Despite efforts to prove otherwise, the current political movement in Egypt is following a parallel political course seen in 1978-79 Iran. From the optimism of the protesters to the hovering fundamentalist influences, the Egyptian people must demand that their movement and cries for freedom are heeded and not hijacked. The Iranian people learned that the hard way.
Thirty years ago, the Iranian people poured into the streets demanding that their Shah be ousted. They did not have a viable alternative, and the absence of an organized opposition made for a facile takeover by an Islamic government.
Similar to Mubarak’s government, the United States had a friendly relationship with the Shah of Iran and his regime. The people were liberal. Some women marched in tank tops and short skirts and others in headscarves. Men and women protested together. Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Bahais and Muslims stood by one another in demanding that a new democratic government replace the Shah.
Their demands were idealistic with no realistic manner in which to implement them. Similar to the Egyptians, they were fed up, and the consensus was, there was no going back. The Iranians could only go forward to see who would fill the political vacancy they had so quickly evacuated.
Iran had several competing opposition groups, but none were sufficiently organized or widely supported to compete with what was to come. Their preoccupation with the dismissal of the Shah got in the way of their own political gains. The Constitutionalist Liberals, the National Front, Marxist groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran and the Fedaian, and the most powerful guerrilla group, the People’s Mojahedeen, known today as the MEK (a leftist Islamist group) had been around for decades. While they were influential in ousting the Shah, they lacked the leadership and political sophistication to actually replace him.
As the Shah departed Iran, the people rejoiced the possibility of freedom and democracy, but instead, Iran’s democratic movement and all other political parties were pushed aside by an organizational genius who was as scheming as he was shrewd: the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had a masterful plan for the Iranian people and the future of the country.
Khomeini quickly formed the Interim Government of Iran in 1979, also known as the Provisional Revolutionary Government, and by February, appointed Mehdi Bazargan as the interim Prime Minister. Bazargan was an obvious choice; a modern, well dressed, highly-educated engineer with good diplomacy skills.
Two days after Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy, Bazargan and all members of his cabinet resigned Nov. 6, 1979, and Khomeini, seemingly happy about the resignation, handed power to the Revolutionary Council.
Two weeks ago, Mohsen Rezaii, Iran’s former Revolutionary Guard Commander called Bazargan’s appointment “the biggest trick pulled by the Imam Khomeini to hoodwink the Americans back in 1979.”
Given the similarities in movements, we hope that 30 years from now, a commander from the Muslim Brotherhood won’t claim the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei, the informal Egyptian opposition leader, was a trick used to likewise dupe the Americans now.
The similarities between Bazargan and ElBaradei, coupled with comparisons that can be drawn between the Islamic Republic and the Muslim Brotherhood, are alarming, particularly since they can cost the Egyptians their movement and the future of their country.
Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, has surfaced as the likely candidate to lead a transition government between Mubarak’s regime and what will ensue. The danger clearly remains in handing the country over to a politically inexperienced man whose campaign is being endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
If ElBaradei’s track record in Iran as IAEA chief is any indication, he can easily be influenced by fundamentalist entities. While he condemned Iran for not cooperating with IAEA assessors, he advocated on Iran’s behalf, pushing for diplomatic engagement and claiming that Iran was farther away from becoming a nuclear power than the West and Israel claimed.
Mustafa Al-Naggar, Coordinator of ElBaradei’s National Coalition for Change said about his platform, “We want one of two good things: Freedom or martyrdom,” in an Arabic language television interview now on MEMRI TV. “Let them kill the Egyptian people in its entirety.”
The biggest threat facing Egypt, however, remains the Muslim Brotherhood — the largest, oldest and best-organized Islamic group in the world. Though the argument has been made that the Muslim Brotherhood does not preach violence and has separated itself from Islamic radicalism, the group’s core beliefs will subject women and religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, to second-class status, threaten the 30-year peace between Egypt and Israel, and fuel terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Egypt, radical elements elsewhere in the region will be emboldened, further distancing themselves from the West in general and the US in particular,” according to Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian, a columnist with Gulf News in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and author of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies. “US interests are not necessarily served by adding to the roster of radicalized Islamic states, where Shari `a Law is the rule of the land, and where anti-US rhetoric can translate into policies.”
The US’s support (or lack thereof) of inchoate political movements has had mixed results. In the case of Iran, even though the movements of 1978-79 and 2009 had entirely different outcomes—one a full-blown revolution and the other, a lost opportunity—both were failures. In 1978, President Carter intervened and was instrumental in the ousting of the Shah and paving the way for the creation of a radical theocracy. In 2009, however, President Obama completely missed an opportune moment to throw support behind a resilient pro-democratic, secular movement that would have made significant changes in Iran and the region, even when the Iranian people asked for US support.
The lessons of the past, however, were set aside as President Obama isolated President Mubarak in the initial hours of protest last week, throwing unconditional support behind those who are fighting for his dismissal.
“Washington’s decision to admonish one of its closest allies in the Middle East will probably result in an Islamic Egypt, if the current regime is replaced,” Dr. Kechichian said. “No matter how unpalatable Mubarak or his elites may be, the US has a huge stake in the survival of the regime, at least not to repeat the 1978-1979 Iranian experience.”
Whether Mubarak stays or is replaced, the warning comes to salvage the Egyptian movement in its aftermath. No one is denying the Egyptians their right to freedoms or even questioning their intentions. Yet, just because it is freedom that they seek does not mean that it is freedom that they will receive. The warnings, whether they come from the Iranians or those who do not wish to see history repeat itself, serve to ensure the best outcome for the Egyptians, for the Middle East and for the rest of the world.
Ultimately, should an Islamic regime take over Egypt, it would be yet another win for Iran’s hard-line regime.