What Egypt Means for Iran

Like many people, I’ve been immersed in all things Egypt for the past 2 weeks. I’ll admit I was at first skeptical that the protests popping up throughout the Arab would lead to any tangible change, even after they forced former Tunisian president Ben Ali scouring his rolodex for a place to retire in exile. Yet as events in Egypt, and to some degree in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and even Sudan has shown, the Arab awakening of 2011 is going to change the way these aging Arab autocrats rule.

So where does this leave Iran? Is there a chance current events could spread beyond the Arab core of the Middle East and re-ignite the protest movement in Iran? Can the youth of Egypt accomplish what the Green movement of Iran could not? Will Egypt’s protests be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and turn into an Arab version of the Islamic Republic? Below I offer my thoughts in question-and-answer format to some of these questions as they relate to Iran and the Middle East at large.

What do Iranians think about the protests?

In the rest of the Middle East, citizens have largely been cheering the protesters in Tahrir Square while their governments have been downplaying the events and offering concessions and new subsidies to pre-empt copycat protests. In Iran, though, the regime is actually cheering them on and claiming credit for an “Islamic awakening” sweeping through the region. For the hardliners in power, the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are anti-Western, pro-Islamic, and smaller-scale versions of Iran’s own 1979 revolution.

Events in Egypt are especially delighting to hardliners in a bout of schadenfreude. When the Shah went into exile and was unceremoniously asked to leave the US and Nicaragua, he was eventually buried in Egypt, an act that infuriated Iran so much that they named a street after the assassin who killed Sadat (I believe it was recently de-named this, but don’t quote me on this….). Iran also sees Egypt as overly friendly to Israel and the US, so in a strictly geo-political sense they believe whatever person/regime comes to replace Mubarak will tilt more towards their sphere (more on this later).

Of course I can’t speak to the reaction amongst a general population of over 70 million, but reading some articles in opposition-aligned websites and speaking to a few friends there has given me a bit of insight into the public mood there. People there have been following events in Egypt quite closely and have been pulling for the protesters, albeit for markedly different reasons than the regime’s. On the other hand, though, people seem to be a bit less euphoric in watching Egypt than their counterparts in the rest of the Middle East. Several people I talked to worried that
the Egypt’s protests would meet the same fate as Iran in 1979, and the Muslim Brotherhood would take over after Mubarak left and install an Islamic Republic 2.0 in Egypt (much more on this later).

Another very interesting sentiment I picked up from talking to a few friends was a mutation of schadenfreude, an almost jealous but sorrowful joy at watching Egyptians do what Iranians couldn’t a year and a half ago. One person I talked to remarked about how watching the protests in Tahrir Square gave her a painful reminder of Tehran in 2009, and wondered why it was that in Egypt the police and army used restraint, and in some cases even protected, protesters, while in Iran the security forces beat them indiscriminately. There was an “only if” feeling to a lot of what they said about Egypt, one that I think is felt by a lot of people who went onto the streets in Iran during their protests.

Will the protests in Egypt/the Arab world spread to Iran?

Although the protests that began in Tunisia have spread beyond and lasted for longer that I originally thought, I don’t think there’s much of a chance of them spreading to Iran. Of course I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong about this, but I have several reasons for being skeptical.

First and foremost, Iran already had its Tahrir Square back in 2009. People in Iran aren’t watching satellite TV, looking at images of Egyptians demanding the ouster of their president, and saying “wow, great idea! We should try that too!” They’re watching these images and thinking, “wow, we already tried that. Best of luck to you guys.” Not that Iranians don’t want to or aren’t inspired by the images coming out of Egypt. But it was not very long ago that they went onto the streets demanding “where is my vote” and were beaten, detained, and killed for doing so.  These scars, both mental and physical, are still very fresh for the would-be protesters of Iran.

On top of this, the green movement in Iran has been utterly decimated over the past year and a half due to systemic arrests and detentions. Reformist politicians, prominent opposition figures, political organizers, lawyers, journalists, artists, and virtually every segment of Iranian civil society has been targeted. Of course the regime has not, nor ever can it, arrest or detain every potential activist or opposition sympathizer, but for a movement already short on leadership and experience these crackdowns have taken their toll.

With that said, I’m by no means ready to pronounce the Green movement dead or call it a failure. Musavi and Karrubi have quite cleverly requested a permit for a demonstration to show their support with the people of Tunisia and Egypt on the 25 of Bahman (February 14), an annual holiday the regime uses to drum up support*. Like in Egypt, supporters have already launched a support page for the rally on facebook with several thousand members and plans are being drawn up for the rally. But there is very little chance the regime will grant Musavi and Karrubi a permit for their protest, and I’d again say its unlikely there’d be any large turnout on the opposition side for this without permission. Call it a grasping at straws if you like, but I think even requesting a permit to hold a demonstration with the clear knowledge that it won’t be allowed is a much-needed reminder to the opposition in Iran that the Green movement is still alive and kicking.

