‘These are our problems, our issues… but they label them political.’ The Mesri family sold a home on the outskirts of south Tehran – one they had struggled for two decades to purchase – to invest in a business. They became tenants in the hope that Mr Mesri could make more than he did as a factory worker. Mrs Mesri (39) tells me: ‘Business is really bad. The market is swamped with cheap Chinese goods… His income is about zero. We are in debt, and have to pay back various loans. We have difficulty living day-to-day. My husband was sick with nerves throwing up all night – he said “I wish I could die”.’
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s triumph in the last presidential election is attributed to his campaign promises to improve the economic conditions of such deprived people. Since he came to power, what these pledges have boiled down to are home-purchase loans of 10 million tomans each (around $10,000) and the promise of ‘Justice Shares’. Mrs Ahmadi (44) is another resident of south Tehran. Her son has tried to get one of the 10-million-toman home loans: ‘My son’s father-in-law is a wounded war veteran and his name came up in a recent draw, but you must buy a newly built home to qualify for a loan. And when the home is new, the price is so high that using the loan is very hard.’ House price inflation even since the election has rendered the government loans much less significant, since it would be hard to find even an old house in south Tehran to buy for under $40,000 (in wealthier north Tehran, apartments can cost as much as $8,000,000).
The ‘Justice Share’ scheme promised to distribute shares in state-owned companies to poor people. Despite criticism of the scheme by Iranian economists, the scheme has become a source of hope for many. Ghorban-Ali (70) lives in a village in Khorasan province, where the scheme is being piloted, and has come to visit one of his daughters in Tehran. He tells me that he voted for Ahmadinejad. ‘We’ve not seen anything of the money yet! They were supposed to give each person 500,000 tomans ($500) but we’ve heard no more.’
Ghorban-Ali is illiterate and therefore cannot see past the state media publicity. He is unable to read in the newspapers that the shares are in low-return state-owned industries, that they have to be paid for rather than given out free (albeit at a discounted rate over a long period) and cannot be sold off for at least four years.
Ghorban-Ali is sick and incapacitated, and is officially in the care of the largest state charity, the Komiteh Emdad Emam Khomeini (the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee), which provides a social safety net for about four million people living below the poverty line. But he is not happy with the help offered by the Komiteh Emdad. He has yet to receive a renovation grant promised after the earthquake in Khorasan in 2005 and due to bureaucratic neglect no longer has health coverage.
Ghorban-Ali is not alone in distrusting Government promises. President Ahmadinejad has failed to curb the unprecedented rate of inflation in recent months – inflation is officially estimated at around 12 per cent, but unofficial estimates consider it to be at least twice that. This has severely dampened the enthusiasm of many of Ahmadinejad’s former supporters.
Mrs Sarhanghi (54) makes a meagre living working in the garment industry in south Tehran. ‘I voted for Ahmadinejad despite my family’s opposition,’ she says. ‘I said he was different from the rest, but I now see that nothing has changed.’ She adds sarcastically: ‘Ahmadinejad’s slogan promised action for the deprived. He has worked for the deprived so well that we now buy a 30-toman egg for 100 tomans!’ She recollects many such promises: ‘Right at the beginning of the Revolution they promised that they’d make us homeowners; after 27 years we are still chasing that promise.’
People have even less confidence in promises to confront violence and corruption in state institutions, problems particularly apparent in the neighbourhoods of south Tehran. Mrs Mohseni says that drug peddlers in her area, against whom she has filed complaints, openly bribe officials. Mrs Mesri, meanwhile, talks of police brutality: ‘I have often witnessed young people getting a serious beating from the police. Once my son, who was returning home from primary school, saw a neighbour being beaten up by the police; [my son] was terrified and crying. My own brother, who is a drug addict, was arrested one night, and they beat him so much that they fractured his head.’
It is not just police aggression that is grating, but the constant insults and the corporal punishment which schoolchildren face on a daily basis. All the women I interview either have or know a child who has abandoned school, disenchanted with ineffective teaching and the harsh environment. They all believe that schools in south Tehran are dumping grounds for inadequate teaching staff.
‘Ahmadinejad’s slogan promised action for the deprived. He has worked for the deprived so well that we now buy a 30-toman egg for 100 tomans!’
But not all the children in this part of town are so lucky as to have parents concerned about their education and seeking ways to improve their chances. Ali, an adolescent I interview, is a scavenger for trash, scouring the breadth of town from north to south for pieces of plastic or ‘something useful’ to sell on to his customers. He and his young brother also do many other things, depending on the season. But even in the best months they don’t make more than 100,000 tomans (around $100).
Ali is reluctant to talk about his father, who has been unemployed for many years and is a heroin addict. There are long periods when his father doesn’t leave the house and yet at times they don’t hear from him for days. He adds nothing to the meagre income of his children and his wife. Instead, on many occasions, he robs them of it by force. Adolescents like Ali either never see the inside of a school or are forced to abandon it at a young age in search of money – scavenging, peddling, stealing…
When the people I interview discuss their ‘wants’, they do not use the regime’s official rhetoric about ‘social problems’. I tell them that from the Government’s perspective ‘realizing Islam’ is as much a priority as the financial promises. ‘We are all Muslims; no-one is weary of Islam,’ says Mrs Sarhanghi.
Mrs Ahmadi, on the other hand, says that one of her sons, following a lengthy job search, reached the stage where he had to take the ‘ideology placement’ exam. An ordinary Muslim, he spent a month studying religious texts and when he returned after failing the test he said that he had never in his life heard or read about the issues with which the texts were concerned.
I ask Jahangheer, a 38-year-old street peddler working in Nemat-Abad in southwest Tehran, what his expectations are of the Government. Jahangheer, who voted for Ahmadinejad, tells me: ‘They should come up with an idea to deal with unemployment.’ And what else? ‘My oldest daughter is 14… Our kids see the children of company directors and they expect us to give them what those other children have… They should do something so my child can continue her education.’
I tell him that some people want ‘Islam put into practice’ and that those who do not adhere to a strict hejab should be stopped. He sternly responds: ‘Well you have to observe the hejab… If someone comes out without a hejab, my daughter will see that and will want to emulate that. We can’t have that.’
I put the same questions to Mrs Mesri: ‘Islam? I want to ask those who wish to implement Islam; how can you explain doing nothing after all the promises you have made? Is Islam consistent with dishonesty?’
Privatization and power
The concerns of these people may be mundane but they are extremely ‘political’ – and among the most political is the preoccupation with employment issues. Masoudi, who is approaching retirement, explains this further. He was laid off from work by his government employer as a result of his union activities. ‘The state is the largest employer in the land and determines people’s conditions of employment… But now we have talk of privatization and turning over state divisions to co-operatives. Just look at the way the state-run transport in Tehran is being turned over to co-operatives. The founders of these private co-operatives are the officials from the state-run transport organs.’
As a consequence of this sell-off, prices on the buses of several privatized lines have gone up by more than 500 per cent. Moreover, it is the irony of Iran’s particular kind of privatization that not only is it a calamity for ordinary people – as is usually the case elsewhere – but it also reinforces the economic power of the ruling oligarchy.
And that, after all, has been the main characteristic of the Islamic Republic’s political economy, which has persisted in spite of all the power battles there have been within the regime. In this context, a cynical observer would interpret recent slogans about ‘justice’ as little more than ways of redistributing power and capital within the ruling élite.
Faced with this kind of manoeuvring, it is little wonder that the poor are still waiting for a time when the regime will make their basic needs a priority.
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