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Iran and Egypt, Twin Outsiders of the Muslim World


04 Feb 2011 17:45Comments
15ceuqa.jpgA resonant history of influence and inspiration suggests it is now the turn of the Iranian people, and soon.

[ comment ] Tahseen Bashir, the late Egyptian intellectual and erudite diplomat, once said that Egypt and Iran are the only two real countries in the region, and the rest are simply "tribes with flags."

The cataclysmic events in Egypt have got Iranians thinking, Will the same eventually happen in Iran?

This question is new neither to Iranians nor Egyptians. A close look at the history of the two nations reveals enough precedents to suggest that Iran will one way or another follow, or rather, sooner or later respond significantly to the events in Egypt.

The two nations share an important legacy. They were both sites of grand and ancient empires before the Islamic conquest. The resulting "empire consciousness" always set them apart from the Muslim epicenter. Though they were vanquished militarily, they never acquiesced to the superiority of the Bedouin culture. It is not by chance that the first challenge to the Abbasid Empire emanating from the Arabian Peninsula was in the form of the Fatimid state in Egypt with Ismailism as its official religion.

The intellectual dialogue between Fatimid Egypt and Iranians was vast and multifaceted and Iranians responded by starting their own Ismaili movement. It failed politically but succeeded culturally, producing some of the grandest works of Iranian literature and thought like the Safarnama (Book of Travels) of Nasser Khosrow, the History of Beyhaghi, and the philosophy of Avicenna.

The Ismaili cultural movement in turn laid the groundwork for the rise of Shiism in Iran, which eventually led to the formation of the first native Iranian state after the Arab conquest, the Safavid Empire.

The Fatimid Empire of Egypt and the Safavid Empire of Iran shared two important bequests: Both were outsiders in the Muslim world pushing against the mainstream "orthodox Islamic party line," represented by the Abbasid and Ottoman empires, and both were heirs to profound intellectual movements within the Islamic world.

The next close encounter between Egypt and Iran was in the nineteenth and early twentieth century when the Asiatic empires of yore collapsed under the challenge of modernity at a time when the two civilizations were experimenting with nation building.

First, Egypt under Mohammed Ali Pasha began founding a modern state through the establishment of a professional bureaucracy, civil code of laws, secular judiciary, modern educational system, and public works. Similar to Fatimid times, Egypt became a hub for Iranian intellectual expatriates. They took the modern ideas they encountered there and exported them home though various means such as the Cairo-based Persian-language newspaper Sorraya (Pleiades), which played an important part in Iran's Constitutional Revolution.

Mohamed Ali's reforms and state-building efforts deeply affected Egyptian society and later became the blueprint for Turkey's Kemal Ataturk and Iran's Reza Shah Pahlavi. The shared path of the two modernizing dynasties was highlighted by an intermarriage between Princess Fawzia of Egypt and Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the future Shah.

The post-World War II era and the rise of nationalism in the region similarly impacted the two countries. Iran's move to nationalize its oil industry in 1951 served as a model for the 1952 Officers' Coup in Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser never failed to name Mohammad Mosaddegh as his role model. After Mosaddegh was deposed in a western-backed coup, Iran switched course after 1953 and followed the Egypt/Mohammed Ali development model while Egypt pursued the Iran/Mosaddegh model, putting the two countries at odds for 20 years.

Subsequent to the failure of Nasserism in Egypt, evidenced by its military defeat in 1967, the country reverted to the Mohammed Ali, pro-Western model that had been retained as the state model throughout the Pahlavi period in Iran. That led to the eventual rapprochement of the two countries and a strong alliance and friendship between the two heads of state, the Shah and Anwar Sadat.

In the late 1920s, the Islamic cultural authenticity movement had begun in Egypt with the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which played an important role in the empowerment of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Similar to the 12th-century relationship between the Fatimids of Egypt and the Ismailis in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo helped form secret cells in Iran that culminated in the formation of the Fedayeen of Islam, an antimodernist, militant terrorist sect. Though few in number, the Fedayeen had a formative impact on the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Iran and played a crucial role in the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent absolute clerical domination of the state.

Ironically, the relationship between Mosaddegh and Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Fedayeen of Islam led to inverse outcomes in Iran and Egypt. As Nasser rode to success in Egypt, riding high on a populist movement that started in Iran, the Fedayeen triumphed in Iran fired by the ideas of a group that sprang up in Egypt. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood has shifted ideologically toward a liberal Muslim viewpoint similar to Mehdi Bazargan's anti-Shah freedom movement in pre-revolutionary Iran or Turkey's Refah (Welfare) Party, while the Fedayeen ideology has been further radicalized.

The current epochal development in Egypt -- the swift and unexpected rise of a strong multiclass, nonviolent, nonideological, leaderless, organic movement calling for basic necessities and civil liberties -- is a virtual replica of what occurred in Iran in response to the fraudulent 2009 elections. Egyptians took to the streets for the same reasons that Iranians revolted in 2009, similarly employing the Internet -- Facebook and Twitter, in particular -- to mobilize dissent: a keystroke movement. Once again and true to the dichotomous yet wedded history of the two nations, the Iranian model appears to have gained political ground in Egypt.

Considering the linked history of the two nations and the unusually symmetrical exchanges between these two cultural centers of the Islamic world, there is no doubt that the ball is now in Iran's court. The question is therefore not whether but when will Iran follow Egypt and in what manner.

Members of Tehran's political elite from every shade of the ideological rainbow have been quick to claim credit for events in Egypt, attaching it to their respective political agendas within the confines of the prevailing theocracy. What they appear not to be perceiving is that the flood of unprecedented numbers of young men and women onto the streets of Cairo and Tehran thirsty and hungry, impatient and restless for change, is not just another chapter in Islamic ideological discourse but the inauguration of a completely new era.

These young people have no memory of the Islamic revolution or nativist nationalism or third worldist socialism. Their existence, their weight, and their inalienable civil rights are organic, overt, incontestable, realistic, and do not fit any preordained ideological narrative. They will build their future very swiftly, through the prism of modernity and in the mirror of democracy. It will only be then that the Muslim world will be truly integrated with the modern world -- or, as happened 800 years ago, the periphery will become the center.

The author writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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