For Iran, both hope and danger in Egypt

February 7, 2011

Daniel Brumberg

      Strategically, Iran is hedging its position on the new Middle East turmoil.
 
      The theocrats like to publicly portray the democratic revolts in Tunisia and
Egypt as an Islamist tsunami sweeping away corrupt autocracies to replace
them with Islamic regimes. But the same leaders are also nervous about doing
or saying anything that might, in turn, encourage Iran's own opposition
movements.
 
      Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei heralded Egypt's "Islamic
awakening. The Egyptian nation has achieved great honors in the path of
Islamic struggle and promoting innovative Islamic thoughts," he said. "There
is no doubt that this nation will not tolerate the treachery of its leaders
and will confront them."
 
       The supreme leader also cautioned, however, that Iran would not "get engaged
and wake up a nation such as the Egyptian nation to its duties."
 
       Tehran appears to be as concerned that Egypt's popular rebellion echoes--and
might even inspire-Iran's opposition Green Movement. Iran witnessed mass
protests that lasted six months in 2009 before they were quashed. The
theocrats may see more similarities between Egypt and Iran's 2009 revolt
than the Islamic revolution of 1979.
 
       The leaders of Iran's Green Movement have been thinking along the same
lines. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi made the analogy. "Today the
slogan of 'Where is my vote?' of the Iranian people is echoed in the slogan
of 'The people demand the overthrow of the regime' in Cairo, Suez, and
Alexandria," he said.
 
       Iran's opposition has even demanded that its supporters get the same right
to peacefully protest that Egyptians have gained since January 25. Its
admonitions have exposed the deep contradictions behind the regime's support
for Egypt's democratic movement.
 
       But there are also significant differences between the Iranian
and Egyptian opposition movements that explain why Egypt's protestors may
achieve more success than their Iranian counterparts.
 
      The core difference is in the ideology and political divide between the
regime and the opposition. Iran is an Islamist regime. Its attempts to
impose rigid religious dogma have provoked a backlash particularly among the
young, who have called in large numbers for democracy and a state that does
not force feed religion-both threats to the Islamic Republic's identity. For
the theocrats, any negotiation with the opposition would undermine
the ideological purity of the revolution.
 
      Egypt, by contrast, has a largely secular government without a central
ideology. Its rulers have long governed through a mix of nationalism,
Arabism, hobbled state-managed pluralism and state-managed (and at times
promoted) Islamism. Its ruling class is also fragmented in ways that open up
space for a negotiated transition. And Egypt's army differs in many
ways from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary Basij. The latter two
groups see themselves as defenders of ideological orthodoxy, whereas Egypt's
army espouses a more pragmatic, nationalist ethos that is not necessarily
adverse to some of the popular demands advanced by Egypt's protestors.
 
      Islamists are important actors in Egyptian politics and society, but
secularists, nationalists, labor activists and others are equally important.
And ten percent of the population is Christian. Egypt's Islamists may emerge
as the strongest opposition force, but what they seek is influence over
national policy-particularly in the educational, legal and moral
spheres-rather than direct rule. In contrast to Iran's leaders, who espouse
an interpretation of Shi'ite Islam that places ultimate authority in the
clergy, Egypt's Sunni Muslim Brethren a largely lay political activists.
While they want Islam to have a role in public life, they do not want to
create an Iranian-style theocracy.
 
      Although Iran has claimed partial credit for Egypt's uprising, the political
outcome in Cairo may actually be discomforting for Tehran. The Egyptian
opposition has called for democracy that provides participation,
representation and pluralism. The Muslim Brotherhood has even urged "civil
rule" and said it will not run a presidential candidate.
 
       Moreover, the United States and its allies in the West could even get credit
for helping facilitate the transfer of power. And any new government in
Cairo is likely to continue to have relations with Washington, even if they
are not as close.
 
       The significant differences between Egypt and Iran make it unlikely that
Iran's leaders will tolerate any kind of political opening in the near
future. Indeed, even as Iran's leaders   applaud the "Muslim masses" and
bless Egypt's uprising as a harbinger of Islamic revolution in the entire
region, they rejected the Green Movement's request to hold a march to show
solidarity with "the freedom-seeking movement embarked on by Tunisian and
Egyptian people against their autocratic governments."
 
 
Daniel Brumberg is a senior advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at USIP, where he also served as acting director of USIP's Muslim World Initiative.