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Egypt's Political Unrest: More Lessons for Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

29 Jan 2011 16:57Comments

Plan now for the major shocks that further subsidy cuts will soon bring.

[ analysis ] The revolution in Tunisia is spreading to the rest of the Arab world. But it would be a grave mistake to confuse Tunisia with Egypt. Egypt is the most important pillar of American policy in the Middle East, where the United States has been trying to keep together a coalition for its so-called war on terrorism. Egypt is also the most important Arab and Islamic country to have signed a peace agreement with Israel, and the two countries have collaborated to restrict the Palestinian movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So, it is not just America that is following the developments in Egypt. Israel too is watching nervously what is happening there, as is the rest of the Middle East.

While it is too early to predict what might be the eventual outcome of the demonstrations in Egypt, there are already a few lessons for Iran and its democratic Green Movement. To learn the lessons, we must first understand the similarities and differences between Iran and Egypt, in order to avoid unfounded generalizations from one to the other.

So, what are the similarities between Egypt and Iran?

In both nations, and unlike in Tunisia, the military backs the regimes. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran wields vast military, economic, and security power. Its high command, led by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, head of the Guards' political directorate, supports Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Likewise, the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a former air force general who has held power since 1981, is supported by Egypt's military. In addition, similar to Iran, Egypt has a vast apparatus for internal security with up to one million personnel.

In both nations, the share of the population that lives in poverty is high: 50 percent in Egypt, 30-40 percent in Iran. The vast armies of the unemployed youth thus play important roles as citizens strive for political systems responsive to the needs of the people. Egypt's demonstrations appear to be driven by the poor. In Iran, on the other hand, the regime has long succeeded in co-opting the poor. The elimination of subsidies, however, whose severest shock waves are expected to arrive this spring and summer, may change that.

In both nations, the Islamic opposition is strong. Iran's Green Movement is led by devout Muslims, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami. For now, there is no alternative to their leadership inside Iran. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the most formidable opposition group to Mubarak's regime. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the Brotherhood's candidates ran as independents because their party had been declared illegal. They still won 88 seats, 20 percent of the total, which enabled the Brotherhood to form the largest opposition bloc. The Muslim Brotherhood scored this impressive victory in an electoral process that was marred by many irregularities and resulted in the arrests of hundreds of the group's members.

At first the Muslim Brotherhood remained formally aloof from the protests. But quickly recognizing the depth of the people's anger, the group has tried to align itself with the youthful and apparently secular demonstrators, declaring that it would support the protests. The full role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the demonstrations is not yet clear. As in Iran, the protests seem to be spearheaded by angry young people from a cross-section of the country. Robert Fisk of the Independent reported that the movement is nationalist rather than Islamic, but Egyptian authorities have arrested at least eight top officials of the Muslim Brotherhood and blamed them for the unrest.

In Egypt, the fiscal policies that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have dictated to the government -- a neoliberal program promoting the free market, devaluation of currency, and elimination of subsidies for basic commodities -- have resulted in economic growth, but the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened substantially. Make no mistake. Elimination of subsidies in Iran is exactly the same sort of policy, except that the Ahmadinejad administration has not devalued Iran's rial, because the cheap dollar is used by the Mafia-like groups that are linked with the hardliners to flood Iran with imports from the far East and enrich themselves. All the people that I have been talking to inside Iran tell me that the shock of the hyperinflation that will result from the subsidy cuts will arrive by this summer.

Unlike in Tunisia, Egypt's trade unions are controlled by the government. In fact, there have been reports that union leaders have called on their members not to participate in the demonstrations, although it is not yet clear whether they have been heeded by the rank and file. Likewise, in Iran the government does not allow true labor unions to become strong and establish organic links with each other. It has also formed "yellow unions" that represent the government's, rather than labor's, interests. In every plant there is a Muslim Association. Most plants, as well as government branches and offices, also have a Basij "resistance base" that monitors what goes on. True labor union leaders, such as Mansour Osanloo, president of the Executive Committee of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, are in jail.

And in both nations, elections are meaningless. In Egypt, the ruling National Democratic Party "wins" elections because the government bans true opposition parties from participating. Even when it allows some of their members to run, it harasses them and their campaigns. Likewise, in Iran the Guardian Council vets the candidates and disqualifies most of those who oppose the regime from running, nullifies the results of elections that are not to its liking, and supports outright fraud.

But there are also significant differences between the two nations and their democratic movements.

