Egypt & Iran: A Comparison of Two Mass Movements
By Ali Ahmadi Motlagh*
The popular uprisings sweeping across Tunisia and Egypt have predictably led to a media frenzy, with numerous observers and commentators attempting to assess not only the immediate future of these nations, but also the long term impact of the upheavals on the political landscape of the Middle East. If the rebellion in Tunisia was initially considered to be an isolated phenomenon, that notion was quickly dispelled by the chaotic scenes in Egypt, where demonstrators demanded the immediate ousting of President Hosni Mubarak after three decades of authoritarian rule.
The significance of these events has not been lost on Iranians both at home and abroad. Occurring just over a year after the mass demonstrations that shook the Islamic Republic in the summer of 2009, anti-government protests in North Africa have naturally invited comparisons with the Green Movement. Through various articles, blog posts, and social media outposts, many Iranians have expressed enthusiasm and support for the movements in Egypt and Tunisia, while lamenting the failure of the 2009 protests to bring about similar changes in Iran. Why is it, most have asked, that the Egyptian and, to a lesser extent, Tunisian protests were successful while the Iranian protests were not?
Aside from the clear historical and socio-economic differences between Egyptian and Iranian society, there are several factors that account for the differing fates of the protest movements in each country. An examination of these factors will illustrate why the Egyptians were able to force a change and the Iranians were not. It will also shed light on the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and the role of the United States in shaping its future.
Motives and Responses
One of the more common arguments put forth to explain the contrasting fortunes of Egyptian and Iranian protesters focuses on the purpose and fervor of protests, as well as the response level of the government. While the Egyptians were no doubt inspired by events in Tunisia and clearly articulated their desire for an end to Mubarak’s regime, what specifically unified the Iranians was outrage over the results of a presidential election. Though some demonstrators eventually called for the ousting of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the end of the Islamic Republic, the desire for regime change was not shared or perhaps simply not expressed on nearly the same level as in Egypt.
More significantly, the Iranian regime’s immediate response was brutal and uncompromising, whereas in Egypt Mubarak seemed unwilling to employ decisive force to stem the uprising, at least at its start. By failing to do so, he essentially emboldened protestors and allowed the rebellion to gain momentum.
Had Mubarak heeded the lessons of the 1979 revolution in Iran, he may not have acted so indecisively. In 1978, with protests against his government gaining steam on the streets of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi faced a similar dilemma and his initial acquiescence to demonstrations proved to be fatal. A day after riots and student clashes with the military on November 4, 1978 (Aban 13), he appeared on television and attempted to appease demonstrators by admitting to previous mistakes and promising more political freedom, famously declaring “I heard the voice of your revolution.” Less than three months later he left the country, never to return.
Mubarak’s recent speech to the Egyptian people, in which he defiantly tried to strike a compromise and strangely expressed regret over granting the people too much freedom, may have differed from the Shah’s approach, but the response he received was much the same. Demonstrators refused to budge from their position and Mubarak’s reluctant offer of peace was swiftly rejected.
The events in Iran in 2009 showed that the efficacy of a government’s response to mass protests is most dependent on the timing and intensity of its aggression. The ferocious crackdown carried out by the Iranian regime had a psychological impact that reached beyond those who were actually brutalized. Dreadful stories about the victims of government forces began circulating among Iranians in the immediate aftermath of the demonstrations, striking fear in the hearts of protesters and working to decrease their numbers with each passing day. In Egypt, the lack of an immediately aggressive response by the government worked to repel public fear, leading to scenes that were never witnessed during the Iranian protests.
Mubarak’s inability to deal with the crisis from the get go was in small part caused by the Egyptian military’s refusal to crack down on protesters. The military is arguably Egypt’s most powerful institution and it had supported Mubarak throughout his entire tenure as president. By siding with demonstrators, the military signaled the end of its alliance with the Mubarak regime and effectively paved the way for his exit. In its handling of the mass protests, the Egyptian military has once again displayed its independence from the civilian political apparatus and demonstrated its status as the most influential establishment in the country. Mubarak’s promotion of three military men to the three highest political positions, a last-ditch attempt to quell the uprising and facilitate a smooth departure, simply confirms the military’s power.
While the downfall of Mubarak’s regime did not pose a grave threat to the military’s interests in Egypt, the Iranian military’s close ties to the government ruled out the possibility of cooperation with protesters. Over the last decade the Iranian military, and in particular the Revolutionary Guard, has become more and more entwined within the economic and political activities of the regime, meaning that it could stand to lose a lot if the regime fell from power. The military in Egypt too shares common interests with the government, but its fate is not tied to that of the regime.
