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 favourite 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.
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 organisation, the dissidents these days cannot agree on their goals. 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 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 Shia Muslim clerical rule.
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.
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