In 1979 the world watched a street revolution unravel in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Iran demanding the ouster of the U.S. backed Shah, only to see him replaced by a theocratic Islamic Republic.
Thirty two years later, another revolution took place in the streets of a Middle Eastern country; this time in Egypt. Many people were alarmed, fearful that U.S. stalwart Hosni Mubarak would be replaced by an Islamic caliphate that, like the Iranians, would see it as divine mission to spread their message across the world.
A year later, Egypt held its first democratic presidential election in three decades. And the people spoke. Mohammed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood is leading the Arab world’s most populous nation.
But how much does the situation in Egypt today really have in common with Iran in the late 1970s?
There are definite similarities between the two.
Countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon were artificially created less than a century ago by British and French colonial bureaucrats out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, whereas Egypt and Iran have a continuous history of civilizations that date back thousands of years.
And where the Iraqis and Lebanese were split into amalgams of feuding ethnic and religious groups, Egyptians and Iranians were united by a strong sense of nationalism.
Both, however, suffered from a division in their collective psyches between their feelings of nationalist pride and the tug of religious faith that drove their politics.
The two countries also share one more thing: the spread of education under both the late Shah of Iran and Egypt’s Mubarak.
As more and more young Iranians and Egyptians were educated, their outlooks and confidence grew.
In the process, they developed a sense of awareness of the failings of their society that made them resolute to bring about change.
Mubarak and the Shah were both forcibly deposed by a popular revolt that took to the streets to protest decades of repressive control at the hands of a ruthless security and secret police network with brutal powers to arrest, detain, jail and torture.
Furthermore, both Mubarak and the Shah were solidly supported by the U.S., Israel and Western Europe – a scenario that outraged much of the population and worsened resentments. But both leaders also ended up abandoned.
Abandoning Mubarak seemed unimaginable only a couple of years prior to the Egyptian revolution, when President Obama - who had just assumed office - chose Cairo as the location of his first post-electoral international address on June 4, 2009.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated at the time that Egypt was chosen because “it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.”
“We all felt the sense of hope that came with the speech President Barack Obama delivered in Egypt,” says Dr. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, the head of the London-based Arab-Iranian Research Center. “But when the Egyptian revolution was taking place Obama turned his back on Mubarak, just like [former U.S. president Jimmy] Carter did with the Shah.” he explains
Finally both secular modernist leaders saw their nations taken over by Islamists, firm in their belief that in the name of revolution they would write a new chapter in their country’s history that would finally be based on the will of the masses.
Major differences remain
For all the apparent similarities, however, there are huge differences between the two nations.
While the Iranians are Shiite Muslims, the vast majority of Egyptians are Sunnis.
The opposition to the Shah had been brewing right under the surface for decades in Iran, probably since 1953 when CIA and UK engineered a coup against the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restored the Shah’s powers to the dismay of many.
By the late 1970s, the Islamic clergy dominated the anti-government movement in Iran and they had a charismatic, well-known, exiled leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been living in France since the mid-1960s.
Only a few days after the Shah was forced to flee Iran in the face of enormous anger on the streets, fomented greatly by the religious lobby, Iran’s military collapsed. And within weeks Khomeini returned to a rapturous welcome.
It did not take long before Khomeini and his allies began a campaign of terror against the Shah’s supporters – executing hundreds and jailing even more. Soon after, a constitution was written that reflected Khomeini’s strict interpretation of Islamic law and the Ayatollah was given the titles of Iran’s Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief.
The situation in Egypt today resembles Iran in the late 1970s very little. Primarily due to the fact that despite the election of a president, the military remains a dominant force on the political scene. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, who took over when Mubarak was deposed, has limited the powers of civilian politicians.
Furthermore, the anti-Mubarak opposition was a hodgepodge off competing interests with little of the dedication to Islamic fundamentalism that existed among the Iranian clergy.
“What happened in Iran was a ‘complete revolution’” explains, Al Arabiya Editor and analyst on Egyptian affairs Farrag Ismail. “But Mursi came to power in a country that already had a secular framework and with a secular constitution.
“Despite Mursi emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood, he is still part of a society that is democratic and liberal,” said Ismail.
“The reason the two countries are being compared is solely due to Mursi’s Islamist background.”
It is still not apparent how much power Mursi will have or how much support he really garners amongst the population considering his opposing candidate was Ahmed Shafiq the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak.
One thing is clear; Mursi is unlike Khomeini who enjoyed a cult-like status amongst legions of revolutionaries.
And Mursi’s version of Islam so far seems moderate compared to Khomeini’s more stringent beliefs. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison for today’s Egypt would be Turkey.
Turkey is run by the Islamist Justice and Equality party (AKP), but is a secular nation with a strong military presence on the political arena.
Dr. Nourizadeh, however, is not convinced. “When Khomeini was in exile in Paris, he was even more moderate than Mursi is today. He later used Islamic doctrines to justify his shift in behavior.”
Mursi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both have to contend with powerful military elites that must be appeased.
“In Iran the generals surrendered to Khomeini.” said Dr. Nourizadeh. “He convinced them that they are generals of Iran and not the U.S., it didn’t take long though before he began executing them. In Egypt the generals are politically educated; they have been running the country for 60 years and have learned how to be wary of the Islamists.”
“It took Khomeini six months to learn the rules of governing a country, before he became an authoritarian ruler.”
Perhaps new benchmarks need to be set by which the Egyptian revolution is measured.
Can Mursi appease the military, a challenge that Khomeini didn’t have to wrestle with. Or will the secular prove too smart to be outwitted by the religious groups?
Perhaps what will set Egypt apart is the ‘Khomeni phenomenon’- or lack thereof.
The lack of a dynamic leader may end up inhibiting the Islamist revolutionary movement. But having one comes with its own set of dangers.
History has shown that all too often successful revolutionary leaders can become even more tyrannical than their ousted predecessors.
From the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, to Vladimir Lenin, Muammar Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hafez al-Assad, there is a long line of liberators who transformed into despots.