Thursday, June 18, 2009

Days of Twitter, days of rage

Against the backdrop of volcanic social revolution in Iran, once thought improbable but now all but certain, a powerful irony is at work: the nation vilified by the last administration as a backwards, isolationist danger has overnight distilled the practice of technological combat in the early 21st century.

A chess match is underway between the Iranian government and dissenters, a battle boiled down to its essence — despite the blood being shed on the streets of Tehran — by dueling masteries of information technology.

With foreign press credentials revoked and satellite connections severed by the Iranian regime, the images we’ve seen for days have come from the most personal of personal technology; police attacks monitored by cell-phone cameras; videos of young slain Iranians uploaded to YouTube; Twitter tweets and blog posts providing nothing less than the EKG of the pulse of unrest itself.

What’s unfolding on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere may well be the leading edge of war 2.0. It is certainly, to this point, the news story of the year.

There had to be blood. It started on Saturday with tension and confrontation in the wake of the disputed election results; President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was re-elected by a wide margin over challenger, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi — impossibly wide since millions of votes were still being counted when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.

Day by day the unrest has spread. In the five days since, at least a dozen Iranians have reportedly been killed. And according to some with knowledge of the situation on the ground, today and Friday are expected to be pivotal days in the outcome of a revolt — the Twitter Resistance? — that has roiled a nation in which more than half of its 70 million people are under the age of 25.

Reza Aslan, writer, TV commentator and columnist on Middle Eastern affairs for The Daily Beast, put events in a tidy historical frame on Wednesday, talking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “What's really fascinating about what's happening right now in 2009 is that it looks a lot like what was happening in 1979.

“ ... [W]hat you’re going to see tomorrow is something that was pulled exactly out of the playbook of 1979, which is that you have these massive mourning rallies, where you mourn the deaths of those who were martyred in the cause of freedom. And these things tend to get a little bit out of control, they often result in even more violence by the security forces and even more deaths, which then requires another mourning rally which is even larger, which then requires more violence from the government, and this just becomes an ongoing snowball that can't be stopped.

“I think we're going to see crowds that we haven't even begun to see yet, and then follow that, on Friday, which is sort of the Muslim sabbath, the day of prayer, which is a traditionally a day of gathering anyway. This is just beginning, Rachel, this is just the beginning.”

How apparently true. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the regime’s Interior Ministry has ordered an inquiry “into an attack late Sunday night on Tehran University students in a dormitory reported to have left several students dead and many more injured or arrested. Students say it was carried out by Islamic militia and police.”

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It’s on. The whole world really is watching this one. YouTube has lowered its threshold on video restrictions, allowing some of the more gruesome but historically necessary videos to be seen full on. A group at the University of Chicago has set up a Web site that will receive faxes from Iran, to be posted online.

Add to that the previous attempts on the part of Mousavi supporters to conduct broad, unprecedented denial-of-service attacks on government Web sites, and the ongoing populist approach to spreading the word (see the video below), and you have the foundation for the most sweeping change in Iran in 30 years.

The Guardian UK reports, via the blog of the National Iranian American Council reports that Basiji militiamen who have been seen beating and harassing pro-Mousavi protesters now hide their faces for fear of retaliation.

Ian Black, The Guardian's Middle East editor reports that Ahmadinejad hasn’t been seen in public since Monday, when he traveled to Russia for a conference: “Analysts and diplomats say that the fact that Ahmadinejad has not been seen for three days as street protests and political turmoil rage suggests his position may have been weakened,” Black reports.

"If he was feeling confident, he would be more visible," said Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s the most exciting and perilous development in the Middle East in years, and it seems that it’s just taking shape. Guardian correspondent Saeed Kamali Dehghan reprted that perhaps a million people showed up at a major mourning rally today. Mousavi has called for a candlelight vigil tonight.

And Press TV reports that a leading reformist group of influential clerics has requested authorization for a pro-Mousavi rally on Saturday in Tehran.

With events unfolding so rapidly, it may be impossible to say what the proverbial tipping point in Tehran will be. There may be more than one. But the passions so far unleashed are a genie of discontent that won’t soon be stuffed back into the bottle.

Journalists have long likened their craft to writing “the first draft of history.” That’s what’s developing in Iran right now, but different. That first draft is written not by journalists, but by everyday people in the streets, one blog post, one video, one tweet at a time.
Image credits: Citizens of the next Iran: Citizens of the next Iran.

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