On the morning of February 11, the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some 200 students and their relatives from the Ferdowsi High School in Iran's northwestern city of Tabriz, the capital of Eastern Azerbaijan Province, gathered in the schoolyard.
Schools and offices were closed for this national holiday, which has in the past 30 years become an occasion of demonstration of support for the Islamic republic. But, like in previous years, and even more aggressively this year, the school's Basijis were active in mobilizing the students, teachers, and their relatives to gather in the school and collectively attend the government-organized demonstrations.
The Basij militia had provided posters and flags, as usual, and shortly before breaking out, Mehdi, the chief school organizer of the demonstration, was heating up the mood with slogans that he had apparently been instructed by his Basij commanders to spread. This year, the one they were supposed to shout most frequently was: "Death to the opponents of Velayat-e faqih!" -- Iran's political system according to which an unelected leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the ultimate authority over all major political and strategic matters.
Since the highly disputed June presidential election that returned hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to office, millions have protested what they saw as a rigged vote to reinstate Khamenei's favored choice against moderate and reformist candidates Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi.
Hundreds of protesters and political activists and journalists have been jailed, tortured, or executed. Critical media outlets have been closed down and access to international TV and radio broadcasts as well as websites has been blocked. Since then, the crackdown's main declared goal has been to protect the system of the Islamic republic and allegiance to its leader, Khamenei.
Two weeks ago, they started to prepare the lists at the Ferdowsi High School. Each of the school's 30 classes had to provide at least 15 students. As usual, some came up with personal excuses -- leaving their families concerned whether it would result in any disciplinary actions. And as usual, the Basij and school management campaigned and pressured the students and were, in the end, happy if there were only half of those registered.
The same happened with other schools, universities, government agencies, factories, and banks. Mullahs preaching in mosques declared it a "religious duty" to participate in the event. Add to this thousands of Revolutionary Guards and Basijis and their family members whose participation is mandatory at this kind of government-organized rallies, even if they are not at work, dispersing, beating up, or even shooting at protesting demonstrators who dare to go out of the orchestrated demonstration routine.
A day before the anniversary, Tabriz's chief prosecutor -- yes, chief prosecutor Yahya Mirza-Mohammadi -- had called on the citizens to show up en masse: "This year's February 11 rally will silence all the plots [against the system]."
Still, on the day, according to three witnesses from different central areas of the city with a population of more than 2 million, Tabriz demonstrators numbered a total of not more than 50,000. "Very strange," said one of the witnesses. "Even in Rasta Kuche, the central location where Khamenei's representative, Mohammad Shabestari, held his speech, I couldn't see more than a maximum of 20-30,000.
"He came late, at around 11:45, and 10 minutes after his speech began, people gradually started to leave. Obviously, many who were there just wanted to show up and go. Most of the people there were students from high schools."
More participants were reported in Tehran and a few other cities, accompanied by clashes with protesters. In Tabriz, a dozen opposition figures were arrested in the days before the anniversary. Bu unlike Tehran and some other cities, there were no reports from Tabriz of major opposition demonstrations.
In the midday news, state television, frantic and epic in tone, reported on demonstrations across the country: "Millions came out in allegiance with the [political] system and the supreme leadership." And, after reporting about the capital city of Tehran and a few other cities such as Mashhad and Isfahan, it added, "Also in Tabriz, participants of a mass demonstration renewed their holy allegiance with the leader." No exact number of participants was given.
Aydin, 18, a student at Ferdowsi High School who wants to study business administration after his graduation next June, said: "Iran would lift its whole moribund economy if they could organize it as they do these demonstrations."
Aydin's father, Samad, a property manager and graduate of a Turkish university who accompanied his son during the demonstrations, added: "Well, and even this [demonstration] they couldn't do well. I think they have lost their minds. They want to show that they are extremely popular and powerful, but they are paranoid that any voice of criticism could destroy their rule."
And Ahmad, one of the three witnesses of the Tabriz demonstrations, summed up the day for me: "Every year the same show. This year they were much more aggressive with much less results. Tabriz is a conservative city and you never know how its citizens would act at any time. I think the surprisingly low turnout in Tabriz was a demonstration of frustration. But with the increasing political pressure and worsening economy, they need months, not years, to clearly show that they are fed up."
-- Abbas Djavadi