“NO TO high prices!”, “Down with embezzlers!”, “People are paupers while the mullahs live like gods!” Are these the chants of foreign-sponsored insurrectionists trying to create anarchy, insecurity and intrigue in Iran? That is what the clerical regime would have you believe, as it ignores the economic grievances voiced by the thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets in more than 70 towns and cities in the past week.

Incredibly, the unrest seems to have been started by religious hardliners, hoping to undermine the reformist presidency of Hassan Rouhani. Stoking their anger over the rising price of eggs, clerics in Mashhad, Iran’s second city, urged hundreds of their followers to protest on December 28th. Many demanded the president’s resignation and called for fresh elections—though Mr Rouhani was re-elected just last year.

They could not have known what they started. The protests quickly spread to other cities, and the tone also changed. It was not just Mr Rouhani who should give up power—so too should the ruling clerics and their armed protectors in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said the new protesters. “No to conservatives and reformers alike,” they chanted. Contrary to the regime’s claims, no one seemed to be leading the rallies, some of which turned violent (though most have not).

Frustrations have been piling up since Mr Rouhani’s victory in May. As a candidate he championed an inclusive, open and reformed Iran. But his new cabinet excluded women and Sunnis and contained few non-Persian minorities. Mr Rouhani got out the women’s vote, but he has left most curbs on them in place, including a ban on their presence in stadiums.

Perhaps, some surmised, the hardliners’ brief arrest of his brother had spooked him. A draft budget, presented to parliament in December, would bloat the coffers of the ayatollahs’ foundations and the Guards, but cut subsidies for the poor. The hashtag #pashimanam (we regret [our vote]) went viral. Mr Rouhani’s supporters say that by releasing an unusual amount of detail about the spending he aimed to embarrass the clerics.

It is mainly pent-up economic grievances, not the political sort, that are at the heart of the unrest. Even before the latest protests, factory workers had gone on strike over unpaid salaries and pensioners had marched against low payments. Those taking to the streets have wondered aloud why so much of the country’s wealth has gone to support violent groups in Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, and a dictator in Syria, while their mostly rural provinces are neglected. The unemployment rate is over 12% and at least one in four young people, who make up the bulk of the protesters, are without a job.

Egged on

The regime claims that the “sedition” is over, but many Iranians still seethe with resentment. Even so, a broader uprising does not appear to be in the offing. Tens of thousands of people responded to the clerics’ call to counter-demonstrate on January 3rd. Most of Tehran, the capital and epicentre of past upheaval, has remained calm, as the police arrest potential troublemakers and patrol the streets. Hundreds of students have come out, but the middle class, and even reformists, have so far sat on the sidelines. Some fear a repeat of the brutal crackdown that ended the Green Movement, which challenged a dubious presidential election in 2009. Others worry that the protests, which lack organisation, could get out of control. Indeed, they did in a few towns, where police opened fire. Over 20 people have been killed.

Once again, the Guards have proved that they are the regime’s backbone. The authorities switched off messaging apps, such as Telegram (which has 40m Iranian subscribers and was the protesters’ main way of communicating), and VPNs, which had offered a backdoor to the internet. The Guards hope to exploit the discontent with Mr Rouhani to secure political gains. Living standards, they remind Iranians, have fallen under this president, but improved when their man, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was in office (during a time of high oil prices). When the 78-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dies, they will probably have the whiphand in determining who succeeds him.

Mr Rouhani, by contrast, has been weakened. The unrest has tarnished his image and dented his own hopes of replacing Mr Khamenei. He seems stumped by Iran’s economic problems and may try to buy his way back into the good graces of the public with increased spending. His greatest success, the nuclear deal of 2015, has brought oil-based growth, but not the kind of broad development that he promised. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for America and other foreign powers lifting most economic sanctions. But America has maintained some (many relating to Iran’s missile programme), which scare away foreign banks and investors. The unrest has also not helped. France, which seemed keen to engage Iran, is now more hesitant. President Emmanuel Macron, who was planning a visit, has called off a trip by his foreign minister.

Over the past two years, millions of voters, who had sat out elections since 2009, returned to the ballot box and chose would-be reformers. Their victories seemed to make Iran the Middle East’s most vibrant democracy (apart from Israel). But the inability of Mr Rouhani to improve their lot has, once again, left many feeling disillusioned. They are still trying to find a way to make their voices heard without facing the wrath of the Guards.