On the Streets: Democracy in Action in Iran

The boisterous crowd surged down the street in central Tehran, carrying Iranian flags and posters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad late Monday afternoon. Motorcycles saddled by young men in twos and threes weaved through the crowd shouting. On a nearby avenue, equally passionate supporters of Ahmadinejad's top rival, Mir Hussein Moussavi, were gathering. Within minutes, the two groups had collided at the corner in a flurry of curses, campaign slogans, colorful posters, honking horns and occasional fists. (Story continued below...)

"This is democracy," said Reza, a 31-year old construction engineer sporting a green headband indicating his support for Moussavi. "They have the right to say what they want, and we have our own rights." The same spectacle was unfolding up and down Vali Asr, the 12-mile-long, tree-lined avenue that bisects Tehran from north to south. With only four days left before the presidential elections, Tehran is abuzz with political rallies, speeches and nightly debates that have kept millions of Iranians glued to their TVs.

On Monday, Moussavi's campaign office had asked his followers to show their support by marching down Vali Asr. Their conservative rivals couldn't resist the opportunity to confront them, but what surprised many in the crowd is that the two sides aired their views openly and mostly peacefully -- though sometimes at ear-splitting volumes. This is new for Iran. There have been few, if any, similar showdowns in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic. The gangs of chain-wielding thugs that occasionally break up political gatherings were missing, as were the riot police that sometimes rush political protesters.

The tension began building early in the afternoon. Tens of thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters, many bused in from southern Tehran, showed up for a campaign rally at Mosalah, a huge prayer hall in central Tehran with ornate blue tilework in parts of the ceiling. They carried campaign posters, religious banners and even a couple of large Hizbullah flags in yellow and green. The crowd was separated by gender, as is the norm in many religious gatherings, and part of the warm-up act was a couple of religious singers, who often perform at mosques.

There was only one problem: Ahmadinejad never showed up (his campaign later claimed that they couldn't get his car through the crowds). So the fired-up supporters spilled out into the streets chanting slogans like, "Moussavi has come up short so he's rallying sissy boys." Or "Moussavi will get votes and pluck his eyebrows." The slogans lose a lot in translation. Clunky in English, they rhyme and are often quite funny in Farsi. And for those who didn't have a penchant for rhyming there were simpler slogans like "Moussavi the liar." For their part, thousands of Moussavi supporters flanked the Ahmadinejad crowd on Vali Asr and taunted them with their own slogans. "Whoever is illiterate supports Ahmadinejad," was a crowd favorite, as was "Ahmadi bye-bye."

The atmosphere was tense, as young men squared off in shouting matches. But it was far more common to see the opposing supporters engaging in a fierce debate in the middle of the street, having effectively shut down the avenue to traffic. Moussavi supporters cited the country's tarnished international image or the ailing economy; Ahmadinejad supporters countered with the need to fight corruption among the country's elites, respect the country's war martyrs or confront American pressure.

One young woman, Zahra Akhavan, a 25-year old college art student wearing heavy makeup and a tight overcoat, defended her candidate passionately while encircled by a handful of critics. "I look like the rest of the young people out here but I don't think like some of them," she said. "I believe in the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republic. And I support Ahmadinejad because he helps the poorest people in Iran."