The Egyptian military’s abandonment of Mubarak may remind some of the Iranian army’s declaration of neutrality during protests against the Shah in 1979. It must be remembered, however, that the circumstances were quite different. In the case of 1979 Iran, the army stepped down to avoid disintegration, while in Egypt the military has maintained its structure and managed to keep a measured distance from the government.
One can still argue, however, that Mubarak had other means of unleashing violence upon the protesters, as evidenced by Wednesday’s bloody battles instigated by government-paid thugs and plainclothes police. Why Mubarak refrained from using all the forces at his disposal at an earlier time remains open to debate, though one factor that must be considered is Egypt’s special relationship with the United States.
Relations with the United States
It is no secret that the United States has been a staunch supporter and generous sponsor of Mubarak’s regime for the past thirty years. Since Egypt signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the Unites States has provided it with an annual average of $1.3 billion in military aid, mainly to maintain Arab-Israeli peace and curb Iran’s growing influence in the region. Working within this arrangement, the United States has continuously turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s repressive policies over the years. This time, however, the scale and vigor of the protests have been impossible to ignore, especially since they occurred on the heels of an uprising in Tunisia that ousted another U.S. ally.
Given the U.S. stance on the Iranian protests and its full support of the Egyptian government as a long-standing ally, a heavy-handed response by Mubarak would have put the Unites States in an embarrassing and hypocritical position. Mubarak was unable to act decisively in large part because he was forced to consider how his efforts to maintain power would affect U.S. interests. The Iranian regime had no such concerns in dealing with protestors, or so the argument goes, because it did not feel obliged to answer to any foreign power. If anything, the regimedismissed the demonstrations as machinations of outside forces, particularly the United States and England, aimed at undermining the Iranian nation.
The antagonistic relationship between the United States and Iran has continuously provided both sides with a bogeyman and the Iranian regime used this relationship to great effect in its efforts to neutralize the Green Movement. Mubarak was unable to resort to such measures, thanks to his steadfast partnership with the United States and his uneasy regional alliance with Israel.
Compelling as these arguments may be, one should be careful not to overestimate U.S. influence on the unpredictable trajectory of the popular mass movements in Egypt and Iran. Just as the U.S. government’s vocal support for Iranian protesters did little to affect the outcome of those demonstrations, there is little the United States can do in Egypt aside from ensuring the installation of a new government friendly to its interests in the region. Ultimately, short of direct military intervention, U.S. policy will have to adapt to the changing realities on the street. Unfortunately for Mubarak, it seems that the street has sealed his fate.
The Future of U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Going forward, it will be interesting to see if and how the Unites States will reshape its policy in Egypt, knowing it must tread carefully to win the “hearts and minds” of the populace without alienating friendly regimes in the region. Other governments will be watching closely as the United States formulates its strategy for dealing with change in Egypt. While Mubarak has been a long-time ally, the United States maintains friendships with a number of other Middle Eastern autocrats. As the United States scrambles to protect its interests, several Arab leaders have already moved to defuse dissent and prevent similar uprisings in their countries.
The Egyptian movement’s firm rejection of Mubarak’s appeal for eight more months in office has further complicated the U.S. position. If the United States complies with the public’s demands and attempts to push Mubarak out immediately, it will bolster opposition groups in other countries and send a disturbing message to the United States’ authoritarian allies in the Middle East. Should it fail to support protestors, the United States’ proclamations about democracy will be rendered hollow and its image tarnished across the globe. Yet at the same, the United States cannot openly back Egypt’s demonstrators and accept the end of the U.S.-sponsored Mubarak regime without swallowing a healthy portion of humble pie.
As far as Iran is concerned, it would be overly optimistic to think that the Egyptian uprising will inspire another mass movement in the country. As reports have demonstrated, the Iranian government has and will likely continue to portray the events as another example of Islamic ideals clashing with U.S. imperialism. Far from being fearful of renewed protests, the regime in Iran may in fact be delighted with the downfall of Mubarak, a regional rival with which it has had no diplomatic relations for nearly 30 years.
Having weathered its own storm of protests, the Iranian regime now finds itself in a relatively stable position, while the United States and the Egyptian military struggle to cope with a new order. As the battle rages on in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the United States must make crucial choices about its policies in the Middle East and decide whether its continued support of authoritarian regimes remains feasible.
*Ali Ahmadi Motlagh is Muftah’s Iran editor