Monday, February 14, 2011

Comparing Egypt with Iran

Egyptian Revolution Stirs Raw Emotions in Iran

By Farnaz Fassihi
The Wall Street Journal
12 February 2011

The reign of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak collapsed on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

It's an irony not lost to Iranians obsessively following the uprising in Egypt and drawing parallels to two popular uprisings in their own nation—the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 2009 pro-democracy protests.

For many, Egypt has stirred raw emotions Iranians know so well: the pride of people empowerment, the thrill of creating history, the anticipation of what tomorrow might bring.

But many Iranians are also cautiously thinking what happens next in Egypt is just as important as the victory today. Will the revolution fulfill its promises? Or will it go astray?

Iran's state television broadcast the news of Mr. Mubarak's resignation under the headline of "Between Two Revolutions: Iran 1979 and Egypt 2011."

A split screen replayed images of protests in Cairo against Mr. Mubarak and those in Tehran three decades ago against the Shah. It cut back and forth between speeches from each leader as they attempted to cling to power on their final days.

As Egyptians had Mr. Mubarak, Iranians had the Shah as a target of their rage. And like Mr.Mubarak, his end was drawn out with a serious of concessions and hasty promises of reform.

The seeds of Iran's 1979 revolution that deposed the dictatorial monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were sown by the promise of democracy and freedom. The Islamists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini functioned as an umbrella group for a hodge-podge of other oppositions—from seculars to communists—but at the end they triumphed. Islam was injected into the aftermath little by little, layer upon layer.

I was a child when the Islamic revolution declared victory in Iran 32 years ago this month. But my memories are crystal clear, perhaps because even a child can tell when events around you have historic proportions.

Like the scenes of wild jubilance in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday, with crowds jumping up and down in joy and waving the Egyptian flag, similar emotions erupted across Iran.

An announcement was made on television, our neighborhood exploded with cheers and chants of "God is great." My family stuck their heads out of the window of our apartment building screaming the nationalist song "Ey Iran" and frantically waved a giant flag.

They skipped the stairs of our apartment building three to one, my little sister and I running behind them, to go dance in Valli Asr Avenue, the focal point of all demonstrations in Tehran, then and now. Our entire neighborhood was on the street, jumping up and down. I remember tears streaming down my uncle's face and my grandmother handing out caramel candy wrapped in bright colored foil.

In the following years, as the revolution defined its path, my family ultimately left Iran and settled in the U.S.

Three decades later, Iran is still grappling with how to fuse democracy with religion and ideology. Iranians have differing views of how the revolution fared and whether it fulfilled its promises.

The regime maintains that after three decades the Islamic Republic has emerged stronger than it ever was under the Shah, influencing policy from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

Iranian officials have openly taken credit for inspiring what they call "an Islamic awakening" in the Middle East. It's a characterization rejected by Egyptian activists and even Islamist opposition parties.

In the conservative website Rajanews, columnist Ataollah Beiglari wrote that "Islam will undoubtedly play a big role in the future of Egypt and we will be looking to forge close bonds with our Egyptian brothers.

One reader of ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper named Ali Mardani, wrote in the comment section, "The people of Iran have to praise God that their revolution has led the way for other nations to rise against dictators."

But many other Iranians feel differently, especially supporters of the Green Movement Opposition led by former revolutionaries Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

"What we have now in the name of the revolution is neither a republic nor Islamic," Mr.Karroubi told me in an interview at his house last year.

The night Egypt's revolution declared victory on Friday, Sahar Moghadam, an Iranian-American in Washington, D.C., wrote on her Facebook page: "Getting rid of a dictator is one thing, making sure another one doesn't take over is another."

Dr. Shabnam Salehzadeh, in New York, summed it up, "The irony of it all brings me to tears. Today the people of Iran aren't even free enough to view Egypt's history in the making due to blocked and censored coverage."

The opposition Green Movement has been invigorated by events in Tunis and Cairo, and supporters say that Mr. Mubarak's fall could serve as a final call to action. It is unclear how widespread those feelings are, but one test will come Monday.

Massive antigovernment protests are planned across Iran in solidarity with a new democratic beginning in the Middle East. The government has pledged to stop them, saying it creates divisions among the public.

Even the protest destination shares the same name. Egyptians gather at Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, and Iranians want to flock to Azadi, or Freedom, Square on Monday.

The scenes of wild celebrations take me back to 1979, but the demands of the Egyptian protesters mirror what I heard in the streets of Tehran in the spring of 2009 when I covered the elections and its aftermath. Like Egyptians, Iranians were chanting for democracy, freedom of speech and a more open society.

Egypt, with a dynamic and diverse population and deep economic ties to the international community, could possibly emerge as a democratic nation. That outcome could influence Iran.

The opposition admits it faces formidable challenges. For one thing, it doesn't have a clear goal: does it want to reform the existing regime, as old guards say, or overhaul the system, as younger activists demand?

It also faces a regime that has shown resolve in cracking down on dissent and has already taken pre-emptive measures for Monday's antigovernment protest. It has deployed antiriot guard in Tehran, placing Mr. Karroubi under house arrest and arresting at least six prominent opposition figures.

"There is a belief that Egypt and Iran are the only two real nations in the Middle East, and the rest are simply 'tribes with flags,' says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If Egypt is able to achieve representative government—still a big question mark—it could dramatically alter the regional dynamics of the last three decades."

The Shah of Iran is buried in Cairo inside the historical Al-Rifai mosque. He died in exile soon after the revolution. A giant Iranian flag flutters above his tombstone of cool marble enshrined with the ancient Persian emblem of the lion and Sun. No one could have imagined three decades after his fall, an opposition would spring up and look to Cairo to pave the way for a democratic Iran.

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