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Egypt 2011: Iran 1979 or 2009...or Neither?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

03 Feb 2011 09:29Comments
TahrirSquare2.jpgIdeological domination of Islamic Revolution and Republic marks the crucial difference.

[ analysis ] The rapid political developments in Egypt that have brought the 30-year dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak to the brink of collapse have provoked heated debates among Iranians on one hand and among the Israel lobby and neoconservatives in the United States on the other. The debate among Iranians revolves around one issue: Do Egypt's developments more resemble the Iranian Revolution of 1979, or the peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of Iran's rigged presidential election of June 2009, or something altogether different? The debate in the Israel lobby and its neoconservative allies is mainly over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and its possible rise to power, as well as the role of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Laureate, in Egypt's future.

Similar to Mubarak's regime, the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was staunchly secular and pro-West. But the Iran of 1978-79 was vastly different from present-day Egypt. Although the first Islamic Republic in the world was founded in Pakistan by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on July 5, 1977, changed the country's Anglo-Saxon laws, and began imposing his interpretation of sharia, it was the Islamic Revolution in Iran that truly revived political Islam.

Prior to the 1979 Revolution, the Shah always thought that the most important threat to his reign was posed by the nationalists of the National Front and Freedom Movement of former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-95), the pro-Soviet Union Tudeh (communist) Party, and two organizations that were waging armed struggle against his regime, namely, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization and People's Fadaeeyan Guerrilla Organization. He banned the National Front and Freedom Movement and jailed or silenced its leaders, forced the Tudeh Party leadership into exile, and ruthlessly prosecuted a war against the two guerrilla organizations via his dreaded security organization, the SAVAK.

In his memoir, Asadollah Alam, the Shah's minister of the Imperial Court and his long-time confidant, says that the Shah told him that, as a viable political force, "the mullahs are finished." The clerics were divided among themselves about the Shah. While some did not want to intervene in politics, a significant faction, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciples, actively opposed him. The Shah had exiled Khomeini, first to Turkey and then to Najaf, and was under the illusion that he and his supporters had been politically neutered. At the same time, he had cracked down on all other political groups, which gave the clerics an opening to organize. When the Revolution began in 1978, the leadership vacuum was filled by Khomeini and his supporters, even though people from every strata of society and of all political persuasions participated in the Revolution. As a result, as soon as the Shah's regime was toppled, the Revolution quickly became ideologized.

In Egypt, the situation is totally different. Successive Egyptian leaders, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Anwar El Sadat and Mubarak have considered the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups their most important enemies. Nasser banned the Brotherhood in 1954, but the group survived. While the Brotherhood was not involved in Sadat's September 1981 assassination, which was perpetrated by al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), Mubarak cracked down hard on all the Islamic opposition collectives, including the Brotherhood. By the mid-1990s, there were more than 20,000 Islamic political prisoners in Egypt.

The Brotherhood nonetheless remains the best organized opposition organization in Egypt. The country is still very conservative, and the vast corruption of Mubarak's regime, coupled with the fact that Egypt has been under emergency rule since 1981, has driven poor people to the mosques. The Brotherhood has an extensive social network that does good works for the poor. It also renounced violence a long time ago and has kept a low profile in the demonstrations that are taking place in Cairo and elsewhere. The organizers of the demonstrations have formed a committee of ten, which includes the Brotherhood, to negotiate with the government and the military. When the Brotherhood's eight regional directors were arrested last week, the group decided not to mobilize in their defense so as not to distract from the main goal -- toppling Mubarak.

In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the Brotherhood formed an alliance with liberal intellectuals and secular democrats and advocated for greater political freedoms, including freedom of religion, assembly, and speech. Their platform and actions convinced many critics that the Brotherhood is a legitimate political force in Egypt. The Brotherhood's candidates ran as independents because their party had been declared illegal. They still won 88 seats, 20 percent of the total, enabling them to form the largest opposition bloc. The Muslim Brotherhood scored this impressive victory despite an electoral process that was marred by many irregularities, including the arrests of hundreds of the group's members. Afterward, Mubarak turned violently against the Brotherhood, arresting, jailing, and even torturing their democratically elected legislators.

In the revolution that now rages in Egypt, the Brotherhood has been working closely with the secular opposition leader, ElBaradei, who has rejected the fears of the organization expressed by Israel supporters in the United States. The New York Times quoted him saying, "They are a religiously conservative group, no question about it, but they also represent about 20 percent of the Egyptian people. How can you exclude 20 percent of the Egyptian people?" He was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, who asked him, "Are you confident that a post-Mubarak Egypt will not give rise to some kind of Islamic fundamentalist force that will undermine the democracy of Egypt?" ElBaradei responded, "I'm quite confident of that, Fareed. This is a myth that was sold by the Mubarak regime, that it's either us -- the ruthless dictators -- or a Muslim al-Qaeda type. The Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the Iranian movement, has nothing to do with extremism as we have seen it in Afghanistan and other places. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group. They are a minority in Egypt. They are not a majority of the Egyptian people." Given ElBaradei's position and the fact of the group's popularity, it is hard to imagine any new government in Egypt in which the Brotherhood will not play a role.

