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Which Uprising Is This?

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

31 Jan 2011 04:00Comments
1_8911090838_L600.jpgIranian echoes on the streets of Cairo. But is it 1979 or 2009 redux?

[ dispatch ] The sun is rising in Tehran. The city is beginning to stir and people are already on their way to work. To the west, in Cairo, the Egyptians who have been defying a state-imposed curfew still have an hour or so to go until dawn. For the past 30 years, Cairo and Tehran have represented two opposite sides in the politics of the Middle East. One has been an ally of the West and the United States; the other has been the symbol of anti-Americanism in the region.

While many Iranians are preoccupied with the pressing economic issues of the day -- "making rent and paying the non-subsidized bills that are starting to come in," in the words of one young woman -- Maryam, a graduate student, summarizes the thoughts of those whose attention has been drawn to events abroad. "What are Egyptians doing? Are they trying to do what we did 32 years ago, or are they after what we wanted two years ago?" she asks.

Thirty-two years ago, Tehran experienced nights similar to those of Cairo. Iranians had welcomed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back from a 13-year-long exile and were in open revolt against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a long-time American ally. The Shah's government imposed a curfew, which was widely ignored. In a few weeks, the seemingly impregnable monarchy was no more. Before long, the nation was reconstituted as the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared on television to announce to the Egyptian people the measures he was taking to address "their grievances," more than one person in Tehran thought of the Shah's famous speech 32 years ago: "Iranian people, I have heard the voice of your revolution."

Reza, a professor of philosophy, told Tehran Bureau, "Mubarak is repeating the Shah's mistakes." The Iranian state media apparatus encourages this analogy, or any other that draws parallels between the Shah and Mubarak. The logic is simple. "If Mubarak is the Shah, then Egyptians' revolution can be portrayed as Iran's Islamic Revolution," explains Reza.

Following this analogy, the Iranian government has been enthusiastic in expressing its views of the events in Egypt. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson warned against the "use of violence against peaceful demonstrators." According to Iran Daily, the official government mouthpiece, "On Friday, dozens of Egyptian groups, parties, trade unions, and thousands of ordinary citizens united by the Muslim Brotherhood came to the streets of Cairo and other cities to hold the largest demonstration against Mubarak's regime in the history of Egypt."

Reza believes that "the official media wants Iranian people to believe that Egyptians are following the example of Iran's revolution." As he sees it, "They hope this improves the government's image at home and presents it as a regional leader and pioneer."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in agreement. Reacting to the uprising in Tunisia earlier this month that saw the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he said, "They want the rule of the true Islam." Reports from the Fars News Agency, a staunch supporter of the Ahmadinejad administration, represent Mubarak as another Western puppet, whose fall would scare other Western-aligned leaders in the region. Its headlines announce how many Arab leaders have contacted Mubarak to express their support. One headline declares "Obama, Unhappy with Egyptians' Uprising."

The message has been similar from the clerical wing of the Iranian regime. The ultra-conservative Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani told his seminary students, "Thanks to our Islamic Revolution, the people of Tunisia now hear the call to prayers after 50 years." The office of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose full title is "Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and commander in chief," has posted on his website a collection of his comments over the years regarding Egypt and Mubarak. One reads, "Egyptians will not tolerate the treasons committed by Mubarak's regime."

However, much has changed in Iran since those nights 32 years ago. In summer 2009, angered by the outcome of a presidential election that many considered rigged, three million Iranians came out on the streets of Tehran to voice their dissatisfaction with the regime. The Iranian government responded to the protests by sending in anti-riot police and Basij militia, who did not hesitate to use violence. The young Iranians who participated in those demonstrations feel they have a lot in common with Egyptians.

"Like us, Egyptians are voicing their anger at a regime they consider corrupt and illegitimately in power," says Maryam, 27, from central Tehran. She does not remember the nights of 32 years ago. Her memory is filled with images from summer 2009. The fact that international observers regard the most recent election in Egypt as rigged only adds to her sympathy for ordinary Egyptians. "They are demanding democracy, which we wanted and want." The way she looks at the events, Mubarak is another "dictator, unpopular and unelected. It is Egyptians' right to get rid of him." In this analogy, the present Iranian opposition has much in common with the people of Egypt and the Iranian government is assigned a role similar to that of Mubarak's regime.

