprisings, the Green Movement was limited to large cities, with Tehran playing a ‘vanguard’ role. This was the case not only in the moment of its birth but also in its development and the death of the movement. The ‘middle class’ character of the movement expresses itself in its slogans, which primarily revolved around certain civil and political rights that were abstracted from the material conditions of life and its attendant class antagonism. I actively participated in almost all demonstrations, both before and after the disputed 2009 election in Iran. I was participating independent from any political party or organization and I never heard any chanting or slogans in any demonstration targeting issues such as social justice, social inequalities, social ecology, gender inequalities, and international solidarity. The issues of ethnic, racial, and national discriminations were off the table all together for the Green Movement crowd — issues that are absolutely vital for developing an alternative to the Islamic Republic, for building a ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ movement.
At the time, as a twenty years old student activist, I was not aware and self-conscious of these limitations. In fact, this critical perspective towards the Green Movement is a retrospective view that approaches the past from the standpoint of the present, i.e., from the standpoint acquired after 2018 January protests in Iran. Questions that have now become a general ‘problematic’ for the society as a whole, back then in 2008–2009, they were not as visible as now, not even for the majority of the dissidents or the Left in Iran. It would be interesting to do a theoretical/historic-sociological work on how, why, and under what conditions the socio-political problematics have been transformed during the past ten years, from the Green Movement in 2008–2009 to January 2018 Uprisings. The way in which a society identifies and articulates its social problems and how it responds to those problems (both in practice and in the realm of thought) expresses the ‘inner essence’ of that society.
To return to the Green Movement retrospectively, we need to recall that “freedom” was a slogan frequently heard on the streets, but never “jobs” or “bread” (a slogan of “Bread, Jobs, and Freedom” since January 2018 has become a commonly used slogan of the labor protests in Iran). Any conception of freedom that is dematerialized from class antagonism and social conditions of reproduction is doomed to failure. There would be no truly universal freedom without social equality — indeed, freedom and equality are mutually entailing. I’m not using ‘bourgeois’ as an empty label here, but after ten years it seems that the freedom that was demanded and proposed by the Green Movement was a ‘bourgeois’/civil freedom which is absolutely necessary but by no means sufficient. Of course, we need to establish certain civil and political rights — and more generally the right to have rights — but any movement that is exclusively limited to the question of ‘rights’ cannot go to the heart and root of things and transform society radically. And I think there was no potential within the movement that could enable it to go beyond the question of rights, perhaps because the movement was so embedded within reformism. While Mousavi distinguished himself by stating that he is neither a reformist nor a hardliner — and one might argue that he belonged to the ‘far-left’ of reformism — he and the movement evolved around him, nonetheless, failed to transcend the reformist principles and framework in general.
Conceived immanently and in its own terms, even the demand for freedom at the level of civic/political rights within the Green Movement are contradictory, limited, and at times reactionary. Freedom was often chanted with “independence”, which is fair enough, but also with “Iranian republic” — as in “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic”. The adjective ‘Iranian’ before the ‘Republic’ clearly has a strong nationalist tone and connotation. How on earth can the ethnic and national minorities living in geographical boundaries of Iran participate or find meaning in this slogan? This slogan already excludes millions of Kurds, Turks, Balochis, Arabs, and all other ethnic minorities. This nationalist character of the movement also expressed itself, partly, in the slogans pertaining to regional and international relations; for instance, those launched against Gaza, Palestine, Lebanon, and other middle eastern countries in Ghods Day — as in ‘No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, only the Iranian Republic’.
I will never and cannot forget the day of Ashura post the disputed 2009 election. It was 27 December 2009 ( ۱۳۸۸ شش دی), I have never seen so many security forces in one place in my life, never seen such extreme violence with my own eyes, and never fought with such anger and rage with anyone.
