In Tehran yesterday the crowds were in the thousands -- much more than expected by most of us, but sporadic. It seems like security forces managed to keep anyone from staying in one place long enough to make it a huge center. I can only rely on my own eyewitness sources since there is so much disinformation from fringe groups like the MKO and ultra-Monarchists floating around the Internet. Most of my sources said the crowds were in the thousands. One said there more than a hundred thousand.
Security forces were large in numbers and presence. One of my sources claimed there were more security forces than she had ever seen before. She also said that there were pro-regime groups waving pictures of Khamenei. The security forces used electric batons and tear gas. My sources also all claimed that more "Marg bar Khamenei" (death to Khamenei) was chanted than any other chant. But one has to be careful, two video clips, at least, that were widely circulated, were from 2009 and had a voice-over chant of Mubarak, Ben Ali etc. My sources claimed there were vans where those arrested were taken. I have not seen one picture or video that shows one point of huge gathering. It seems there were several points of protest with one especially large one at Sadeghieh in central Tehran.
What is certain is that the numbers surprised all and were bigger than expected. My sources were all hopeful, though one was scared and shaken by bassiji behavior and the use of teargas. The role of social media, while important, is slightly exaggerated. I saw no one tweeting from Iran really, certainly not from the protests. Maybe Facebook helped in some of the organizing. But at the height of the 2009 uprising less than 0.2% were using twitter from Iran even after everyone changed their location to Iran for safety of the protestors. With mobile phones cut off and no sms for much of the routes it would be difficult to organize with Internet on the ground.
Significant also was the house arrest of Reformist leaders, Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi. This gives them added revolutionary stature. But it seems like yesterday was not really about them. Very few pro-Mousavi or Karroubi chants were reported. Whatever happens next, it seems like the crowds have moved beyond the reformist agenda and are asking for regime change. This could be the result of Egypt and Tunisia's inspirational contagion. Iranians usually see themselves as superior to others in the region -- especially Arabs -- and the fact that the latter achieved in a few weeks what former has wanted for so long may have inspired and pushed the Iranians into action. Also, many distrust the reformists who themselves have shady records of service with the Islamic regime, so in fact moving towards an anti-regime stance may bring more to the opposition's fold. The more people feel like this is their struggle for getting rid of the hated theocracy the more they are going to show willingness to risk life and limb. Rarely do people risks lives for reform, but they do tend to do it for real change.
What remains to be seen is if this movement will spread to the working classes who are increasingly dissatisfied because of economic conditions brought about by pressure from subsidy cuts as well as international sanctions. The success of the opposition movement relies less on the Internet than on the support of workers and the Bazaar who have so far not gone on strike to show their support for the opposition, despite repeated calls for them to join the movement after the fraudulent election results were announced in June 2009. Also important is whether or not the momentum gained from yesterday's protests can be maintained despite the regime's brutal crack down that is sure to continue. But if Iranians inspired by cries of change all around the region keep the zeal they showed yesterday they could surprise us again. When it does come it will be the first revolution against an Islamist regime and as such it will set a great and important precedent for the region and the world.