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For Iran, Both Hope and Danger in Egypt

by DANIEL BRUMBERG

07 Feb 2011 07:22Comments
CairoProtestBrotherhood.jpgMuslim Brotherhood's involvement won't necessarily produce comforting result for Iranian regime.

[ comment ] Strategically, Iran is hedging its position on the new Middle East turmoil.

The theocrats like to publicly portray the democratic revolts in Tunisia and Egypt as an Islamist tsunami sweeping away corrupt autocracies to replace them with Islamic regimes. But the same leaders are also nervous about doing or saying anything that might, in turn, encourage Iran's own opposition movements.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei heralded Egypt's "Islamic awakening.The Egyptian nation has achieved great honors in the path of Islamic struggle and promoting innovative Islamic thoughts," he said. "There is no doubt that this nation will not tolerate the treachery of its leaders and will confront them."

The supreme leader also cautioned, however, that Iran would not "get engaged and wake up a nation such as the Egyptian nation to its duties."

Tehran appears to be as concerned that Egypt's popular rebellion echoes -- and might even inspire -- Iran's opposition Green Movement. Iran witnessed mass protests that lasted six months in 2009 before they were quashed. The theocrats may see more similarities between Egypt and Iran's 2009 revolt than the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The leaders of Iran's Green Movement have been thinking along the same lines. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi made the analogy. "Today the slogan of 'Where is my vote?' of the Iranian people is echoed in the slogan of 'The people demand the overthrow of the regime' in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria," he said.

Iran's opposition has even demanded that its supporters get the same right to peacefully protest that Egyptians have gained since January 25. Its admonitions have exposed the deep contradictions behind the regime's support for Egypt's democratic movement.

But there are also significant differences between the Iranian and Egyptian opposition movements that explain why Egypt's protestors may achieve more success than their Iranian counterparts.

The core difference is in the ideology and political divide between the regime and the opposition. Iran is an Islamist regime. Its attempts to impose rigid religious dogma have provoked a backlash particularly among the young, who have called in large numbers for democracy and a state that does not force feed religion -- both threats to the Islamic Republic's identity. For the theocrats, any negotiation with the opposition would undermine the ideological purity of the revolution.

Egypt, by contrast, has a largely secular government without a central ideology. Its rulers have long governed through a mix of nationalism, Arabism, hobbled state-managed pluralism and state-managed (and at times promoted) Islamism. Its ruling class is also fragmented in ways that open up space for a negotiated transition. And Egypt's army differs in many ways from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary Basij. The latter two groups see themselves as defenders of ideological orthodoxy, whereas Egypt's army espouses a more pragmatic, nationalist ethos that is not necessarily adverse to some of the popular demands advanced by Egypt's protestors.

Islamists are important actors in Egyptian politics and society, but secularists, nationalists, labor activists, and others are equally important. And 10 percent of the population is Christian. Egypt's Islamists may emerge as the strongest opposition force, but what they seek is influence over national policy -- particularly in the educational, legal, and moral spheres -- rather than direct rule. In contrast to Iran's leaders, who espouse an interpretation of Shia Islam that places ultimate authority in the clergy, Egypt's Sunni Muslim Brethren a largely lay political activists. While they want Islam to have a role in public life, they do not want to create an Iranian-style theocracy.

Although Iran has claimed partial credit for Egypt's uprising, the political outcome in Cairo may actually be discomforting for Tehran. The Egyptian opposition has called for democracy that provides participation, representation, and pluralism. The Muslim Brotherhood has even urged "civil rule" and said it will not run a presidential candidate.

Moreover, the United States and its allies in the West could even get credit for helping facilitate the transfer of power. And any new government in Cairo is likely to continue to have relations with Washington, even if they are not as close.

The significant differences between Egypt and Iran make it unlikely that Iran's leaders will tolerate any kind of political opening in the near future. Indeed, even as Iran's leaders applaud the "Muslim masses" and bless Egypt's uprising as a harbinger of Islamic revolution in the entire region, they rejected the Green Movement's request to hold a march to show solidarity with "the freedom-seeking movement embarked on by Tunisian and Egyptian people against their autocratic governments."

Daniel Brumberg is a senior advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he also served as acting director of USIP's Muslim World Initiative. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

related reading | Daniel Brumberg's Iran and Democracy | Muhammad Sahimi's Egypt's Revolution Terrifies Iran's Hardliners

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