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Hope for Iran

February 17, 2011

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have kindled optimism among young Iranian-born activists living in Germany. Some say the revolts have breathed new life into the opposition movement in Iran. But others remain wary.

iran protester
Activists hope Arab revolts will galvanize Iran's Green Movement which held huge protests in 2009Image: AP

Narges Sadjedi had one thing on her mind when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last week after huge, sustained anti-government protests across the country.

"I wished it was happening in my country, Iran. I felt so close to it," the 25-year-old student said. "That's because I feel the pain of the Iranian people and know how strongly they too want freedom."

Sadjedi, who doesn't want to use her real name because she's fearful of being targeted by the authorities when she visits Iran, is among hundreds of young Iranian-born activists living in Germany.

The mass protests that have unseated autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia in recent weeks have injected a new sense of optimism among them.

"If you looked at the reactions of young Iranians on the Internet to the uprisings, they were happy for Tunisia and Egypt but they were also quite envious at what these countries achieved," Farnaz Seifi, a blogger, women's rights activist and journalist with Deutsche Welle's Persian service in Bonn said.

"The uprisings have definitely sparked new hope among Iranians."

Pro-democracy movement energized by uprisings

Much of that hope is pinned on Iran's pro-democracy Green Movement, which in recent days has gained momentum with its call for protests on blogs and social networking sites.

Iran protesters
Iran's opposition movement held a rally early this week - the first in over a yearImage: Kaleme

On Monday this week, it staged a big demonstration in Tehran - for the first time in more than a year. Thousands of supporters of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi rallied to show their solidarity with Arab revolts and anger at Iran's hard-line leaders.

The protests come amid a wave of similar unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Many believe that the successful people power revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have served to invigorate Iran's opposition movement.

"It's encouraged the people and political activists to take to the streets again after a year of brutal state repression and fear and despair," Pedram Shahyar, an activist and blogger in Berlin said. "This psychological effect of the Egyptian revolution is important."

Sadjedi, a women's rights activist, said she had been in touch with friends in Tehran who had taken part in this week's protests. "They were so happy that so many people turned out on the streets. They now have hope that this is the beginning of another wave of dissent," the activist said.

Learning from each other

The spread of political unrest from Egypt to Iran - the first non-Arab country to be caught up in the revolutionary fever - has inevitably led to debate about the parallels between the opposition movements in the two countries, both home to huge youth populations.

Wael Ghonim
Egyptian protest leader Wael Ghonim says the uprising in his country drew on Iran's 2009 anti-government ralliesImage: picture alliance /dpa

Last week, Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and Egyptian protest leader told an Iranian human rights group: "I tell all Iranians that you should learn from Egyptians because we learned from you." His comments and picture were widely posted on Iranian opposition websites and blogs.

Activists point out that Iran's anti-government protests in 2009, which involved huge street demonstrations for months in protest against President Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection, did indeed serve to rouse people in the Arab world.

Sara Dehkordi, who helped set up a network for Iranians in Berlin in 2009 during the height of opposition protests, said the Green Movement's use of the Internet also played a pioneering role in the region. Members of Egypt's Facebook generation relied heavily on social networking tools to mobilize support in the recent uprising.

"The Green Movement was one of the first to use social networking media and the Internet to communicate and inform the world of what was happening inside Iran," the 28-year-old student said. "It was a very useful strategy."

'A revolt for bread and freedom'

At the same time, some activists concede that the Iranian opposition could take a few pointers from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolt.

Dehkordi said Egypt's largely leaderless uprising made it a real, bottom-up people's struggle.

"I think one of the weaknesses of the Green Movement is that people have waited and watched for too long about what Mousavi and Karroubi would say and react," she said.

Protests in egypt
Some say Iranian protests need to echo Egypt's call for both social and political changeImage: picture alliance/dpa

The two opposition leaders are currently being held under house arrest.

Others say the Iranian opposition should be aiming for the kind of broader goals that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt embraced.

"Those revolts combined the question of social justice and political freedom. So it was a revolt for bread and freedom from the beginning. That was important to mobilize a broad swathe of society," Shahyar said. "In Iran however, the opposition movement has focused only on the political question of freedom. That's one reason why it hasn't been as successful as Egypt in mobilizing the poor."

Iranian regime 'much more brutal'

At the same time, some warn against high expectations of toppling President Ahmadinejad's regime any time soon.

Blogger Farnaz Seifi, who was once arrested in Iran for alleged spying, dismissed comparisons with Egypt's swift and successful protests.

"The thing to remember is that it's not just the history and culture of Egypt and Iran that are different but even their governments' ways of dealing with people," the 28-year-old said.

"Iran's regime is much more brutal. Unlike Egypt, it has no international ties and has been isolated for a long time. It's not afraid to use violence against its own people."

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge