FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 2, 2018 - 12:00am

Street protests broke out in one of Iran’s provincial cities last week. Over the next few days, the protests spread to about a score of other cities, including the capital Tehran.

No one really expected this outbreak of turbulence, least of all the leaders of the country. The protests began as ranting about the deteriorating economic conditions of the Iranian people. Soon enough, the protesters took a sharp political turn. We saw video of a mob tearing up posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and chanting “Death to Khamenei.”

Such scenes will no doubt alarm the Revolutionary Guard, that fanatical paramilitary horde dedicated to defend the Islamic Republic and its clerical rule. Shortly after, news filtered out that several protesters were wounded and at least two died from gunshots.

The protests do not have a clear leadership structure. Like the large demonstrations we saw during the Arab Spring a few years ago, the protests appeared to be organized almost exclusively using social media. The regime’s first response was, in fact, to curtail public access to Telegram and Instagram.

International experts on Iran are in profound disagreement trying to characterize the demonstrations. Most seem inclined to characterize the protests as some sort of civil rights movement, articulating discontent over the suffocating rule of the mullahs. Others, however, are quick to assign some revolutionary potential to the turbulence.

To be sure, the Iranian people are chaffing at the orthodox Islamist rule and the impact this had on the lives of ordinary Iranians. When the Iranian government pursued its nuclear development program, this invited stiff economic sanctions that adversely impacted on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Lately, Tehran’s support for the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shiite government in Baghdad is seen as draining public resources to the detriment of ordinary Iranians. This new round of public demonstrations, at least in the first few days, seemed focused on pressuring Tehran to attend to the people’s plight.

Some see factional maneuvering behind the demonstrations. In 2013, moderates and reformists scored a major victory in getting Hassan Rouhani elected president. Rouhani, with impeccable credentials as a cleric, was elected because he represented moderation and reforms. One might imagine he faces stiff resistance from the religious conservatives.

I have witnessed first-hand the extent to which young Iranians despise the rule of religious conservatives. Younger Iranians are more western than one might expect. Some look back with favor to the period when Shah Pahlavi was in power with a stanchly pro-western government. He was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

When I visited Tehran last, my duties included participating in a meeting with then hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I lot of the time, however, I spent hanging out with young Iranians toying with their big bikes or watching football in the cafes. There was a distinct difference in attitude and the view of the preferred future between those who ruled and those who were ruled.

There is a generational time bomb clicking away here, I concluded. The militant vision of the Islamic Revolution may retain its hold over the old; but not among the young.

The crowds appearing in the streets of all the major cities of Iran represent a phenomenon seen only twice before in recent memory: in 1979, when the revolution swept the Shah away; and in 2009, when people protested the reelection of the hardliner Ahmadinejad.

If somehow, this round of turbulence fizzles out, a lot of credit will have to be given to Donald Trump. As the demonstrations gained momentum in Iranian cities, Trump tweeted support for the protesters. He failed to appreciate how unpopular he was among all sectors in Iranian society. His support was almost a kiss of death, discrediting the reformists and the democrats in the eyes of their own people.


Where I live, New Year’s Eve arrived quietly. In my lifetime, welcoming the New Year has never been as peaceful. There were not whistle bombs landing on my car’s hood and the pets were not distressed.

EO 28, issued by President Duterte, had taken effect. As a result, firecrackers were set off only in the designated areas. Firecracker-related injuries dropped drastically – by 68 percent, according to the DOH’s first estimate. No death, at least in the metropolitan area, has been reported so far.

As a result, the air was cleaner the morning after. There was substantially less of the New Year trash we usually saw in the streets before EO 28. Life seems healthier – and disciplined.

The way we celebrated the onset of another year had, in the past become, patently insane. I recall driving through our streets at near-zero visibility because of the smog. With firecrackers being thrown at my vehicle as I passed, the experience resembled traversing a war zone. Old tires were burned in the middle of roads, oblivious to toxic emissions.

We needed some shock therapy to alter this homicidal New Year’s Eve culture we embraced. That shock therapy is called Digong.

The Health Secretary is a bit disappointed. He wanted a 75 percent reduction in injuries and got only 68 percent. After all, a firecracker ban is so easy to enforce. No one sets off a whistle bomb in secret. Added police visibility might have discouraged firecracker vandals even more and save more of the body parts destroyed by senseless blasts.

But this is only the first year the firecracker ban is in effect. Next year, with strong community support, we might actually aim for zero injuries.

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