Why have the Egypt protests “succeeded” while those in Iran did not?

This is really the million dollar question and an incredibly complicated one that could take up an entire PhD dissertation (shameless self-promotion: this will actually be by dissertation topic if all things work out in the next few months). For starters, I should say that the Egyptian protests have not fully succeeded in their goal of getting Mubarak out now. He’s still biding time, promising to step down come next election, so people who want to force him into early retirement have yet to fully realize their goal. But I do believe that even this small concession that he and his son will not run again for office, and the small reform process that has begun–however disingenuous they may be–is a degree of “success” that the Green movement unfortunately did not achieve. Again, huge caveat that I do not believe the Green movement to have failed or to be over, but the harsh truth is that they do not have the tangible achievements that Egypt can now claim.

With that out of the way, I think the main reason the Egyptian protests have enjoyed the degree of success that Iran has not has to do with the military and security apparatus. When the protests first gained steam in Egypt the huge unknown was what the military would do. I think the prevailing wisdom, or at least the belief that I had, was that they would step in and quash the protests. Mubarak comes from the military, they enjoy a prominent place in Egyptian politics and economics, and would see an assault on Mubarak as an assault on their position.

As the pictures of protesters hanging banners on tanks show, the army, at least for now, choose not to side with Mubarak. They may not have outright abandoned Mubarak and thrown their lot in with the people, but they did not quash the protests, and even issued a public statement before one of the largest days of protest saying they would not attack protesters.

The scene on the streets of Iran was the polar opposite. Security forces beat protesters, both young and old, women and children, shot live rounds into crowds, mowed them down in cars and motorcycles, and did not hesitate in the least to use violence to enforce crowd control. Khamenei himself, in his Friday sermon after the contested election, essentially told protesters any violence that occurred from that point forward was their fault. The Egyptian army, whether they were not ordered to or did not follow this order, stayed back and allowed protests to happen. Iranians were not so lucky, and braved a degree of violence for a period of time that in itself is a testament to their spirit and the future of the movement, but which is also impossible to maintain in the face of massive state-sponsored oppression.

Precisely why the Egyptian army behaved as it did is beyond my area of expertise. Why the security apparatus in Iran acted the way it did is in itself a massive topic, but to give a very brief answer, I think much of this has to do with the parallel structure of security forces in the country. On top of the police you have the basij, Revolutionary Guards (including specially-trained units), plainclothes officers, Hezbollah thugs, and others that are reliable regime stalwarts and which will make up for any potential support re-alignment in the other areas.

One other point merits mentioning about the relative success of Egypt. Much was written about how diverse the group of people were who were protesting in Egypt, but one thing they did share in common was the overarching goal that Mubarak must go. Although the complicated issue of when Mubarak must go is being debated amongst supporters, they had a very clear, very unified demand.

In Iran, on the other hand, you had different sets of demands. Some wanted the election overturned altogether, some wanted a recount, some a re-run, and even some an entirely new system of government. The one thing that unified people was outrage over the transparently rigged election captured by the powerful yet vague rallying cry of “where is my vote?”, but beyond that there was no one actionable step forward.  Perhaps the regime never would have conceded to even the smallest of the opposition’s demands, but not having a singular, agreed-upon stipulation made it easier for the regime to deflect pressure and bide for time.

Will Egypt of 2011 turn into Iran of 1979?

That Mubarak is on the outs is a foregone conclusion. What comes after him, though, is still very much up in the air. Another autocrat with ties to the military? A lesser version of this, similar to Turkey, with a strong military but civilian leader? Or worst case scenario, an Islamic Arab Republic modelled on Iran? Despite fears to the contrary, I think there’s very little chance Egypt goes the Iran route.

Foremost among the reasons why I don’t believe this will happen is a look at the protests themselves. The people filling Tahrir Square, and the youth that began organizing Egypt’s yet-to-be-named revolution, are not demanding political Islam. They’re demanding universal values like freedom, democracy, and an end to police intimidation, not a return to the caliphates of antiquity. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken a back seat throughout these protests and has and continues to play catch-up with a movement it neither created not controls. Yes they have been more prominent in recent days, even having a seat at the negotiation table where “reforms” were discussed, but they are one of numerous opposition forces now in consultation for next steps forward.

True, the protests that led to the fall of the Shah in Iran during 1978-9 were not explicitly Islamic in character. Those too had numerous opposition forces, all of whom coalesced around a singular goal of ousting the Shah. Yet with that said, there was a much stronger Islamist element in those protests than you have now in Egypt. Most conspicuously, there is no equivalent of Khomeini in the Egyptian context.

