The anti-government protests that have rocked Iran since Mahsa Amini’s death on September 16 are unprecedented in scale and duration. But the protests’ lack of a clear leader is proving to be both a strength and a weakness – it makes them harder to repress but also impedes the development of a viable political movement.
Three months after the start of anti-government protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman visiting Iran, at the hands of the notorious morality police, the Islamic regime has intensified its crackdown on demonstrators.
Two men accused of taking part in the protests have been executed this week and dozens of others could suffer the same fate, according to Amnesty International.
However, the protest movement’s lack of leadership is making it harder for the Islamic Republic to quell the demonstrations. Instead of leaders, the movement has martyrs and symbols – and many of these are young women.
For it was young women – enraged at Amini’s arrest and subsequent death in custody after allegedly flouting the country’s dress code by wearing her hijab “improperly” – who started the movement. Iranian women over the age of 9 are required to cover their hair in public.
In the days after her death, women and girls ripped off their hijabs and took to the streets in their thousands.
They were joined by young men, students, Kurds, the indigenous people of Baluchistan, and by shopkeepers and workers.
The broad movement is a “collective mobilisation of non-collective actors”, says historian and political scientist Jonathan Piron.
Symbols fuel the revolt
Although each of these groups is protesting against the Iranian regime, not much seems to unite them beyond the images of murdered demonstrators.
Women like Amini, 22, and Nika Shakarami, 16, who was killed on her way to a rally, have become figureheads for the revolt.
A video filmed at the grave of Majidreza Rahnavard, 23, who the regime hung on Monday for involvement in the protests, showed women angrily crying, “Majidreza Rahnavard, martyr of the country.”
“The dead act as symbols, because the figure of the martyr (shaheed) is central to Shiite culture,” says David Rigoulet-Roze, a professor of political science and co-editor of “La République islamique d’Iran en crise systémique” (The Islamic Republic of Iran in Systemic Crisis), published last June.
“The Shiite rite of the 40-day post-death ceremony poses a problem for the government, which tries to steal the bodies of killed demonstrators to avoid family funerals and gatherings at the graves. These act as ‘fuel’ and keep the movement going, reviving it 40 days after each death.”
He adds: “But these are martyr-like figures, emblematic deaths – not leaders.”
Flexibility versus repression
With no leader to rally them, the protesters have turned to the internet to organise their demonstrations.
“Social media plays a key role in the movement,” says Rigoulet-Roze. “Several platforms have already been suspended by the authorities for a long time. The only ones that were accessible, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, have also now been blocked.”
“It’s a challenge for the protesters to disseminate information given the regime’s repressive tactics,” he says.
“But the Iranian protesters are very flexible, continues Rigoulet-Roze. “They are part of ‘Gen Z’, which is very resourceful and they have used VPNs (virtual private networks that mask online activity) to bypass censorship for a long time.”
In October, the regime decided to criminalise the sale of VPNs – in a bid to further clamp down on “illicit” Internet use.
But once again, the demonstrators are proving creative – adapting their methods of communication and organisation by calling on people to gather on a certain date without disclosing the exact meeting place. Small groups then meet and disperse after about 15 minutes to avoid being arrested.
Although the protest movement’s flexibility has allowed it to survive these past three months, it is also one of its weaknesses.
“The absence of leadership means the regime has no leaders to arrest and no clear target to repress as it was able to do in 2009 during the ‘green movement’,” says Piron.
“But on the other hand, the protesters have produced no political alternative. The demonstrators want the current regime to end, but they haven’t proposed an alternative and are not organised at the national level, even though they are organised at a local level.”
Students at the faculty of literature in Iran’s capital Tehran issued a statement on Monday supporting detained students and workers. Maulvi Abdul Hamid, the Sunni imam in Zahedan (the capital of Sistan and Balochistan province) called on the government to “see the facts and hear the cry of the people” after two protesters were executed.
At a national level, the regime has prevented the emergence of a single opposition figure and placed the unions under its control.
Iran’s reformists, who for a time were helmed by former president Mohammad Khatami, are now seen as irrelevant while Khatami is viewed as a man of the system. For his part, Khatami has voiced support for the protesters, saying its main slogan – “Woman, life, freedom” – was “beautiful”.
‘War of attrition’
Although very active, the Iranian diaspora also remains fragmented and divided as it is made up of both liberals and people who support the former monarchy.
Rigoulet-Roze says that in 1979, “there was a degree of consensus” on the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary cleric and founder of the Islamic Republic, who after the revolution lived for a time in exile in France. “This is not the case today. The majority of Iranians distrust certain exiled opposition figures, particularly because they supported US sanctions, which caused great suffering for the population.”
The lack of a unifying figure and a clearly outlined political alternative might prove the Achilles’ heel of the movement, Piron says. Moreover, the protesters are mostly very young, with an average age of 24, according to the Iranian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
“The protest movement is in a difficult situation because it risks fizzling out if there is no leader or clear proposal,” concludes Piron. “Anger is spreading from group to group, but the lack of an alternative is hindering more people from taking to the streets, even though they probably tacitly support the protesters and a fundamental shift is taking place in society. A kind of war of attrition has begun.”