This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 11/02/2011
For three weeks, Iran’s state-owned media have been making a song and dance about “Islamic revolution” in Egypt.
The claim is that the protestors inn Tahrir Square in Cairo are “spiritual children” of Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who seized power in Tehran 32 years ago.
Here is how daily Kayhan put it:
“Khomeini’s Islam has become the axis of events and developments in the Third Millennium. A powerful Islamic bloc is emerging under Iran’s leadership.”
Notice that the editorialist, presumably a devoted Islamist , is referring to the Third Millennium of the Christian era!
Also notice that what matter for him is “Khomeini’s Islam” not Islam as such.
Last Friday, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi came out of the purdah to present himself as “The Leader of Muslims In The World” and, in two speeches, one in Persian the other in a hesitant Arabic, claimed that Tunisians and Egyptians had risen “under the banner of our revolution.”
The fact that the Khomeinist regime has no presence in Tunisia or Egypt, not even an embassy, did not stop that outlandish claim.
The Khomeinist regime is desperate to find at least some echo of its bizarre ideology somewhere, anywhere.
In March 1980, Khomeini claimed that “very soon” the tide of his revolution would “sweep the Muslim world.”
Thirty-two years later, the promised tide has not reached a single Muslim nation.
The only things that we have are the Lebanese Hezbollah, and as far as Egypt is concerned, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Even then, Hezbollah is more of a confederacy of hired guns than a genuine political movement. And ElBaradei is a dunce trying to hedge his bets by wooing the Americans.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have nothing in common with the mullahs’ seizure of power in 1979. They are more like the anti-Khomeinist revolts of 2009 following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.
Iran’s fate under Khomeinist despotism has become a warning not an example.
Tunisians and Egyptians are neither blind nor deaf. They have seen and heard what has happened to Iran and its peoples under the mullahs.
They have heard of mass executions, over 100,000 in the first three years of the regime alone, and the deaths of one million in the eight-year war against Iraq. In the past two months alone, the regime has executed 102 people, including women and children.
Tunisians and Egyptians also know that the Khomeinist regime is responsible for what the World Bank describes as “the largest brain drain” in history.
In addition, almost 10 per cent of Iran’s population have fled the country in the past three decades, the biggest migration in Iranian history.
The next reason why Tunisia and Egypt will not go the way Iran went is that political parties in those countries have not repeated the mistakes of their Iranian counterparts.
In Iran in 1979 all political parties dissolved their identity witihin that of Khomeini. Democrats accepted “walayat al-faqih” or rule by the mullahs. Communists went to mosques to pray. Feminist ladies donned black burqas and bowed to gender apartheid.
In Tunisia and Egypt, however, all parties have maintained their identity to avoid dissolution in an amorphous mass of mobs mad with revolution.
Iran’s 1979 upheaval came at a time that the idea of revolution still retained its mystique. That mystique disappeared with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and China’s absorption into the global capitalist system. ‘Che’ Guevara no longer attracts anyone, not even as a poster.
Since 1979, a total of 113 countries have morphed into capitalist democracies in various stages of development.
Today, even Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt try to be different. Neither An-Nahda nor the Muslim Brotherhood regard Islam as a poison that should be pumped down their peoples’ throats by force.
The “unity” that Iran saw under Khomeini could only lead to despotism. In Iran in 1979, there was room for just one ideology that, as events showed, could only be imposed by force. Political diversity in Tunisia and Egypt will lead to pluralism.
Khomeinism was angry that there were too many social and cultural freedoms in Iran under the Shah, not too little. Tunisian and Egyptian protestors, however, want more freedoms not less.
More importantly, perhaps, the Shah’s regime was structured around one man. When that man decided to leave rather than stay and fight, the whole structure disintegrated. In February 1979, power in Iran was like a box of jewels abandoned in a street, waiting for someone to pick it up. The mullahs picked up the box without a fight.
In Tunisia and Egypt the demise of a president has not led to the collapse of the whole regimes.
Tunisian and Egyptian armies have declared “neutrality” as did their Iranian counterpart in 1979.
However, in 1979, the “neutrality” of Iran’s army was an act of abdication. This is not the case in Tunisia and Egypt where the army is “neutral” between a shaken despot and a street in revolt, but not neutral when it comes to the defence of the state.
In the case of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has held his nerve to allow a national dialogue to get under way.
In the case of Tunisia, we may have witnessed a coup in which army chiefs forced President Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali to leave.
So, if Tunisia and Egypt today are not like Iran of 32 years ago, are they following some other model?
In last week’s column I suggested that labelling the Tunisian and Egyptian events as revolutions was premature.
What we may end up with in both cases is change within the regime rather than regime change as was the case in Iran.
Each in its own way, Tunisia and Egypt may be following the model developed in a number of Asian and Latin American countries in which autocratic regimes based on the armed forces gradually evolved into democracies.
This was the case in South Korea and Taiwan and, more recently, Indonesia. It has also been the case in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Guatemala among others.
The process goes something like this: an autocracy evolves into a plutocracy that allows a widening space for dissent that, in turn, succeeds in broadening its base. In the meantime, economic success produces a larger middle class, the key ingredient for pluralist politics.
Thanks to economic development and inclusion in the global trading system, all the countries mentioned ended up looking like their democratic partners.
In every case, however, a popular movement for reform maintained the necessary pressure to achieve change of direction. Without political reform there could be economic growth but not genuine economic development. This is why the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia and the freedom fest in Tahrir Square were needed to provide the necessary pressure to get the country out of an historical impasse.