A leader from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood could well emerge over time, but I don’t think you’ll have the same post-revolution power vacuum that happened in Iran which allowed Khomeini and his loyalists to hijack the revolution for their own cause. Iran of 1979 was a revolution in the absolute sense of the term: virtually every vestige of the old regime was dismantled and new institutions built up. There was little carry over, institutionally or personally, from the old regime. In Egypt, much of the work Mubarak has done to codify authoritarian rule will need to be undone, but even if the constitution is scrapped altogether, there will be one very prominent carry over from the previous regime: the military. Right now the military in Egypt still enjoys the support, however frustrated, of the opposition, and there is not going to be a de-Baathification of the army after Mubarak. While Egypt could, but hopefully will not, descend into chaos similar to Iran in 1979, the military will almost surely remain a constant fixture, and one which will (again hopefully) prevent raids of weapons depots and roaming armed bands of revolutionary forces in the aftermath of a Mubarak exit.

Perhaps the best reason of all why Egypt in 2011 will not turn into post-revolution Iran is the existence of Iran itself. Institutionalized political Islam now has a test case, and by most accounts it has failed to deliver as promised. Sure many people across the Middle East may cheer when Ahmadinejad criticizes the US or Israel, but beyond that they’re not clamoring to replicate that model of government. The Islamic Republic has been economically ruinous, to say nothing of the political repression and human rights violations, and whatever claims to popular legitimacy it may have had were shattered during the Green movement of 2009.

Yes it’s true that any democratic, post-Mubarak government will have a greater presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. And yes, this new government will most likely not be as allied to the US and Israel as before. But one should not automatically assume that a protest movement in a Muslim-majority country will necessarily lead to an Islamic state.

What’s next for Egypt?

I’m writing this the day after the inspiring interview with Wael Ghonim, the google executive who was detained for 12 days, aired on Egyptian TV and Tahrir Square had the biggest protests it has seen to date. I’ve been amazed at both the resilience and the bravery of the protesters there, and every time I think their chances are fading and Mubarak will cling to power I’m proven mistaken. Given this, and the fact that I’m very much playing catch-up in learning about Egyptian politics, I really can’t predict what will happen in one week’s, or even one day’s, time. But one issue that is coming to the forefront and is worth more attention is the question of what to do with the constitution and whether Mubarak should stay on, in a very minimal role, until the next presidential elections.

I’ve long admired the Iranian constitution as a brilliant way of legally codifying an unaccountable government and providing almost no space for meaningful checks-and-balances. After reading about the Egytian constitution, I think this comes in a close second to Iran in terms of sheer institutional despotism. Thanks to Mubarak’s constitutional reforms, most notably the ones he pushed through in 2007, the constitution essentially has a self-destruct button built into it in the event that he is removed from power.

Under the given laws, if the president resigns it’s not the vice-president that takes over, but instead the speaker of parliament (himself a Mubarak sycophant). And even if the speaker was inclined towards the opposition, they are constitutionally limited from doing pretty much anything meaningful. They have no power to pass or rescind constitutional constitutional amendments, most notably the article recently-passed article in the Egyptian constitution which makes it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run for president. And I may be mistaken on this point, but I believe an interim president is also constitutionally unable to rescind the declaration of emergency law, which Egypt has been living under for over three decades and which gives cover to some of the more authoritarian measures. Finally, following the president’s resignation (or ouster) a new president must be elected within 60 days. And since the interim president can’t do much to allow for an actual free election with real opposition or independent candidates, this election is essentially limited to choices between established regime figures. Hence, the status quo is preserved.

It’s for these reasons some people in the opposition are actually for a more measured transition where Mubarak is not immediately booted out of the country. According to one plan put forward (available here), Mubarak would stay in office but cede a large number of his powers to a Vice President (not the current one, but an additional one, which he can appoint a number of at will), who in term has to promise a number of reform processes to allow for an actual democratic transition and free elections for a new president. Of course the flaw in this plan is that requires the voluntary ceding of power on Mubarak’s part, and a degree of good will on the proposed VP’s part, but it’s a decent idea for a way forward that doesn’t involve the rather drastic act of scrapping the constitution altogether.

Overall, we’ll see how things play out, both in Egypt and Iran. It may yet be the start of an “Arab Spring,” that could even spill over into Persian Iran. This Friday’s planned protests in Iran will tell us a great deal more about that case, and in Egypt, we’ll see if they can maintain their numbers and pressure on Mubarak.


*Correction: Musavi and Karrubi requested a permit to hold a demonstration on Monday, February 14th, which is actually not the same day as he official regime holiday that celebrates the Islamic Revolution, which comes on Friday, February 11th.


One Response to “What Egypt Means for Iran”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Nice work. I think you’re dead on about the appeal of the Iran model being mostly neutralized by Iran itself.
    I would offer one possible explanation to your bit about why the military has behaved the way it has. I could be off here but my impression is that it may be due to the mandatory conscription in Egypt. All men serve one year in the military so the guys that are out there in the square are people’s friends, brothers, sons, etc. and more importantly perhaps – not there necessarily by choice. They’re respected at least in part because they’re cut from the same cloth as the opposition.
    It will be interesting to see how the army behaves now that Mubarak is officially stepping down and the army is taking over. Looking forward to your next post!

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