Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
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Price of reformist victory?

By Azadeh Moaveni

Ostensibly, the crowd around Sina hospital from morning until night is gathered to monitor the condition of Saeed Hajjarian, the leading reformist and aide to President Muhammad Khatami who lies in critical condition inside the medical facility. But in between medical updates, when prayers are said and the sun beats down, the vigil turns to political debate, what this sudden and unexpected blow will portend for the reform movement.

Hajjarian, who was hit by two bullets on Sunday in central Tehran, is perhaps a singularly key figure in the reformist movement -- the liberal press did not exaggerate when its headlines screamed that the "heart and mind" of the movement had been struck. A member of the city council, a close presidential adviser, and editor of the daily Sobh-e-Emrouz, Hajjarian was the strategist who not only led the reformists to their electoral victory, but also directed a savvy and sophisticated political campaign without precedent in Iranian politics.

Khatami
Iranian President Muhammad Khatami offering support to the family of leading reformist Saeed Hajjarian who was critically wounded in an attack on Sunday
(photo: Reuter)

When news of the assassination attempt spread throughout the city, one detail remained constant in the flurry of accounts -- the motorbikes driven by the assailants, who missed Hajjarian's temple and instead shot him in the face, are banned in the city except for use by security forces. How had the assailants managed to get so far when ordinarily such a bike would be stopped in less than a block? Such questions were hurled at government officials all day, as a steady stream of parliamentarians, ministers and top advisers passed through the hospital to visit Hajjarian, who remains in critical condition.

Sayed Mohamed Nosri, the spokesman for Hajjarian's high-powered medical team, which includes Iranian specialists flown in from around the world, said it is too early to predict Hajjarian's chances of recovery, but he confirmed that his patient was not brain dead. Despite the cautious medical outlook and the positive reports of visitors who emerged from Hajjarian's bedside, making claims about a squeezed hand or a whispered hello, many doctors in Tehran said they found it unlikely that Hajjarian would recover even partially, given the amount of time his brain was without oxygen en route to the hospital. Given the threat of a massive outcry and public demonstrations in the event of Hajjarian's death, many speculated that the disclosure of his actual condition was as much a political matter -- awaiting the president's return to Tehran and guidance -- as a medical one.

"The investigation of the attack will be watched as closely as Hajjarian's medical condition," promised reformist member of parliament Ashkar Zadeh outside the hospital. The crowd, which fluctuated between 100 and 500 people whose moods vacillated between worry and anger, found in the attack a symbol of the uncertainty of their civil will. "The world looked at our election as a bright star for democracy, but [we, the] Iranian people are the best judges of our own regime," said Faezel Sharghieh, a 28-year-old diaper-maker who left work for the day to camp out in front of the hospital.

News that bomb attacks in the city on Monday had injured four people compounded tensions, though the Iraq-based armed opposition group, the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, claimed responsibility for these.

Because of Hajjarian's strategic role in the reform coalition, the attempt on his life can be viewed as a blow to the movement, a possible hard-line retribution for the reformists' resounding electoral victory. But Shirin Ebadi, the country's most prominent legal rights activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly she believes the attack is tied directly to the spate of secret killings during the tenure of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Information about these killings, known in Tehran as the "chain murders," is being revealed slowly -- further sullying Rafsanjani's name, and disclosing the state's hand in the murder of its internal opposition. "If Hajjarian didn't exist," said Ebadi, "the investigation of the killings would not have become first a public issue, and then transformed into a matter of national security through the attention and courage of his newspaper."

Late Monday night, President Khatami arrived in Tehran from his trip to Yazd and went directly to Hajjarian's bedside. Many outside the hospital said they hoped his presence would revive his ailing friend and ally. Whether his leadership can revive his stunned movement is an equally urgent question.

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