In the morning of that day, I went to Enghelab Square in Tehran. With the heavy security presence in Enghelab, I decided to take a taxi towards Ferdowsi and after College Bridge, I took off and started looking for the green supporters. We started to chant: Ya Hossein Mirhossein, which had a totally different meaning in Ashura of 2009 because of its reference to martyrdom of Hossein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet (this is significant to Shiite anti despotic identity as Hussein stood against Yazid the despot of the time and lost his life for it). Then things went out of control. We thought that the government, for legitimacy reasons, would not dare to use violence against the protesters on the day of Ashura, as it is among the holiest days in Shia Islam. We were naive at the time, obviously, and didn’t know that the Islamic Republic does whatever it can in order to prevent the protesters from becoming a collective subject. They brutally suppressed us. There was something different about Ashura both in terms of the anger and frustration of the people who were participating in demonstrations since Farvardin 1388, and also about the degree of violence exercised by the regime. I was in College Bridge, where some of the most violent confrontations took place in Tehran. The images that I remember are more like dystopian movies: The streets were empty of any car, the mist generated by the tear gas were all over the place, the endless noise of shootings, screams, and firing tear gases were echoing on the streets … we were building a barricade with the huge cables we found from an under-construction building to block the bridge to prevent Basijis from getting closer to us. We captured 20 revolutionary guard forces (those who look like a Robocops and are heavly armed) right under the bridge and put their motorbikes on fire; we fought with stones against Basijis; we took the guns of some of those revolutionary guard forces but never used them; we put so many trash bins on fire; one person was shot dead in front of my eyes; many injured, including my close friend, by tear gases, rubber bullets, and real guns. Anyone who came alive out of that conflict should feel lucky. Ashura was the most violent day in the history of the Green Movement, alongside the Bloody Saturday (the day after the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei lead Tehran’s Friday prayers and acknowledged and threatened the Green Movement), and no one wanted to pay that much of a cost again. Never again!
How the movement ended up like this?
Ashura is definitely one of the turning points of the Green Movement but not the only significant day. To be clear, there is no one single turning point in the history of the Green Movement, because its history, like any other history, does not follow a linear, progressive logic. Hence the necessity of using the plural modality of the term as in turning points.
We need to refer here to the developments of the movement from 31 Shahrivar (Quds Day) till Ashura (6 Dey), in order to properly grasp Ashura as a turning point after which the movement starts to decline and finally die. It’s absolutely important to mention that in Quds day, the movement revitalized itself from the heavy oppression and damages exercised/imposed on it during the past months; in particular: the Bloody Saturday (30 Khordaad or the Saturday after Khamenei’s speech on Friday prayers), 18 Tir (as a result of which Kahrizak happened), and many other street mobilizations. On Quds Day, ‘we’ felt that we had a ‘small victory’, and we were absolutely passionate and motivated to carry on with the struggle we began since 22 Khordad. Right from the beginning, the movement had decided to ‘appropriate’ and use the Islamic Republic official rituals and ideological ceremonies such as Holly Fridays, 22 Bahman. Quds to its benefits as part of a larger strategy. After Quds Day, it was 13 Aban. And again, it’s very important to mention what happened on that day. In distinction to Quds Day, the security forces extremely and brutally suppressed us — I won’t go into the details of the protests in 13, Aban here. It’s vital to know that it was on Aban 13 that the people chanted “death to Khamenei” for the first time since the formation of the Green Movement. People were frustrated and totally outraged by ‘business as usual’, by being tortured, beaten up, humiliated, by the fact that even the agency they could exercise through previous elections (say, Khordaad 1376) are robbed from them, that the Islamic Republic even increased its own ‘totalitarian’ dimensions, that even the possibility of improving things through election is lost now. This is the context in which Ashura turned into chaos. We never expected that the Islamic Republic massacre us — the people — on Ashura, a day that has provided one of the strongest ideological justifications of Shia Islam. Ashura is, in fact, the day that we realized street protests are no longer effective, it was the moment the movement went into a crisis out of which it couldn’t come alive. Ashura constitutes the beginning of the Green Movement’s death. And there was no creative strategy and tactic that would enable the movement to come up with a new plan. Things slowed down gradually … I remember the despair we found on the streets on 22 Bahman when the number of green participants had been massively decreased. There was no major demonstration from 22 Bahman till the moment Arab Spring kicked in and the long-standing tyranny of Mubarak and Ben Ali, the dictators of Egypt and Tunis successively, were overthrown. We went to the streets once again, chanting: “Mubarak, Ben Ali, it’s your turn Seyyed Ali!”. And we might have gone on the street once or twice again after that but we knew, deep down, deep inside if you like, that these protests simply are not working, that we need to do something new. The movement has already been weakened since Ashura and 22 Bahman, and when Mousavi, Rahnavard, and Karroubi have been arrested after the protest mentioned above, the movement was basically buried.
Why did the Green Movement fail? What were the objectives of the movement that were not met? What lessons can be drawn from the failure of the Green Movement for today’s struggles in Iran and other parts of the world? These are the most important questions that need to be articulated properly if we want to adequately and critically reflect on, and reconstruct, the past after ten years.
