Comparisons between the 1979 Iranian revolution and the events unfolding in Egypt are deeply misguided. While it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of an Islamic revolution in Egypt along Iranian lines, there are several compelling reasons to expect that this won’t happen. This view emerges from a comparative look at Egypt and Iran from three levels of analysis: individual leadership, domestic state politics and the international political environment. Ultimately, while there are several superficial similarities between the two uprisings, there are fundamental differences that suggest the unlikelihood of an Islamic Republic of Egypt.
During his exile, Ayatollah Khomeini developed a powerful cult of personality that resonated deeply in Iranian society. Though this didn’t guarantee the inevitability of his leadership after the Shah was deposed, it greatly facilitated it. While many note that the most well-organized party often rises to the top when there is a power vacuum, there is no Muslim Brotherhood (MB) figure that evokes anywhere near the same kind of reverence in Egyptians that Khomeini inspired in the Iranians.
The General Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, does not enjoy the same notoriety that Khomeini possessed (indeed, some have argued that, due to the fear of a crackdown by Mubarak, he was selected to lead the MB precisely because of his low profile). Khomeini’s immediate seizure of power allowed him the unique opportunity to write the rules of the game going forward—the new Iranian constitution. The MB’s tactical decisions to neither run a Presidential candidate nor seek a majority in Parliament fundamentally alter the political arithmetic regarding potential outcomes. Indeed, these fears were further diminished by the 19 March vote to ratify the amended constitution rather than immediately draft a new constitution, which could have opened the door to increased Islamist influence on such a document.
The intelligentsia leading the Iranian revolution mostly comprised secular liberals, Marxists and Islamists. The revolution did not, however, begin with the promise of installing an Islamic Republic. Yet the ideological divides between the Marxists and the liberals created an environment that was not conducive to cooperation, which facilitated the rise of the Islamists. Viewed through the lens of the Iranian experience, the decimation of organized political opposition by Mubarak might in fact turn out to be a silver lining for the budding political process in what was an otherwise very dark period in Egypt’s history (assuming the MB abides by their promises mentioned above). At the moment, the political animosity between factions is not nearly as prevalent in Egypt as it was in Iran, due largely to the absence of these entrenched political parties.
At the state level, Mubarak and the Shahs’ (both Mohammad Reza and his father) policies toward Islam were fundamentally different. The elder Shah waged a relentless campaign to de-islamicize Iran, attempting to restore a national narrative that traced back to the ancient Persian Empire and Cyrus the Great. Reza Shah’s forced unveiling of women in 1936 and his son’s 1976 decision to eliminate the Islamic calendar in favor of a national timeline that began with Cyrus’ ascension to the throne were perhaps the most egregious examples of this policy. This created an environment where pious Muslims yearned, if not so much for an Islamic theocracy, at least for the restoration of Islam. In this sense, the beginning of the revolution was indeed very Islamic—though more on a socio-cultural level than a political one.
Mubarak, on the other hand, wisely left the institution of Islam largely unmolested. While he orchestrated varying degrees of oppression of the MB, piety itself was generally not under assault. Thus the desire for the restoration of Islam is not a factor in Egypt today. In fact, while many Egyptians self-identify as pious Muslims, there is little popular support for an Islamic theocracy.
As alluded to above, Khomeini’s crafting of the Iranian constitution gave him wide-ranging powers to control the electoral field in future elections. In particular, the jurisprudential concept of velayat-e faqih, having a clerical “guardian” with the power to ensure that the government and its laws do not violate the principles of Islam, allowed the Supreme Leader to act as the gatekeeper for virtually every form of political participation. This led first to marginalization of the political left and later to the centrists. Moreover, it provided a virtual guarantee that even if the liberal faction assumed leadership (as under Khatami from 1997 to 2005), any reform that threatened the clerical monopoly of power would be dead on arrival.
This will not happen in Egypt. For one thing, there is no mainstream Sunni equivalent to velayat-e faqih. With the further absence of an MB President or Parliamentary majority in the critical formative period of the new Egyptian government, the likelihood of the structural institutionalization of clerical authority is further diminished. This is particularly relevant given the new constitutional requirement for Parliament, after the elections, to select a commission to draft an entirely new constitution. Moreover, due to the pluralistic nature of Sunni jurisprudence, it is unclear what such an authority would look like, even if, by some miracle, it were implemented.
