Ten years ago today, tens of thousands of students took to the streets of Iran in a rush of latent anger and deep disappointment. July 9, 1999 marked the beginning of the biggest ever anti-establishment protest in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran up till that date.
Each year since, the government has been weary of this day. Even today, the Iranian government has taken steps to prevent people from organizing in the streets.
In fact, this year in particular, the significance of the 1999 protest is paramount.
At the time, it was 20 years in the making and it was heralded by the same furious strength that conjured the recent post-election protests. Just 2 years after an undisputed landslide ushered the former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance -- Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami -- into the Presidency, the deception of the reform movement had reached its peak.
Added to the general public's existing dissatisfaction of a life riddled with state control, and a government that was increasingly veering from the ideals for which a revolution was fought, were the infamous dissident chain murders, the closure of quasi-independent newspapers and finally the Elected One's open dismissal of his core constituents on July 9th.
The day before, the Salam (Hello) daily newspaper became the latest in a spate of pro-reformist newspapers to be shutdown by Iran's Press Court. Salam was run by a political group called the Association of Combatant Clerics -- a group which Khatami was a part of. In response to Salam's closure, and feeling buoyed by the fact that Salam was a paper close to the President's own heart, students organized a peaceful demonstration in Tehran on July 8, 1999, to denounce the newspaper closure and general atmosphere of curtailed expression.
That night, President Khatami betrayed his supporters.
After hordes of paramilitaries stormed onto Tehran University grounds in the early hours of July 9, 1999 and violently attacked students in their dormitories, Khatami not only failed to unequivocally condemn the midnight raid on peaceful students, he admonished the students for taking to the streets and "disturbing the order," calling those who fought back against the violence "deviant." He did not immediately condemn the brutality of the paramilitary attack which left some students dead, and later only commented that the paramilitary instigators should be lawfully prosecuted for what they had done in response to the "ugly acts" of the student protests.
It was a much-needed slap in the face to all Iranians that no one in the government was on their side. Students took the streets on July 9th and for 5 days the demonstrations spread from Tehran to cities all over Iran: the Salam protest was overshadowed by a bigger movement against a government that wantonly attacked sleeping students in their dormitories in just another example of its apparent disregard for the rights of its citizens.
But the Khatami betrayal was also the desperately needed prelude to the now certain path toward real change in Iran: a path that Iranians realized in 1999 must be supported from within the disgruntled, dismayed and disenfranchised elements of the tightly controlled system itself. The 1999 movement and its aftermath have increasingly given credence and strength to establishment figures who have long realized the problems of the current system but have not been brave enough, bitter enough, or indeed cohesive enough to admit it.
The 1999 protests lasted only 6 days, but they left their mark on the movement for improving Iran. Hundreds of student leaders were arrested and imprisoned -- but each of their stories and their voices remain on record as brave acts which brought the nation one step closer to change.
Without July 1999, there could never have been June 2009. What the students courageously started then, has led to a massive and pervasive movement that encompasses all Iranians. The students are no longer alone in their struggle for change. And this time, the establishment figures have consolidated their grievances into an unmistakable division between those who wish never to change with the times, and those who do.
Today, as the stagnant and fundamentalist elements of the establishment carry on their annual ritual of trying to prevent the anniversary protests, they must surely know that this time things are different.