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The Specter Of 1979 Is Haunting The Middle East

  • Christian Caryl

An Iranian woman marks the anniversary of the 1979 return to Tehran of Ayatollah Khomeini.

An Iranian woman marks the anniversary of the 1979 return to Tehran of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As the world watches events in Egypt unfold, the spectacle of demonstrators massed on Cairo's Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) is awakening memories of an equally epochal moment in the Middle East 32 years ago. Back then the country at stake was Iran.

The parallels with Egypt today are striking. Iran at the end of the 1970s was also a key U.S. ally in the Middle East ruled by an autocrat who had maintained his hold on power for decades. Like today's Hosni Mubarak, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi shored up his rule with a vast military and security apparatus, and defied popular sentiment by establishing a working relationship with Israel.

Now, as Mubarak battles for political survival, many observers are looking back to that earlier period and wondering whether history is repeating itself. Speculation is focusing on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist organization that has so far made a point of keeping to the background during the current turmoil. That hasn't prevented some pessimists from seeing the Brotherhood as a 21st-century version of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolutionary clerics.

Ghost Of Jimmy Carter

In the United States, critics of President Barack Obama's cautious policy toward Mubarak accuse him of repeating the mistakes of Jimmy Carter, who destabilized the shah by sending mixed messages. One editorial in the conservative "The Washington Times," even warned Obama to "draw down the number of personnel in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo" to avoid a "rerun" of the Iran hostage crisis that doomed Carter's 1980 reelection.

Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), one of the president's leading foreign policy allies, invoked the example of Iran when he issued a call for Mubarak to step down -- the highest-ranking U.S. official to do so in such direct terms. "We built an important alliance with a free Philippines by supporting the people when they showed Ferdinand Marcos the door in 1986," Kerry wrote in a commentary published in "The New York Times." "But we continue to pay a horrible price for clinging too long to Iran's shah."

In Iran itself, meanwhile, the leaders of the Islamic republic have been quick to portray the wave of uprisings sweeping through the Arab world as a replay of the popular discontent that toppled the shah. They've been applauding the grassroots uprisings against "Western-backed dictators in the Arab world" (as one ayatollah put it on January 28) and as a vote for Islamic rule -- even though religious groups and slogans have been mostly notable by their absence during the recent protests.

What About 2009?

Yet the parallels may only go so far. David Lesch, an American historian of the Middle East, wrote a book about the year 1979 and its impact on the politics of the region. As he points out, one could just as easily draw an analogy between the present wave of discontent and the so-called Green Revolution that swept Iran in the wake of disputed presidential elections in 2009.

"It's the height of hypocrisy for the Iranian government to applaud these protest movements because, of course, they put one down fairly brutally in Iran in the summer of 2009," Lesch says. "The way they see it right now is in a very strategic fashion in terms of hopefully getting rid of regimes and leaders who were absolutely arrayed against Iran."

As for fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting to follow in Khomeini's footsteps, some observers note that today's Brotherhood appears to be a very different organization from the network of clerics and religious revolutionaries that seized power in Iran in 1979. In recent years, despite a long history of persecution by the Egyptian government, the Brotherhood has participated in elections and repeatedly expressed a commitment to pluralism and democratic norms. (Skeptics dismiss this as window dressing, designed to conceal the group's real aspirations to seize power and implement authoritarian Islamic rule.)

'No Ayatollahs In The Wings'

There are important organizational differences, too. Analyst Geneive Abdo, writing in "Foreign Policy" magazine, points out that the Iranian Revolution had a charismatic leader in the person of Khomeini. The protesters in Egypt, by contrast, seem to have had no clear leadership at all. Ex-CIA analyst Emile Nakleh, writing in the British newspaper "Financial Times," notes of Egypt that "[t]here are no ayatollahs waiting in the wings."

Western fears about a "replay" of the 1979 Islamic Revolution tend to ignore another simple point: the world has changed. In 1979 Islamic revolutionaries were an unfamiliar phenomenon. Over the past 30 years, however, the world has watched Iran's revolutionary regime maneuver itself into an economic and political dead end, imitating the shah as it brutally suppresses political opponents.

In other parts of the world, Islamist movements have ground themselves down in fruitless terrorist campaigns or bloody internecine conflicts. When Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from exile last week, he was at pains to distance himself from the models of the past: "Some Western media portray me like [Ayatollah] Khomeini, but that's not me," he told a welcoming crowd in Tunis. "I am no Khomeini."

Still No Jobs

Historian Lesch does see one striking continuity between past and present, however. Egypt and many other countries across the Middle East remain mired in the same socioeconomic mess that haunted Iran and its people back in the 1970s. The Egyptian government, exactly like the shah's, has been successful at giving young people free education in state-run colleges and universities, but inept at creating an economy that produces jobs for them when they graduate.

"They're not getting those jobs they expected, they're not getting the rewards they expected," Lesch says. "It's that gap that you have to measure. It's not absolute poverty. The poor -- the peasants who are uneducated, illiterate, their parents were poor, their children will be poor -- they're not the ones that are filing out on the streets as much, although that could happen, and that would raise the stakes even more. It's the educated youth who are so frustrated and angry, and it's that gap that creates that anger. You see it in Tunisia; you see it in Egypt; and it exists in most of the Arab countries."

Thirty years later, in other words, the Middle East still finds itself struggling to overcome the same basic dilemma that led to the downfall of the shah. One can only hope that the Egyptian people, and the next generation of Arab leaders, can find a fresh solution to the problem.

Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief editor in Washington and a contributing editor to "Foreign Policy." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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