The majority of those Iranians who ended up in jail during the recent demonstrations is younger than 25 years old. They dream to climb the social ladder and to obtain higher salaries. They do not have ideological references, but they demand changes. They have got nothing to lose. These are the new subjects and subjectivites of the Islamic Republic’s street politics
They did not live through the 1979 Revolution, nor the 1980-1988 War against Iraq. They did not experience directly the economic “revival”, the Nineties-branded “growth and consumption” policies, and the popular outcry against the fierce liberalization. They were children during President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist era, and while the middle class was booming.
They were still too young to march on Tehran’s streets in 2009 as part of the Green Movement to claim their right to vote – and they would not have necessarily participated. Aged between 20 and 25 years old, they are the sons of the same Islamic Republic of Iran that they protested between last December 28th and January 4th, taking to the streets of 85 urban and rural areas.
«90 per cent of the people arrested is younger than 25 years old» stated Iranian vice-minister of Interior Affairs Hossein Zolfaghari on January 2nd. Four days later, as reformist member of parliament Mahmoud Saleghi reports, the number of jailed protesters raised to 1000, and at least «90 of them are students».
Some of them are unemployed youngsters who wish, and are unable to make the most of the Bachelor and Master degrees that they obtained, some others are still students. There are those who fend for themselves with occasional employments, and those who juggle two jobs: one as street vendor in front of the Metro, and one as taxi driver for Snapp – an Iranian-made Uber. All of them struggle to make ends meet, and share the same frustration and discontent vis-à-vis the status quo and a political establishment that – as they say – fails to represent them.
Merging their cries with the multi-voiced slogans against corruption, extreme poverty, and demanding a higher employment rate, these youngsters dream of upward mobility and better salaries – «provided they are due on time», they say. Yet, a melting pot of austerity policies, the depreciation of the rial (the local currency), inflation, and lack of response to youth unemployment have ensnared them into a limbo permeated with frustration and alienation.
These grassroots voices are uttered by youngsters who mostly belong to the lower-middle classes. Meanwhile, their upper-middle classes counterparts prefer watching from the stands to hitting the streets, some of them sympathizing with this variegated movement, some others harshly criticizing the mobilization’s management and timing. Seemingly devoid of a unique ideological framework, the young Iranians’ requests appear conflicting: at times, drifting into nationalist claims, at times commemorating wistfully the far-too-idealized Shah era.
Despite the conservative factions were the first to fan the flames of the people’s rage against Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government, part of the Nineties’ generation protesters took to the streets spontaneously. Thanks to Telegram, a popular Iranian instant messaging system, the Iranian youngsters had the chance to share their opinions and concerns about the current political situation. Above all, although the app’s Voice of the People channel was not the real trigger of the uprisings, it nonetheless gave a significant support in terms of exchanging information and setting up the logistics.
Consequently, the authorities had it halted during the protests’ unfolding. However, what is at stake here is not the importance of the Net as a means of communication, whose use is nowadays more widespread than in previous revolts. What is paramount to underline is how the Iranian Nineties’ generation is daring and determined to take advantage of technology to construct an alternative to the gap between private and public sphere – something that has become a custom in the IRI daily life.
They say that they are not afraid of the authorities’ strict control when they share their ideas on Telegram or other social media. During the protests – for instance – while the internet connection was hiccoughing, the mobile network was coming and going, and Telegram was being halted, most of the demonstrators started to download Whatsapp in order to share pictures of tear gas, irritated eyes, and videoclips of the clashes. Some of them were even exchanging information on the fate of their jailed companions.
Thus, not only streets, parks and cafés, but also the virtual space represents a permeable reality where borders can be re-fashioned, and where private and public can mingle.
While it is true that the IRI has witnessed several waves of revolts, nonetheless, the uprisings that took place between December 2017 and January 2018 have shed a light on new subjects and subjectivities: a generation born from a system that fails to represent it, and which feels deeply alienated vis-à-vis the ruling establishment. Regardless of the geographical distribution, there has been a (trans)formation of the people’s political responsiveness and awareness.
The Iranian youngsters have brought to the squares a movement that takes the distance from the protests led by the workers and the so-called urban poor at the beginning of the 90s and 2000s, and from the 2009 civil rights demands, not only in terms of content, but also, and above all, in terms of shape. Headless, i.e. devoid of a leadership and of a precise ideological framework, the Nineties’ generation Iranians, sharing precariousness and economic vulnerability, have met in the public space and have united to create a “street” alliance – what Judith Butler would call an alliance of bodies.
The street’s outcry and demands, that were for the first time followed by a clear public debate filling the newspapers’ columns, mainly concerned the corruption and the economic crisis affecting the country – issues that are not new to the Islamic Republic. However, they were expressed with new means of communication and organization.
Due to the young generation’s hyper-connectivity and, at the same time, great detachment from the system to which it de facto belongs, an innovative way of voicing political requests has emerged outside of the old formal/informal channels of well-established activism. These youngsters, who grew up in a sort of parallel reality to the strict public/private divide, now aim at negotiating alternative spaces where they can pour out their dissent and give voice to their needs.
Unlike previous demonstrations, some of the protesters took to the streets alone, or as part of very small groups: they merely answered to a call for action published on a web channel, independent from longstanding activist groups or exploited by conservative political parties. By the same token, many youngsters decided to join the sit-ins of the abovementioned headless protest. The glue that holds together the different poles of the Iranian youth and of the Iranian population at large was a common denominator: uncertainty for the future, instability, and poverty.
«I have got nothing to lose. I studied, but that is useless. I cannot find a job anyways. I cannot leave the country because of the military service and I don’t have enough money», stated a 25 years old Tehrani youngster.
Yet, as scholar Asef Bayat pointed out, they are neither part of the middle class, nor of the traditional poor strata: they rather belong to an “impoverished middle class.” On the one side, they embody the effect of the capillary alfabetization policies advanced after the Revolution. On the other side, their discontent vis-à-vis economic deprivation originated from the galloping and systematic economic liberalization.
While one out of five Iranian families has managed to send their children to university ever since the year Zero, nonetheless the country’s economy has been unable to involve the new generation of graduated into the labour market: nowadays 35% of the highly educated Iranian youth is unemployed. This is also a face of Iran’s 90s generation that represents the “new poor” and the trâit-d-unionbetween the people’s claims of the past and the transformations of the future.
The question remains whether the political establishment will be able to grasp its potential.