A view from Israel

(By Israel Kasnett)
Different president, same mistake?
How is the unfolding political drama in Egypt similar to Iran of 1979?
The last week’s events in Egypt have taken many people - citizens and governments alike - by surprise. Although some analysts are hesitant to call this a revolution, the news coming out of Egypt is all too reminiscent of similar events that took place in Iran in 1979.
Experts clamor that Egyptians cannot create a democracy since they do not know what it is, having lived under autocratic rule for so long. But as early as the 19th century, Arabs in the Middle East began to grow acutely aware of the free way of life as they were exposed to increasing influence under British and French domination. Many young Egyptians educated in Europe returned to Egypt with new ideas on freedom, liberty and democracy.
Significantly, the Ottoman Empire’s ‘tanzimat,’ or restructuring starting in the 1830’s, introduced sweeping reforms in Ottoman society allowing for equality and enhanced civil liberties for all – Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Sultan Abdulmejid enacted the important ‘Rescript of the Rose Chamber’ reform in 1839 which guaranteed amongst other reforms, equal rights for all citizens, the creation of new institutions and fair taxes. This reform was largely significant in that it had direct influence on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president. Once in power, Ataturk introduced a broad range of reforms in the social, economic, cultural and political spheres. It is clear that societies are capable of implementing broad reform when necessary.
According to Dr. Harold Rhode, a former pentagon analyst of 28 years, the Ataturk model may be appropriate today in Egypt’s case. Ataturk placed Turkey on the right path by teaching its people the responsibilities of democracy. Egypt needs to resurrect itself by building a non-corrupt government from the bottom up along modern principles and constitutional lines. In Middle East societies, including Egypt until recently, the idea of questioning is not allowed. The average citizen still cannot ask “why.”
THE 1979 Iranian revolution was launched by students and was hijacked by the religious authorities resulting in an eventual theocracy. But prior to clerical takeover, Mehdi Barzagan ruled Iran temporarily until he resigned nine months later after the US embassy takeover.
At the time, the US ignored the student revolution, siding with the Shah. Carter was advised either to encourage the Shah to surpress the revolution or build ties with the opposition - neither of which he heeded. After the embassy takeover, Carter reacted in part by implementing sanctions against Iran.
The US response to the tumultuous events in Egypt has rung eerily similar. The US administration has already gone as far as threatening to link future foreign aid to Egypt with significant political and social reform. But what is Obama promoting? Is he urging democratic reform or is he promoting free and fair elections like his predecessor or human rights like Carter?
According to Rhode, elections are not democracy. They are the culmination of democracy built on established democratic institutions - and building democratic institutions is a slow process. The US misunderstands the effectiveness of elections. There is no concept of individual responsibility in Arab societies. The concept of one man, one vote, one time, simply does not exist everywhere.
The US decision to crack down on Mubarak’s authoritarianism comes too late, according to one analyst. Had the US administration spoken out after Egypt’s elections in November and December of 2010, their intervention might have been welcomed by Egyptian citizens.
But American indecisiveness first in refusing to support calls for democracy and freedom after Iran’s 2009 elections, coupled with Obama’s condemnation of Mubarak in the last week has been perceived by many Egyptians as weakness, says Rhode. Carter and Obama’s actions have shown the world that America is no longer a reliable ally.
Some Middle East analysts believe that even if Mubarak steps down and is replaced by another ruler, for instance ElBaradei - called by some protestors a “donkey of the revolution” - he would simply be the next Mehdi Barzagan. His reign would be short-lived as Islamist elements gain support and eventually push him out of power, creating a theocratic Egypt.
Some experts have clarified that, contrary to popular belief, the Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in revolution but rather, a gradual process ending in the establishment of Islamic states throughout the Muslim world. At minimum, they campaign for the implementation of Islamic law within already existing political frameworks.
On top of all this, anti-American sentiment has surfaced during some of the protests in the past week and this requires scrutiny as well. Some experts claim that Egyptians have a warped notion of Western life, much of which comes from movies and television. Salah Eldin Hafiz, former deputy editor in chief of Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper once stated that in a US-led world order, Arabs are confronting foreign political, cultural and economic hegemony, creating the perceived need to fortify Arab cultural identity. Indeed, many of the sentiments voiced by protestors expressed anger at American influence over Egypt and Mubarak specifically.
One analyst on the Iranian revolution wrote, “The vast majority of those who participated in the demonstrations and strikes opposed the system’s repressive nature and demanded political freedom, democracy, social equality and economic justice. They also rejected foreign domination and vowed to put an end to external exploitation.” Given the similarities to Egypt, this can certainly have been written only yesterday.
Likewise, in his book, Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution, Misagh Parsa, professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, writes, “When the state apparatus comes under attack as the source of injustice and suffering…the entire social structure may experience revolutionary transformation.”
Other similarities between Iran 1979 and Egypt 2011 are clear in both instances where the poorer classes are in the same predicament of lasting poverty and repression and the regime is hated by the overall public.
According to Professor Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, and a senior researcher at the Truman Institute, some of the differences between the two cases are that while many poor residents did not participate, at least in the beginning, in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the mass events in Egypt are well-attended by all segments of Egyptian society. In Iran, the religious aspect was more important and inspired by religious leaders but in Egypt, Islamic elements, including the Brotherhood, have remained in the background. In Iran, the government disintegrated as opposed to Egypt where the government still remains in power.
In both cases, protestors proved that rapid, mass mobilization can effect sweeping change - although not necessarily for the better. Will the Obama administration absorb the appropriate lessons from Iran? Nobody knows yet.
The writer is deputy news editor of The Jerusalem Post.