In terms of mobilization, organization, and strategy, it seems that street protests are an integral part of any progressive social movement that aspires to radically transform society. Reclaiming streets are absolutely necessary for building solidarity, forming a collective body, constructing the general intellect, the collective decision-making process, developing non-capitalist social practices, and expressing anger and ‘demands’ … but occupying the streets is not sufficient. Let us briefly turn to ‘contemporary’ social movements: at the moment in France, the yellow vest movement is going to perform Act 32 this weekend — meaning that they have been protesting on the streets of all over the country for more than 30 weeks! While the movement has so far gained amazing achievements, there is a strong sense of frustration and hopelessness within the movement, and the number of participants has been massively decreasing. They cannot endlessly and without any consequence go on the streets every weekend and then get beaten up by the police, go blind, lose their hands, get injured, and thrown into jails. These policing practices and state violence would paralyze any movement and exhaust their vital energies, as they cause huge damage to individuals and social groups, and ultimately give rise to a sense of frustration with the inability to actualize their desire. Another example relates to the Occupy Movements in various countries, especially the Occupy Wall Street movement. What happened to them in 2011 and 2012?
In the case of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, Wall Street, people were kicked off after six months of struggle on the street. I’m not suggesting that ‘horizontal’ forms of mobilization are doomed to failure, but rather that the struggle is not exclusively confined to the street. A ‘true’ social movement would mobilize and organize itself at all levels of social life that are subjugated to power relations. Specifically, regarding the forms of mobilization within the Green Movement, I think the movement didn’t have any other strategy than street protests for subjecting the hard-core of the Islamic Republic to its will and undo the results of the election and protect — or even establish new — civic or political rights that have been violated in the 2009 presidential election. With the intensification of police and state violence, which culminated in Ashura, the green movement had basically become powerless, hopeless, and paralyzed. How many times can the protesters go on the streets and risk being exposed to state repression, which includes imprisonment, torture, and killing? There is a limit to the vital energies of any movement and this limit pushed to its edges in Ashura. There was no connection, organic or otherwise, between the Green Movement and other ongoing social struggles (workers, feminist, ecological, anti-racial/ethnic). The only connection was between the student movement and the Green Movement, which was crushed right at the beginning with the mass arrest of participating students and depriving them of the right to continue their studies.
Apart from the issue of organization, the Green Movement suffered from being confined to urban middle classes and large cities, leaving intact the question of social justice and thus working classes and vulnerable sectors of society. Here we need to refer to the commonalities between reformists and hardliners in Iran. Unlike the way reformists and hardliners appear to be standing in opposition to each other, in essence they share a set of oppressive principles. One of, if not the, common grounds between reformists and hardliners is neoliberalism. Both sides debased labor-power, increased the financialization of the economy, and ‘privatized’ state-owned revenues — the process that brought misery to millions of people and put them in abject poverty. Why would lower classes, who suffered most from these neoliberal practices, support a movement whose principles are ‘reformist’, and thus neoliberal? It’s important to remember that before the election, Mousavi talked of equality and social justice, and human dignity, which was heard to some extent by the disenfranchised and subaltern classes. Yet, after the election, both he and Karoubi failed or were not willing, to incorporate the lower classes and establishing networks of connection between the Green Movement and, say, workers’ movement. This was one of the limitations of the Green Movement which has never been overcome. If a movement does not gain the support of the whole society and remains at the level of its own particularity (here in this case: urban middle classes of large cities), the movement can be crushed very easily. Given the fact that reformism was deeply rooted in its principles, the Green Movement was not concerned — at least not primarily concerned — with other social struggles, and above all, with the neoliberal class war. This class war is not just about the war of ‘workers’ against ‘capitalist’ at the level of the production process, but rather encapsulates gender, race, national, ethnic, religious, and ecological wars taking place on a daily basis in our miserable everyday lives.
 As a separate and general point, I would also nominate these dates as turning points: 25 khordaad (the most glorious demonstration of the whole green movement where 3 million people went on the street) and 30 Khordaaad (the bloody Saturday where hundreds of people, including Neda, were shot dead directly); 18 Tir (when Sohrab were killed and Kahrizak took place); Quds Day (explained above); 13 Aban; 16 Azar; Ashura; 25 Bhman 1389, influenced by the Arab Spring.
 I supported Mousavi campaign before the election, went to his public speeches, debating with my family and friends on why we must vote for him. At the time, I was 20 years old and I didn’t have any critical perspective towards the reformists in Iran, in particular towards Mousavi as someone who was constantly referring to Khomeini as an ‘ideal leader’ and speaking very high of him, someone who was at power when leftist prisoners were massively executed during the Summer of 1988, without going through any juridical procedure. I was young and immature, but what about the Left in Iran? In particular, I’m thinking of the New Left and Rokhdaad website, which was a great source of inspiration for my generation. I might be wrong but I don’t remember any single article published there, critically approaching the irresolvable issues related to Mousavi and all the problems and limitations intrinsic to reformism.