One who has embraced this parallel is Mir Hossein Mousavi, former prime minister and presidential candidate. In a statement, he announced, "Our nation deeply respects the glorious uprising of the brave people of Tunisia and that of the people of Egypt, Yemen, and other countries in the quest for their rights. We commend the courageous, cognizant, and resisting people of Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen and we pray to Allah that they may be successful and victorious in their struggle for their rights." He added, "Pharaohs hear the voice of their people only too late." He criticized the Iranian government for concealing the truth. "They report the day of anger, but do not say where that anger comes from."

There are other similarities between Cairo and Tehran. Maryam relates to the fact that the Internet and telecommunications have been shut down in Egypt. "This is exactly what the government did here." In summer 2009, the Ahmadinejad administration switched off the country's text messaging service and Iranians' access to the Internet became painfully slow. It seems Mubarak has learned from this experience. Nonetheless, thanks to Al Jazeera and various websites, a stream of images from Egypt has been reaching viewers in Iran. Looking at the pictures, Maryam says, "I can feel what they are going through."

No wonder the Ahmadinejad administration does not find the comparison with 2009 amusing. Fearing that the Iranian public will find more evidence for such parallels, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news channels have been very careful in selecting images of the Egyptian demonstrations. Some footage has been shown just once and withdrawn immediately. Unlike Al Jazeera, IRIB is not interested in minute-by-minute coverage of developments. Instead, it is broadcasting special reports on the events that simultaneously commemorate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution known as Dahey-e Fajr, the Ten-Day Dawn.

Those who see parallels between what is going on in Cairo and Tehran in 2009 do not necessarily credit opposition figures such as Mousavi, who has been accused by some of passivity. In a preface to his statement on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Khodnevis, a website run by Iranian citizen journalists, stated that his loyalty to the principles of the regime and his respect for the memory of Khomeini have stalled the Green Movement. Some bloggers have rebutted such critiques. One warned against the "dangers of blaming Mousavi and [former Majles chairman and presidential candidate Mehdi] Karroubi irrationally and without justification."

Nothing has better summed up the controversy than a cartoon by Mana Neyestania published on Mardomak, a website dedicated to civil society and human rights. An old man wearing a green wristband is told by a voice from the Internet, "Shame on you, Grandpa. Tunisia could. You couldn't." Gesturing in astonishment, he replies, "But nothing has changed in Tunisia. The old guard is still in power." The unseen accuser says, "Hmm, I have to think about it. But until then, shame on you anyway."

Iranians are already debating the possibilities for Egypt's future. Hassan, a social scientist and researcher, believes a representative democracy is within the people's grasp there. "Egyptian intellectuals and international figures like [Mohamed] ElBaradei are involved in this process," he told Tehran Bureau. "They can lead Egyptians to a secular democracy."

Reza thinks otherwise. He is very pessimistic about seculars' future in Egypt. "There is no infrastructure in place for secularism," he says. "In the absence of a political mechanism and social systems, the masses will turn to the one thing that comforts them.

"They do not stand a chance. Fundamentalists will come to power eventually." Asked the reason for his pessimism, he looks over at the live TV broadcast from Cairo on Al Jazeera, which he has not turned off since the beginning of the demonstrations. He observes, "They do not have even one slogan for human rights."

While seculars like Reza see little chance of a non-Islamist government in Egypt, ultra-conservatives such as Ayatollah Hamedani are not thrilled by the current state of the spectacle either. He told his students, "ElBaradei cannot be a revolutionary leader. Egyptians need someone who can solve their problems."

One thing is certain, no matter how this ends -- each side in Iran has already found evidence that its respective beliefs are being mirrored by the masses on the streets of Cairo. The art of interpretation is alive and well in Tehran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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