As Egypt uprising inspires Middle East, Iran sees biggest protests in a year

As unrest spreads in the Middle East, Yemenis march in Sanaa, calling for reforms and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster.
As unrest spreads in the Middle East, Yemenis march in Sanaa, calling for reforms and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster. (Hani Mohammed)
Government clashes with protesters broke out Monday in Bahrain and Iran, while demonstrations continued in Yemen.
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

TEHRAN - Violent protests erupted in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain on Monday as the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rippled across the Middle East, propelling people onto the streets to demand change from a spectrum of autocratic regimes.

In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, thousands of demonstrators marched to call for reforms to their hereditary monarchy and clashed with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. In Yemen, a key U.S. counterterrorism ally, government supporters armed with sticks and knives attacked pro-democracy demonstrators calling for the ouster of the country's dictatorial president, in the fourth straight day of protests in that troubled Arab nation.

But it was in a non-Arab country, Iran, that the fallout from Egypt's uprising seemed to be most acutely felt. In Tehran, large crowds of protesters defied tear gas to march down a major thoroughfare, chanting "Death to the dictator." It was the biggest demonstration in the Iranian capital since the government effectively crushed the opposition movement in December 2009.

The crowds, which numbered in the tens of thousands, suggested that the seemingly cowed Green Movement that emerged to challenge Iran's theocratic regime after disputed elections in June 2009 had been inspired by the success of Egypt's revolutionaries. Many protesters wore green ribbons, the symbol of Iran's opposition movement.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the Iranian demonstrators, saying White House officials "very clearly and directly support the aspirations" of the protesters. She also accused the Tehran government of hypocrisy for claiming to support pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt while squelching dissent at home.

Clinton's comments appeared to signal a shift in tone by an administration that previously refrained from directly endorsing the Iranian opposition out of fear that U.S. support would backfire on the protesters.

"We think that there needs to be a commitment to open up the political system in Iran to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

'We are here for Iran'

Throughout the day in Tehran, people converged on Azadi, or Freedom, Square in the heart of the city, the symbolic epicenter of the protest movement that brought millions of people out on the streets in the summer of 2009. Some witnesses said the Monday protests drew more than 100,000 people.

The demonstration had been called more than a week in advance by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the de facto leader of the opposition movement and former presidential challenger. Mousavi was placed under house arrest Monday, opposition Web sites said, joining another opposition leader, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, whose house arrest was reported by the sites Thursday.

Police were deployed in smaller numbers than usual in the morning, enabling protesters to gather, and at one point in the afternoon, as the numbers swelled, the security forces appeared to retreat, witnesses said. But by nightfall, as more and more people converged, there were reports that members of the feared pro-government Basij militia had taken to the streets on their trademark motorcycles and were beating demonstrators with batons.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that at least one person had been killed and several wounded in a "shooting incident" connected with the protests, and there were reports of violent clashes in other Iranian cities.

Iran has had strained relations with Egypt since the birth of the Islamic republic in 1979, after a popular uprising against the U.S.-backed shah that many in Iran and beyond have compared to the revolution in Egypt.

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