When the Egyptian army announced its ‘neutrality’ at the very early stages of the recent mass uprisings, this was different from the approach taken to the 1979 revolution in Iran; the Shah’s army declared ‘neutrality’ at the very last stage of the revolution and after months of shootings on the streets. I recall February 11, the fateful day when thousands of people stormed army garrisons all over Tehran, and suddenly, at about 10:30 am the shootings stopped, and to our shock the army’s neutrality was announced on state radio. Later it came to light that after assessing the situation, a NATO envoy sent to Iran told Iranian Army chiefs to declare ‘neutrality’ and to pledge allegiance to Khomeini. The system collapsed that day and in short order the military commanders and top officials of the old regime were executed.
The revolts in Egypt are reminiscent of the Iranian revolution of 1979. In both cases a US-backed dictator has ruled for decades with an iron fist over a large, strategically located country until he was confronted with a massive popular uprising. In both cases, the army had deep and close ties to the US military. Both rulers followed lop-sided neo-liberal modernization programmes, with widening gaps between the rich and the poor and deep urban/rural divides, as well as rampant corruption. In both cases, in the absence of political freedoms and democracy, the traditional religious forces expanded their turf while the progressive left and liberal secular forces were increasingly marginalised and suppressed.
This said, the revolutionary process in Iran was far more protracted and brutal, lasting over 13 months with thousands of protesters killed or injured. It also involved mass strikes at factories, universities and government agencies, leading to the establishment of Showras (councils) that had control over all the institutions before being eventually eliminated by the Islamic regime. The popular demands were more radical, seeking the total collapse of the Shah’s system, social justice, and national independence from the US and other foreign powers.
One of the reasons for this distinction was the stronger presence of the left in the Iranian revolution. Slavoj Zizek’s misguided comment that “the leftists, Marxists smuggled themselves into” the revolution of which “Khomeini was the unquestionable leader” could not be further from the truth. The revolts against the Shah were begun by the left and liberals, artists and other secular forces, leading to workers and employees’ strikes, before Khomeini and his Islamists “smuggled themselves” into it. Khomeini became the “unquestionable” leader, but this was partly because of foolish mistakes on the part of those secular forces who became infatuated with his imagined ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-authoritarianism’. Because of their fear of the left in a country with extensive borders with the then Soviet Union, the Americans also supported the Islamists, particularly liberal Islamists such as Bazargan, who formed the provisionary government. The hostage-taking at the American Embassy in Tehran by Khomeini’s followers of course soon put paid to their hopes of maintaining any influence in Iran.
In Egypt, fear of an Islamist takeover has guided American policy. The experience with Iran - the manner in which anarchy ensued following the total collapse of the system and the speed with which radical Islamists eliminated all other forces and established an obscurantist regime based on Shari’a - has shaped the policy that has been followed in Egypt. An integral part of the policy was to let go of the dictator, but to maintain the ancien regime; hence the Egyptian army’s declaration of “neutrality” so early on in the protest movement.
The Iranian revolution has shown the world the dangers of the formation of a religious state, and in this case, an Islamic fundamentalist state. During the Egyptian revolts, the pundits have presented two extreme views of the Muslim Brotherhood: one that sees them as dangerous radical Islamists seeking to form an Islamic state and the other, that they are moderate and tolerant of other forces. Both views are wrong. On the one hand, regardless of what happens in the near future, the Islamists will be more powerful and the Muslim Brotherhood will openly run in the parliamentary elections, increasingly influencing the political process and pushing for its very conservative social agenda. But they are also unlikely to be able to form an Islamic government like that in Iran. First, they lack the strong central and unified leadership enjoyed by Khomeinists during the Iranian revolution. Second, because the army has remained untouched, and together with the business class and traditional elites will not allow the establishment of a fundamentalist religious regime. The demands of the protesters have not posed any serious challenges thus far to the Egyptian business and land-owning classes, which are the oldest in the Arab world.
While with their admirable courage and perseverance the Egyptian people have achieved a sort of masses-induced coup d’etat, toppling a corrupt dictator, the US-backed army and the dominant classes have so far succeeded in aborting the revolution. The mere fact that the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the dominant classes will remain as major players in the post-Mubarak regime, suggest that the chances for establishing a democratic system - the main aspiration of those who poured into the streets - are not very promising. The appointment by the military junta of an Islamist to oversee the rushed constitutional amendment may well be an indication of what is ahead.
There is no doubt that Egypt cannot go back to what it was under Mubarak, but the shape of the future system is very much dependent upon the presence of the youth, women, and the working people in articulating and pushing for their democratic demands in the public sphere. A crucial lesson from Iran for the progressive secular forces - the left, liberals, feminists, artists and intellectuals - is to not sacrifice their secular democratic demands, and not to trust the army, the Islamists or the traditional elite.
At a time when progressive forces are not prepared to provide an alternative or clear leadership, preventing the total collapse of the old regime may not necessarily be all negative, as it may provide time and space for progressive forces to get better organized. Yet again, another lesson from Iran is that in the post-revolutionary anarchy there is always the danger that the reactionary forces use the religious beliefs of the masses to get the upper hand.
After over thirty years of suffering under a brutal Islamist regime in Iran, Iranian women, youth, workers and intellectuals revolted again in 2009. Many have compared the revolts in Egypt to the Iranian revolt of 2009 against Ahmadinejad’s electoral coup, and hope for similar results. However, the situation in Iran at present is very different. The Egyptian regime was headed by a single dictator and that dictator was in turn dependent on a foreign power. The clerical/military oligarchy in Iran, with its intricate network of religious, repressive and economic institutions and multiple military and intelligence systems, is highly complex and also independent from any foreign power. It is a fascist-type system that still has millions on the payroll of the state and para-statal organizations, including religious foundations. It has also shown on numerous occasions that it does not hesitate to use extreme brutality against its opposition. In the long run, its fate will not be different from those of other dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or elsewhere, but the Iranian people unfortunately have a much more difficult fight ahead of them.
The continued struggle of the progressive forces in Egypt not only can and will constantly push for economic, social and political reforms in Egypt, but it will also have a strong impact on the Arab world in general and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US and Israel can no longer rely on dependable and friendly Arab dictators, and will finally have to take the aspirations for genuine peace with the Palestinians seriously. The Middle East may seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place – that is, between secular dictatorships and Islamic fundamentalisms. But indeed a third alternative, a secular democratic one, does exist. We must hope that the democratic forces in all these countries will eventually be able to harness both the Islamists and the militarists.