In Iran, Bahrain and Yemen, protesters take to streets
Three more Middle Eastern governments came under assault from thousands of street demonstrators, a sign of widening reverberations from the pro-democracy movement that upended repressive governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
Street clashes in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen were met by riot police Monday, as authorities in the conservative nations sought to squelch demands for greater political freedom, better jobs and an end to corruption.
Though the demonstrations were small by comparison, the cries in the streets echoed the spirit of the recent revolts that toppled authoritarian rulers.
“Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayed Ali!” some protesters in Tehran shouted, referring to the former presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Tehran’s streets turned into a chaotic mass of broken glass, burning trash bins, rocks and tear gas as thousands of people marched toward Azadi Square, some clashing along the way with riot police in the first major reformist demonstration since widespread protests over a tainted national election in 2009 that left eight people dead.
Though past street protests have featured slogans mostly targeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government, Monday’s rally more often attacked the supreme leadership itself, the underpinning of the entire Islamic state that seized power in a revolution of its own just over three decades ago.
“It’s very interesting to see that the revolution of Iran is being questioned by its own people, with people saying it didn’t bring them anything significant,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, an Iran expert and professor of contemporary history at Qatar University in Doha.
But he said it would be premature to assume that Iranian protesters were pushing to overturn the ruling Shiite Muslim theocracy. “They are against some of the policies, they are against the approach of the state. But so far, they are not calling for the fall of the regime,” he said.
In Bahrain, a small island emirate on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf near Saudi Arabia, riot police attacked hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and pellets, according to human rights observers. A member of parliament reported at least one protester dead and three injured.
Yemen, meanwhile, was undergoing its fourth consecutive day of protests, with a reported 17 people wounded in two separate clashes between pro-reform demonstrators and pro-government activists, with riot police trying to stand between the groups.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. “clearly and directly” supported the protesters’ aspirations in Iran.
“What we see happening in Iran today is a testament to the courage of the Iranian people, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime — a regime which over the last three weeks has constantly hailed what went on in Egypt,” Clinton said.
Protests also reportedly broke out in the Iranian cities of Esfahan, Shiraz, Kermanshah and Rasht, and at least one person died in the clashes in Tehran, according to the Fars News Agency.
Both major opposition leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, were held under virtual house arrest Monday, with their phones, cellphones and Internet service cut off.
In central Tehran, meanwhile, police shut down subway stations near Azadi Square and blocked off several streets, some of which turned into rock-throwing battle zones as protesters traded blows with pro-government Basiji militiamen and pushed their way forward toward the square. Leading reformists are calling for the resignation of Ahmadinejad and abolishing clerical control of elections. Many of those in the streets have also been furious over tough economic conditions and the stifling of dissent; large numbers of journalists and intellectuals have been imprisoned, including at least 30 reportedly arrested Feb. 8 in what opposition leaders said was an attempt to prevent Monday’s rally.
“My father is a pharmacist and we are not poor, but how can I bear a government which is not representing my ideals, and how can I keep away from the protests while my classmates are jailed for expressing themselves?” said a 24-year-old engineering student at Amirkabir University who feared retribution and did not want to be identified.
“Today I was braving tear gas and batons on my head, but I am satisfied and have no more pangs of conscience,” the student said. “I have done what I could do, and was obliged to do.”
Shahram, 23, a dentistry student who also did not want to be fully identified, said he was with his friends throwing bricks and stones at the police when he was overcome by tear gas and passed out. Friends dragged him to safety inside a house, then all had to flee out a back door when militia members came in looking for them.
“I was almost handcuffed, but my friends released me from the hands of the Basijis. We rushed out and ran and ran and ran, and caught a taxi and escaped from the scene,” he said.
“Honestly speaking,” he added, “when I joined the silent marchers today and witnessed the courage of young people thinner and poorer than me, I was ashamed of myself. I couldn’t afford to be a coward.”
In Bahrain, demonstrators were not demanding the collapse of the Sunni Muslim monarchy, which oversees a nation that is predominantly Shiite, but citizen access to a more participatory government. Their demands include a new constitution; an investigation into corruption, torture and purported attempts to suppress the Shiite majority by naturalizing new Sunni citizens; and release of up to 500 political prisoners, many of them under 18.
King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa responded last week with an offer of 1,000 dinars (about $2,650) to each family in the country. Maryam Alkhawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was at Monday’s protests, said many see the offer as a slap in the face.
“Is that the price of our freedom? They think we’re not going to go out and protest because we received 1,000 dinars?” she said.
At least 14 people reportedly were injured in clashes earlier in the day and on Sunday outside the capital, especially in the area of Karzakan, according to Reuters news agency.
Alkhawaja said she was in a car with a foreign journalist near a protest when a police officer skidded his car sideways to a halt in front of them. “He took out a gun, he pointed it, and shot it straight at us,” she said.
A 28-year-old woman named Ebtihal said she was with a group of protesters chanting, “With our blood and our souls, we will defend you, Bahrain,” when police arrived and ordered them to disperse.
“We told them we are doing a peaceful gathering … but the police decided to attack. They started tear gas and rubber bullets.… One man, he was asking the police, ‘Why are you attacking us, we are peacefully protesting?’ and the policemen gathered and started beating him brutally.”
Ebtihal said she felt she had little choice but to protest: Her brother went to jail for, among other things, publishing on his blog the names of police officers who had beaten citizens. Now the whole family lives in fear of being arrested, she said.
“Talking to a journalist or sending photos could send me to jail. In recent months they have arrested so many people just for expressing their opinions, communicating with the international media, or holding the images of the prisoners, that’s being called a crime,” she said. “I feel that there are so many reasons I cannot accept this. For the longest part of my life, and I am only 28, I have been living in fear.”
In Yemen, demonstrators were attacked with broken bottles, daggers and rocks by several hundred government supporters, many waving Yemeni flags and photos of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president for more than 30 years, who has promised to step down in 2013.
At Sana University, scene of one of the biggest protests, 22-year-old student Omar Mukhtar held up a sign reading, “Thirty-three years of corruption, poverty, ignorance and unemployment.”
Fistfights broke out between rival groups at the university gate, with attendees on both sides menacingly brandishing jambiyas, traditional curved daggers, while security forces looked on.
Anti-government protesters claimed their assailants were plainclothes police in the employ of the government.
“As long as the president has reigned, we have had more and more problems. We see what brotherly countries have done, and we have gained hope,” Mukhtar said.
Back in Tehran, night fell and the streets were left littered with stones and broken glass. But from the darkened windows and stairwells of several mid-rise apartment buildings around the capital, an eerie chorus rose up.
“Allahu akbar!” (God is great), anonymous voices shouted into the night, and, “Death to dictators!”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Murphy from Amman. Special correspondents Meris Lutz in Beirut and Noah Browning in Sana, Yemen, contributed.
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