What started out as a collective complaining about the increase in the price of eggs, grew into an anti-government movement in the tens of thousands that left 21 dead. The series of protests which erupted last December 28 have since died down but the problem for the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appears to be far from over.
The outbreak of social unrest has taken the Rouhani government by surprise as many of the protestors seem to have come from a segment that the Islamic Republic calls its core constituency: the working class cities.
The 2009 Green Movement featured protesters from the educated Tehrani- middle class who rallied against the reformist politics of Mir Hossein Mousavi. However as Iran continues to suffer from high inflation, unemployment and allegations of economic corruption, it is the new generation of young Iranians who bear the brunt of these problems.
Political analysts such as Professor Hussein Banai from Indiana University believe that the lack of leadership and a clear set of grievances weakened the uprising. But the slowdown in protests may only be a lull in the storm that may still be brewing.
“I think we’ve entered a pressure cooker phase in Iran in which we’re likely to see more and more agitators like this.”
Professor Banai’s perspective was echoed by Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute who believes the protests may have deeper implications than just a group of consumers complaining about the 50% increase in the price of eggs:
“My guess is that the Islamic Republic will ride it out but the protests will take a toll on the legitimacy of the government as a whole internally and externally. They undercut Rouhani’s credibility as a guy who can fix the economy and will further stymie his attempts to reform and grow the economy in the future.”
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards reported that there were fewer protests across Iran and fewer police were deployed as of January 2.
Jafari claimed that the “sedition was defeated.”
Iran blamed social media for fanning the flames of the protest. Over the New Year weekend, Iran shut down two popular smartphone apps, Instagram and Telegram which were frequently used by the protesters to disseminate images of the demonstrations as well as to coordinate with other activist groups.
The growth in the number of rural and working class Iranians participating in the rallies shows that the problem of unrest is much more deeply rooted and widespread than in 2009.
Banai noted that while corruption in government has always been a mainstay item in the agenda of many protest movements in Iran, this year marks the first time in the nation’s tumultuous history that economic grievances were elevated alongside abuse in political power.
Ali Ansari of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland thinks the Rouhani government has its back against the wall:
“Even if this dies down, in a few days’ time or six months’ time, the regime has a problem in that this discontent will simmer until they either take dramatic steps themselves of are forced to take them.”