Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Egyptian Movement: A Worrisome Analogue to the Iranian Revolution

There is a similarity between the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt and the uprising against the Shah of Iran in 1978. Riots led to looting and in the process people gained access to weapons, so that weapons of all kinds were brought out on the streets. Vigilantes began to search now officials of the Shah's government and many were executed on the spot whether or not they had really been loyal to the regime. Prisons were opened and criminals of all kinds came out, to become involved in the mayhem. It was a true revolution in the sense of being a broadly supported rebellion that sought fundamental change in the system of rule.

The result was a movement that could have gone in various directions. Azar Nafisi says that when she was teaching at a university in Tehran various groups -- communists, democrats, Islamists of various sorts -- were promoting their ideas and their publications to the students. In was only gradually that it became known that Khomeini and his colleagues in the clergy were intolerant and in fact committed to removing any group that could constitute a rival threat. Eventually some of those who had supported Khomeini and had brought him to prominence -- especially the young progressive Iranians in Paris who had circulated his sermons and introduced him to the press -- were removed, even executed, because they became opposed to the brutal policies of the new regime of clerics established by Khomeini.

We are currently observing a similar movement in Egypt. The riots, the weapons, the criminals released from prison, frighted officials fleeing with their families -- these indicate a volatile situation that could go anywhere.

Who will rise to dominance in such a situation? It will take not only an assertive personality but an organization to back him -- the Iranian clergy was virtually the only organization ignored by the Shah's government and thus the only organization capable of quickly congealing into a viable administrative institution for Iran. So what organization in Egypt could accomplish such a feat? Would the Muslim Brethren be able to do it? If so, the future for the people of Egypt cannot be as bright as the excited demonstrators imagine.

If Mubarak flees, which we hope for, there is still the question of how a new regime will take form. What we know from the Iranian story is that the resulting system of governance could be even more brutal than the one that was displaced by an authentic popular revolutionary movement.

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