TimeCoverKhomeini.jpgBut it remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood will be able to win the majority, or even the 20 percent of the vote it garnered last time, in any democratic election. There are several reasons why it may not. Perhaps the most important is precisely what has been happening in the Middle East over the past 30 years. The Egyptian people have learned from the failures of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and of Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere. They know the importance of establishing a democratic state and the rule of law. Modern means of mass communication, now including Facebook and Twitter, have allowed Egyptian youth to learn about the rest of the world. Such means of communication, which played an important role in the Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 election, did not exist in 1978-79. And, whereas the Brotherhood lacks a charismatic leader, the Iranian Revolution was led by the highly charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. In short, as Egyptian scholar Emad Shahin said, "The Brotherhood is no longer the most effective player in the political arena.... [This is] a youth uprising. It is the youth that knows how to use the media, Internet, Facebook, so there are other players now."

So, if it is not the Brotherhood that is behind the demonstrations, who is? One main organizer is the April 6 Youth Movement. Founded by Ahmed Salah and Ahmed Maher, it comprises a loose association of activists who have been involved in campaigns to free imprisoned journalists and bloggers and support labor actions and who are very savvy in using the latest communication tools. It was this collective that initiated the demonstrations that culminated in the "march of millions." They are neither a political party, nor an ideological group.

As a result, the revolution in Egypt, at least up to this point, has remained distinctly nonideological. Moreover, it resembles the Green Movement, which was similarly driven by the youth and was, and still is, about democracy and the rule of law. As Mir Hossein Mousavi put it in his statement about the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, "There is no doubt that the starting point of the events we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana'a, Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez must be sought in the massive demonstrations of June 14, 17, and 19 [2009] of Tehran." Of course, Tehran's religious fascists would like people to believe that the Egyptian revolution is Islamic in character. They enthusiastically broadcast images of the demonstrations in Cairo on Iran's state-controlled TV network, while they refused to air any of the huge demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere that took place in the aftermath of the 2009 election.

Another part of the debate among Iranians concerns why the Egypt revolution seems to be succeeding, but the Green Movement has not. Some have used the opportunity to attack the Greens' leaders, while others have attacked the movement as a whole. The critics do not seem to understand the complexities of Iranian society and its great differences with Egypt, as well as Tunisia. Foremost among the differences is the fact that the regime in Tehran is ideological, unlike Mubarak's regime and that of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. An ideological regime is willing to go to any depth to ruthlessly eliminate its opponents.

As I emphasized in my analysis of the revolution in Tunisia, a most important reason for its success was that the military refused to support the dictator Ben Ali or attack the protestors. Likewise, in my analysis of the Egyptian revolution, I emphasized that the protestors will not succeed unless the military withdraws its support for Mubarak. Indeed, it has announced that it will not attack peaceful protestors.

In contrast, the high command of the military in Iran and its associated organizations, such as the Basij militia, are tools of oppression and repression. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, together with the Basij, violently cracked down on the peaceful demonstrators. Before Wednesday, there were no militia or paramilitary and vigilante forces in Egypt that could be roused effectively against the demonstrators. Only when it became clear that Mubarak had to go did his supporters emerge in the streets and began attacking people. But the attacks may well backfire, as they were condemned not only in Egypt, but all over the world as well.

The goal of the attacks appears to be to force the military to take sides, but so far it has refused to do so, standing by its promise that it will not shoot at peaceful demonstrators. No one in the Egyptian military believes in Mubarak the way some in the Revolutionary Guards and Basij believe in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no Hidden Imam in Sunni Islam to invoke, in contrast to the claims by hardliners in Iran that the ayatollah is Imam Mahdi's deputy in his absence. Most importantly, Egypt's military is not ideological, whereas Iran's is.

The Muslim Brotherhood, despite being a conservative Islamic group, is still more progressive than the reactionary ayatollahs in Iran, ranging from Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi to Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, Ahmad Khatami, and others who support the hardliners.

Whereas, aside from its direct U.S. subsidies, the Egyptian regime leans mainly on tourism, investment by European and American companies, and some natural gas exports for income, the Iranian regime can rely on the $80-100 billion a year that it earns from exporting oil. As a result, Egypt's economy depends on a calm environment, one in which tourism and investment are undisturbed, making the government relatively receptive to international pressure. The same is not true of the Iranian hardliners.

When ElBaradei returned to Egypt, he was not arrested by Mubarak's regime. Can anyone imagine that any well-known figures in the Iranian opposition, ranging from the Islamic scholar Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush to the monarchist Reza Pahlavi, could return to the country with such liberty? And, while ElBaradei, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and others are free to participate in the demonstrations and consult with all the other opposition figures, in Iran, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are under virtual house arrest and many other leading political figures languish in jail.