Internationally, the two countries have fundamentally different relations with both the region and the global community. While many like to point out that both Mubarak and Pahlavi were oppressive dictators propped up by American support, the similarities largely end there. First and foremost, the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 provided the perfect cover for Khomeini’s consolidation of power. On the one hand the clerical regime was able to claim the legitimacy of popular support, both through the peoples’ ratification of a new constitution for the Islamic Republic and the elections that shortly followed. Yet on the other hand, it was able to avail itself of the brutal tactics common to authoritarian regimes, justified by the invocation of a state of emergency. It is highly unlikely that such a scenario will play out in Egypt.
Iran’s relationship vis-à-vis the Middle East was fundamentally different than Egypt’s is today. Iran has consistently sought to be both a religious and political leader in the region. Yet, due both to its Shi’ism and its Persian, rather than Arab, cultural heritage, Iran has largely been an outsider looking in. This has led to Tehran adopting a more aggressive, confrontational posture toward the region.
Egypt, on the other hand, has occupied a central, secular political role in the Middle East since the beginning of the post-colonial era; a role they would no doubt like to continue play. This leadership, steeped in pan-Arabism rather than pan-Islamism, is deeply ingrained in Egyptian identity. Given that Saudi Arabia has long viewed itself as the religious leader in the region, an Islamic republic in Egypt would likely put it on a collision course with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Another critical moment that shaped the trajectory of Iranian politics was the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. While anti-Western rhetoric is a staple of many Islamist movements, the overthrow of Mossadeq was an agonizing instantiation of what for many others was simply general rhetoric. The occupation of Palestine, while painful for many in the Middle East, does not approach the collective trauma to the Iranians caused by the coup. While there is certainly resentment toward the West in Egypt, Western intervention has generally been felt indirectly (it is important here to remember that the United States played a key role in aborting the 1956 invasion launched by Britain, France and Israel). As such, in the current revolution the vast majority of Egyptian animus has been directed at the regime. The Islamic movement has yet to try to harness anti-Western sentiment as a means to gain power. Based on the behavior of the MB to date, it is unlikely that this will happen and, even if it does, it is unlikely it will gain the same traction that the Islamists enjoyed in Iran. The anti-Western rhetoric of the Iranian revolution, coupled with the hostage crisis and the invasion by Washington-backed Iraq created a strategic calculus that almost mandated a break with the West. Egypt, however, has several powerful reasons that militate against such a strategic realignment.
First and foremost, the Egyptian military has a strong incentive to maintain its alliance with the United States. The sale of arms to Egypt is predicated on the prohibition against any modification of materiel once it arrives in Cairo. Thus, the military is dependent on Washington for upkeep and munitions.
The second overriding factor is the geostrategic and global economic significance of the Suez Canal. Washington’s ability in 1956 to rein in its allies was entirely dependent on the Soviet Union’s ability to dissuade Nasser from nationalizing Suez. There is little doubt that Western capitals are furiously drawing up contingency plans, if they haven’t done so already, in case Egypt threatens nationalization again. Even if the political leaders and the MB are unaware of or unconcerned with such a scenario (and the rhetoric coming from the opposition groups indicates that they are keenly aware of the dangers of such a course), the military is highly unlikely to allow such an action to occur.
Finally, Egypt’s treaty with Israel impedes such a strategic realignment. The military has declared in no uncertain terms that Egypt will honor the treaty. Several leaders within the MB have stated their support for Egypt ‘abiding by its international obligations’ (most notably, see the February 9 op-ed in the Washington Post by Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a leading figure in the MB). Thus, without mentioning Israel by name, there are, at the very least, elements within the MB that would fight the abrogation of the treaty (incidentally, this also includes international obligations regarding Suez). This echoes the language of most other opposition leaders as well.
The transition to a stable democracy is not a foregone conclusion. There are many obstacles on the road to freedom, in particular the danger that the military will refuse to cede power to civilian control and maintain the dictatorship or that they will cede power, but only on a limited basis. Nor should these arguments be interpreted as an iron-clad rejection of the possibility of an Islamic Republic in Egypt, as history has an uncanny knack for producing unpleasant surprises. Rather, it is to highlight that the factors that lead to the current Iranian regime are fundamentally different from those that exist in Egypt today. Viewed in this light, the saber-rattling and fear-mongering regarding the threat of an Islamic revolution in Egypt can be seen for what it is. At best, it is an annoying distraction from a serious foreign policy debate that needs to take place; at worst, such rhetoric is a destructive barrier that hampers support for Egypt’s inspirational peaceful uprising and legitimate demand for liberty.
Nathaniel Markowitz has a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), where he majored in human security. His focus was Middle Eastern politics and policy, particularly the intersection between political Islam and democracy. While at the university, he also studied Arabic for three years and interned at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington D.C.
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