Egypt Through the Lens of Iran’s 1979 Revolution

TIME – Feb 2011: Ever since the crowds flooded into Tahrir Square, I’ve begun talking to the living-room television. “Drop that hand!” I shouted at the raised fist of a pro-Mubarak thug a few days ago.  We, as in young Iranians, flooded Tehran’s own equivalent of Liberation Square, Azadi, on the same exact day 32 years ago. I was 12 at the time, but the events of that year remain my existential paradox, my life’s most cherished trauma.  Comparisons between Iran and Egypt abound and the guessing goes on as to what number Egypt’s needle truly points on the Iranian time scale: 1979, or 2009 — the year the Green movement took the streets of Tehran. One of the dozen exuberant wallposts on my facebook page on Friday reads: “Egypt did it in 18 days. Iran will do it in a week!” Egypt is not Iran.

Today’s Egyptian democratic forces ought to heed the errors of their Iranian counterparts from 1979. Above all because those errors were, by and large, not rooted in malice or ignorance but in good intentions. The first misstep of the Iranian secular movement came as early as 1978, when they blindly embraced a union with the religious opposition, having been perfectly disarmed by them. When the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini said that he had no political ambitions, and that, once the Shah was gone, his only wish was to hunker down with a Koran at a seminary in Qom, everyone believed him. The few who were smart enough not to believe the Ayatollah made the common mistake smart people often make: they underestimated the intelligence of others. They were confident that they could outmaneuver the Ayatollah. Iranians allowed themselves to be manipulated. The regime cowed them into making concessions by preying on their fears — of the return of the Shah, or the staging of a coup by his loyalists within the army. Instead of remaining uncompromising on the issues that defined them, they made compromises and bought into piecemeal, gradual, interim promises.

In the end, the religious proved too smart to be outwitted by the secular. It made no claim to power until it had fully seized it — a quest fueled by bloodshed and extraterritorial ambitions.  Let us hope that the new, wired generation of Egypt will remain as vigilant in seeing their victory through as they had been in bringing it about.

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