Both nations are strategically important. But whereas Egypt is an ally of the United States and Israel, the Islamic Republic is a foe. In addition to its size and large population, Egypt controls the Suez Canal, has diplomatic relations with Israel, and is the staunchest U.S. ally in the Arab world. The Obama administration has paid no more than lip service to the cause of democracy in Egypt. In a revealing interview with Al Jazeera, State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley seemed to imply that the United States does not support the desire of the Egyptian people to move toward democracy because of Egypt's role in regional "stability." WikiLeaks has released a collection of cables that detail the widespread repression of dissidents by Mubarak's regime. They reveal that the White House has been fully aware of his brutality. While the Obama administration insists that it has been pushing for reforms, the cables reveal that this is not the case, and that even broaching the brutality used against the opposition is a touchy matter. In short, the United States has a vested interested in preserving the regime in Egypt, with or without Mubarak. This should be a lesson to those in the opposition who believe that the United States can help them bring "democracy" to Iran.

And, whereas Mubarak's regime is strongly secular, Iran's is religious, albeit based on a reactionary interpretation of Islamic teachings. This fact should also be a lesson to those in the opposition to the Islamic Republic who think that a secular regime will inevitably lead to democracy (or is necessarily democratic).

In Egypt, the secular opposition is out in the open, whereas in Iran the seculars do not play any visible role. Therefore, while it is possible for a secular leader, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Laureate, to emerge as a viable leader of the opposition, there is no such possibility in Iran, at least not at this point.

There is another significant difference between the two nations. Mubarak's regime has systematically imprisoned, exiled, or eliminated any viable, charismatic opposition leader. Even ElBaradei has been cautious in his opposition. Up until a few days ago, he spoke of returning to Egypt only when there were real election reforms. In contrast, Iran's opposition leaders are in place. The Green Movement has a recognized leadership, which is supported by a very significant portion of the population.

Egypt does not have access to the roughly $80 billion that Iran earns annually from oil exports -- controlled, of course, by the hardliners. It relies on tourism, some domestic industries, and $1.5 billion a year in aid that it receives from the United States. If unrest continues, tourism will be threatened.

So, what are the lessons for Iran? In my view, the demonstrations in Egypt will not result in real change unless the military withdraws its support for Mubarak. He just ordered his government to resign, but did not resign himself. He also ordered the military into the streets. The New York Times reported that senior Egyptian military commanders cut short a previously scheduled visit to the Pentagon to rush home to Cairo.

Keep in mind that the military in Tunisia played a crucial role in the victory of the revolution there. The same is necessary for Iran. The social base of support for the hardliners is significant but very narrow. They rely on the Revolutionary Guards and Basij to crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, arrest members of the opposition, and dictate to the judiciary the jail terms that opposition figures receive. Thus, the open support of the rank and file of the military can play an important role in either pushing back the hardliners and forcing them to take meaningful steps to open up society and improve conditions, or toppling them altogether -- not through a military coup that will not lead to democracy, but by creating a situation in which the military leaders recognize that they cannot use the armed forces to put down the democratic movement.

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the poor and the unemployed have played important, perhaps leading, roles in recent developments. Thus, another lesson is that the Green Movement must spread to these strata of society, as well, to become an all-encompassing movement for a better Iran.

Despite the recognition that the military backs Mubarak at this point, the Egyptian opposition has not hesitated to demonstrate. The leaders of the Green Movement should also be prepared and have concrete plans in place for the time when the true effect of the elimination of the subsidies, compounded by the hardliners' corruption and incompetence and the externally imposed sanctions, becomes clear, which could be as early as this summer.

You can be sure that Iran's hardliners are watching what is going on nervously. In his sermon during Friday Prayers yesterday, the hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami bemoaned the absence of "Islamic leaders" at the forefront of the developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries. He declared that this is the result of a conspiracy by the Western powers, because in his opinion the people of both Tunisia and Egypt have revolted for their religion. Ahmad Khatami and his ilk still do not understand what is happening.

About ten years ago, after several elections made it clear that the conservatives and hardliners could not win even semi-democratic elections in Iran, Ali Larijani -- then head of the national TV and radio network, now Majles speaker -- said that there was no need to have the support of the majority in order to rule the Islamic Republic. He pointed specifically to Egypt as an example, observing that Mubarak had the support of the army and only 15-20 percent of the population, yet had remained in power for two decades. The unrest in Egypt demonstrates that such a "theory" is wrong and bankrupt. As Mousavi said in his statement about the developments in Egypt and Tunisia, the ruling elite gets the message of the people when it is too late.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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