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A year after its rise, Iranian protest movement stymied and in disarray

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 11, 2010; A09

TEHRAN -- When office clerks, housewives, students and other urban Iranians took to the streets a year ago to protest what they said was massive election fraud by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they hailed the birth of a leaderless popular movement that embodied their aspirations for a more open society.

"We are all together" became a favorite slogan of the Green Movement, which sprang to life last year after Ahmadinejad was proclaimed the landslide winner of the June 12 presidential election. Defeated opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who quickly turned into figureheads, said it was not they, but ordinary Iranians, who were leading the massive anti-government demonstrations that followed the vote. There was no agenda other than a demand for new elections; no goal other than the departure of Ahmadinejad.

Using word of mouth, social media and cellphone text messages, Iranians challenged the government in a way long unimaginable in the 30-year-old Islamic republic -- or, for that matter, during the centuries of monarchy that preceded it.

Foreign governments, including the United States, lauded the advent of a major grass-roots movement, unprecedented in the Middle East.

Now, a year later, the masses that made up the movement have disappeared from the streets of Tehran. Dozens of protesters have been killed in clashes with determined government forces; hundreds have been arrested and put on trial. Faced with overwhelming force, without guidance or organization, the dissidents these days cannot agree on their goals, much less mount a significant challenge to the country's leadership.

In their latest retreat, Mousavi and Karroubi on Thursday called off an anniversary demonstration that had been planned for weeks, saying they were acting "to safeguard the lives and properties of the people."

'A divided movement'

"Why risk our lives to make a change, when it is completely unclear what the outcome will be?" asked Ali, an office manager who declined to be further identified for fear of retribution. "First we made our voices heard on the street, but we did not have a Plan B when faced with the harsh reaction of the state."

Although civil movements typically witness the emergence of leaders at some point, most potential frontmen in Iran were swiftly arrested. In addition, as time went on, many protesters held conflicting ideas of the movement's aims. Some wanted only the departure of Ahmadinejad; others, often inspired by activists abroad, advocated nothing less than the downfall of Iran's system of Shiite Muslim clerical rule.

"My wife and I don't want another revolution, but others did," Ali said. "Of course, such a divided movement will face problems."

"Ultimately, it's useless to be leaderless," the office manager concluded. Only when a serious leader emerges and sets clear goals would he and his wife return to the streets, he said. Or only when some unforeseen incident occurs, he added, "because in Iran, surprising things can happen."

Smoldering anger

Like Ali, other Iranians interviewed expressed deep-rooted dissatisfaction that appeared to go far beyond discontent over last year's election results. Harsh complaints are routinely heard on public transportation, at family parties and in workplaces. Many middle-class Iranians, especially those in the capital, seem to feel as if the state is doing everything it can to antagonize them.

They worry about new government actions ranging from enforcing the Islamic dress code for women and arresting university students to plans for taking away their state subsidies. Many in the middle class fear that their livelihoods are under continuous threat.

So their anger, which first erupted during the election, continues to smolder. Whether it will burst forth again -- or when or how that could happen -- cannot be predicted. But some feel the government is fanning the embers.

"The mistakes of the government are keeping this movement alive," said Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a Tehran University professor who supports the opposition. "There are unemployed, addicts and hooligans in our country, but the government calls those who contribute to our society 'rioters.' " Among those backing the opposition, he said, are teachers, professors, artists and merchants.

Authorities often flatly deny that widespread dissatisfaction exists, pointing to organized mass gatherings in support of government policies.

On sensitive days such as Saturday's anniversary of the disputed election, the government seeks to project strength by stationing security forces all over Tehran. It thus aims to dissuade people from protesting, critics say, instead of attempting to reach any compromise with the disgruntled middle class.

"More than 90 percent of people would support a settlement between the camps, because people want the problems solved," said Abbas Abdi, a political analyst critical of the government. "But it is as if they do not want any solution."

Waiting game

Close supporters of Mousavi, the 68-year-old former prime minister who says he was cheated of victory in last year's contest, say he is unable to take a more hands-on role. The arrests of many of his advisers, relatives and friends have left him isolated, they say.

"Because everybody is in charge, the movement can continue," said Ali Shakorirad, a former member of parliament and leading member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which was recently declared illegal by the judiciary.

He said the opposition is playing a waiting game, exploiting the weaknesses of the government, which he asserted is less powerful than it appears. The opposition's inactivity, he said, has caused those advocating radical change to lose interest, which he considers a positive development.

"Ahmadinejad is making increasingly more blunders, so our first objective -- getting rid of him -- is looking more probable by the day," Shakorirad said. "When that is reached, the next step is free elections."

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