When last Friday was declared "the day of anger" by the opposition in Egypt, a huge number of protestors said their prayers in mosques and other public places, and then joined the demonstrations. In Iran, mosques and other sites used for prayer have been attacked by a regime that claims to be Islamic. Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi has been imprisoned because he and his comrades held Friday Prayers together, the mosque of Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib in Shiraz was attacked, and the Basij makes sure that no Green protestors can take part in public Friday Prayers anywhere in the country.

There has yet to be an Egyptian Kahrizak. There have yet to be any executions, even though the Mubarak regime is on the verge of being toppled. There has yet to be a police car running over peaceful demonstrators in Egypt, as happened in Tehran in 2009 on Ashura Day. There has yet to be an Egyptian Neda Agha Soltan or Sohrab Arabi. There has yet to be an Egyptian Fatemeh Semsarpour, an ordinary homemaker who, fearing an explosion, protested to the security forces when they fired at the valve that connected her home to a natural gas pipeline, and was consequently shot and killed by them.

KhomeiniKhameneiIranFlag.jpgOver 3.5 million people, according to the estimate by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, demonstrated on June 25, 2009, in Iran's capital. The regime has still not heard their voice. Far fewer people demonstrated in Cairo, and Mubarak heard their voice almost immediately. Why? In addition to all the other differences between Iran and Egypt, the fact is that the hardliners' regime is an ideological one that uses religion to justify its crimes, whereas the Egyptian regime is secular and not ideological.

As Mousavi stated, "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. To find the roots of these connections and similarities we need not go too far. It suffices to compare the manner of the recent elections in Egypt with that of our own, where the head of the Guardian Council [Ahmad Jannati] blithely states that there is no need for the votes of millions of 'Green' citizens."

Finally, warmongers in the United States are making dire, but baseless, predictions about the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood may take over the Egyptian government and create a "second Iran." In a statement posted on his website last night, Representative Thaddeus McCotter, chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee, wrote, "The Egyptian demonstrations are not the equivalent of Iran's 2009 Green Revolution," and, "America must stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform." He went so far as to declare that "freedom's radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt," and that "the Egyptian demonstrations are the reprise of Iran's 1979 radical revolution."

John Bolton, who used to present himself as a defender of global liberty when he was assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, has now abdicated his role as a "freedom fighter." He was asked during a radio interview with right-wing radio host Mark Levin, "What do you make with what's going on in Egypt right now?" Bolton responded, "Well, I think it's a real crisis for the regime. I think the outpourings in the street that have now been joined by the Muslim Brotherhood really do put the issue squarely on the table.... My take is that they are digging in for a fight, they intend to resist, and that the real alternative is not Jefferson democracy [sic] versus the Mubarak regime, but that it's the Muslim Brotherhood versus the Mubarak regime, and that has enormous implications for the U.S., for Israel, and our other friends in the region." Our friends in the region? Who is left?

Missing no chance to advocate the bombing of Iran, Bolton used the imminent demise of the Mubarak regime to press his favorite theme. On Monday, Fox News opinion host Sean Hannity asked Bolton on his radio program, "Do you think that the Israelis are going to have to strike -- they are going to have to take action? As you pointed out, ElBaradei ran cover for the Iranians for all those years that he was with the IAEA. And, I just don't think the Israelis have much longer to wait...they're going to have to act in fairly short order." Bolton responded, "I think that's right. I don't think there's much time to act. And I think the fall of an Egyptian government committed to the peace agreement will almost certainly speed that timetable up."

Former senator and possible GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum has drawn parallels between the protests in Egypt and the popular protests in Iran in 1978-79, saying, "We abandoned [the Shah] and what we got in exchange was...a radical Islamist regime." Mike Huckabee, another possible GOP presidential candidate warned, "If in fact the Muslim Brotherhood is underneath much of the unrest [in Egypt], every person who breathes ought to be concerned." This is the same man who has called on Americans to "take this nation back for Christ" and proudly declared in 2008 that "what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards."

Alan Elsner, senior director of communications at the influential D.C.-based Israel Project, put it this way, "We understand very well that this is a regime that has been there for 30 years and is an authoritarian government. It hasn't allowed free and fair elections -- we understand that. We also understand that this is a government that made peace with Israel in 1979 and Mubarak's predecessor paid for that peace with his life." In other words, keep the regime there, because it is good for Israel, even though "we understand" what is happening.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, complained, "Getting rid of Mubarak will create such disruption and potentially dangerous change." He did not specify disruption to what, or to whom it will be dangerous, but it is not difficult to guess.

Just as the hardliners in Tehran do not understand what is going on, neither do these people. There is a new Middle East on its way, one in which democracy will flourish in the near future, from Tehran to Cairo and beyond.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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