Alireza Ahmadian: Iranian and Egyptian revolutions: perspectives of a child of the Islamic Republic

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By Alireza Ahmadian

“Revolution devours its own children,” argued Georges Danton, the celebrated French revolutionary who was eventually executed.

The Arab Spring’s euphoria that came with the overthrow of autocratic leaders is being replaced with fear of Islamist’s take over, sectarianism, and civil wars.

In 1979, Iranians overthrew the Shah. He cracked down on political rights. People of all political persuasions participated in the revolution that promised democracy.

However, Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini stole the revolution. They used the promises of democracy and waged a campaign against others, such as secularists and liberals, whom they falsely associated with the former regime.

I was born two years after the revolution. The Islamic Republic wanted my generation to believe democracy is a Western plot to destabilize Iran and contaminate Iranian culture. In its lexicon liberal is a dirty word. The revolution that drew my father’s generation to the streets in search for freedom and equal opportunity forced me to leave Iran.

I am now residing in Canada. I believe the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions were different. However, both countries experienced the rise of Islamism, a social movement to reinterpret Islam and apply it to everyday life.

Organizational strength and internal unity is the key to Islamists’ success. It is true that Islamism has solid constituents; however, they are not the majority anywhere. For instance, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood represents approximately 25 percent of the electorate.

In Iran and Egypt the rise to power of Islamists, in the early stages of revolutions, came through the ballot box. However, Islamists rejected including others in their governments. The opposition parties, Islamists argued, were unable to win in the ballot box and had no rights to be included in the political processes. Governing in a majoritarian manner is a character of Islamists.

As Sarah Leah Whitson contends “elections are only one measure of a successful transition to democracy. Protecting the rights to free speech, assembly, and association, and insisting on accountability for police abuse, are also critically important.”

Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies used the promises of democracy to take power. Once in government, they started kicking the very democracy that helped them usurp power. They then consolidated their authority by introducing new restrictive rules and regulations that prevented, if not banned, the possibility of the creation of an alternative to their rule.

Does it sound familiar? The Muslim Brotherhood’s history of taking undemocratic actions includes, but is not limited, to President Mohammed Morsi’s decree on November 22, 2012, that put his presidential edicts above judicial scrutiny. He assumed far-reaching powers to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution". Also, he rushed a referendum, against the wishes of the opposition, on a draft constitution, drawn up by Islamists, and widely seen as undemocratic.

The Egyptian revolution was a mass movement with an inclusive nature that brought different interests and political views together. It was not a Brotherhood’s revolution and they cannot claims its ownership.

Egyptians are rightly concerned that a society governed based on a particular interpretation of Islam poses serious threats to freedom of expression, religion, cultural liberty, and women’s rights.

That is exactly what happened in Iran when Ayatollah Khomeini’s version of Islam was imposed on both Muslims and non-Muslims. Egypt’s new constitution, in the words of Salafi leader Yasser Borhami, is full of restrictions—“which never existed in earlier Egyptian constitutions”—and is a step toward Islamisizing the country.

In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini’s consolidation on power greatly benefited from a divided opposition that was willing to betray one another. The Islamists pitted different opponents against one another and used different tactics, culminating in the mass execution of political prisoners, to make sure no one opposed their regime.

The lesson for the Egyptians, concerned about the rise of Islamism, is that they should find a strategy to facilitate long-term collaboration among different political groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood survived eight decades of suppression by different governments, and imposes strict party discipline on its members to guarantee unity. However, the opposition is fragmented.

The personality clashes and individual ambitions of opposition leaders coupled with incoherent strategies and programmatic differences, especially in the economic field, hinder the establishment of a viable alternative to the Brothers. Opposition parties must learn to work with one another; otherwise, their divisions guarantee the Brothers’ continuous electoral victory and Islamisization of Egypt.

Egypt is a religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse country. If Egyptians want stability, their government must be inclusive and accommodate diversity. Islamist, liberal, secular, and Christian parties represent different sections of the Egyptian society. Eliminating or marginalizing any of them jeopardizes long-term stability and hinders the process of democratization because each represents a sizeable constituency.

Alireza Ahmadian is an Iranian Canadian political commentator with a master's of arts in international studies and diplomacy from SOAS University of London. Ahmadian is also a commentator on BBC Persian TV and Radio, and has been published by the Foreign Policy Association blog, openDemocracy, and the BBC Persian blog.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Amy Azing
Excellent overview of the picture with a great comparison between the Iranian and Egyptian case.
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Navid
A thoughtful comparison of two revolutions in two eras. Although there are many distinctions between the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 2011 Egyptian revolution, one big lesson for the Egyptian people, activists and political elite to learn from the Iranian revolution is to stand firmly in front of any wave that tries to slowly take over the values that they've been struggling for. I personally think due to lack of experience of an ideologic government in Egypt, Egyptians may have some desire to move towards islamists, and in 30 years or so, end up where the Iranians are. But I'd like to keep my hopes up and wish them not to lose their sense of responsibility at this very important point in their history.
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Geoff
Well Written piece. I wonder if the Egyptians know what they are getting themselves into by following blindly their heart.
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Niv
That was a brilliant comparison of the two revolutions. I think their similarities are more evident to us ;however, the author lists the differences in great detail.

The Egyptians should keep their eyes open and make sure that they don't go through the same catastrophic experience that Iranians did.
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