Monday, February 07, 2011

Is Egypt The Next Iran?

Democracy or theocratic autocracy? To paraphrase Shakespeare, that's the question and it's the one everyone watching what's going on in Egypt is asking.

Yes, there's a democracy movement in Egypt operating with courage and a commitment to freedom, even if many of the protesters are anti-democratic elements with little enthusiasm for freedom and democracy as we think of it. Michael Totten's piece on the latest post from Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey gives us an inside look at the courage and commitment of some of these people...but it also unintentionally points out how Egypt seems to be traveling the same path that Iran did in 1978-1979.

There is the same optimism among the protesters, the same concentration on ousting an unpopular leader without clear ideas on what comes next, the same lack of leadership - and the same sort of ruthless, well-organized, well directed Islamist elements hovering in the background.

Thirty years ago, the Iranian people poured into the streets demanding that their Shah be ousted. Like the Egyptian protesters today, they also did not have a viable alternative,but were focused strictly on getting rid of an unpopular ruler. And the absence of an organized secular democratic opposition made for a facile takeover by an Islamist movement.

When you talk to people who were in Iran during the Revolution and later went into exile, you find that few of them thought they were rebelling to put a repressive theocracy in place in 1979. Khomeini was a cleric deeply respected as a symbol for his anti-Shah stance, but he was not any kind of designated leader of the entire resistance to the Shah except to his own followers.

But those followers were dedicated, well organized and ruthless, (just like the Muslim Brotherhood) and when it came time to push Mehdi Bazargan and the secular moderates out of the way and take power, they were easily able to do so.

Islam was the hidden, powerful weapon they had on their side, as does the Brotherhood. It tends to condition people to mindless obedience and subservience and its impact, even on people who might not seem particularly devout is not to be underestimated. Again, it's instructive to talk to people who were there, particularly non-Muslims. They'll tell you about the change that occurred in people they had known all their lives almost overnight.

Democracy is more than just one free election. It is a mindset that is committed to individual liberty, dignity and justice for all, and where those traditions don't exist, democracy does not take root. To show you how easily undefined cravings for 'freedom' can be manipulated along more traditional lines, we have Sandmonkey's own evidence of how the Mubarak regime was crafty enough to use common attitudes in Egyptian society to successfully to gain support for itself..the widespread Muslim weakness for feasting on the most bizarre conspiracies, and the equally widespread hatred of Jews and Israel:

"A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that AlJazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir square now were Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT."

Khomeini used similar tactics during the Iranian revolution to demonize those who opposed him and motivate the majority of the Iranian public behind him, accusing the secular regime of being in league with foreign conspiracies and Jews and invoking the banner of Islam, Shia martyrdom and the Twelfth Imam. And enough people swallowed it that the Islamic Republic, the villayat e fiqh became a reality.

In Egypt, the impact may be even more profound. One in four Egyptians is illiterate, including almost 70% of the women. And support for Islamist attitudes is surprisingly prevalent.

Will the military provide a counterbalance to the Muslim Brotherhood? Those counting on that may be in for a rude awakening.

At the time of the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian military was also thought of as rational actors who were pro-American, US trained and would keep things from getting out of hand.The same nonsense about finding a general who could front a military regime as a transition to democracy was being chewed over as an alternative by the Carter Administration as it is by the Obama Administration today. But what happened instead is that the military high command made a devil's bargain with the Islamists to step aside in order to keep their prerogatives.

The same sort of bargain seems to be in the making now with General Suleiman and the army engaged in active negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently with the Obama White House's blessing and active support .

In Iran, similar negotiations with the Iranian military enabled Khomeini to take power. Afterwards, many Iranian military officers were murdered, some fled into exile, and others accommodated themselves to the new regime. And in the end the Khomeini regime had very little trouble recreating Iran's military in its own image.

If all that wasn't enough, a democratic regime is unlikely to take root for another, important reason. Egypt has almost no oil. It has a population of 80 million that it cannot support, half of its food is now imported, the government admits to 12% inflation and per capita income has been declining in real terms for quite some time.

No matter who is in charge, the basic problems of unemployment, high food prices, inflation, corruption and squalor are not going to change overly much. Any regime would be hard pressed to survive in that climate, let alone a new democracy among people unaccustomed to it by history and culture.

Invoking Islam and repression that will make Mubarak seem benign may be the only way a new regime will have keep things in line. That, and a scapegoat to blame their misfortunes on.. and Israel, America and the Jews are already in place for the role thanks to the Qu'ran and generations of government funded anti-Semitic propaganda.

Nothing would make me happier than for the nascent Egyptian democracy movement to prove me profoundly wrong. But I also can't remain blind to the fact that the odds are very much against anything like that happening, and the West had better be preparing contingency plans to deal with the emergence of an Islamist regime in Egypt. And that appears to include dealing with the possibility of a second Islamist nuclear power.

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louielouie said...

this, your third paragraph is confusing:

There is the same optimism among the protesters, the same concentration on ousting an unpopular leader without clear ideas on what comes next, the same lack of leadership - and the same sort of ruthless, well-organized, well directed Islamist elements hovering in the background.

why bring discussions of obama into a matter that is clearly not domestic?

and the West had better be preparing contingency plans to deal with the emergence of an Islamist regime in Egypt.

i believe you are mis-stating the condition. the west, maybe. however, the US is PLANNING on the emergence of an islamist regime. also, expect US subsidies to egypt to increase "if" the m/b comes into power.
what am i talking about, if?

Freedom Fighter said...

Fun-nee, Louie!

B.Poster said...

"Is Egypt the next Iran?" At this point, I'd say probably but far worse. Egypt is the largest Arab country in the Middle East and it controls the valuable Suez Canal. If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, it will likely happen far quicker than in Iran. Also, we've had a long time to get used to not having Iran as an ally. We haven't had much time to adjust to lack of Egyptian support and its unlikely we would have very much time.

Egypt doesn't have to become the next Iran. We could identify groups within the revolution who will work to address the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people and will work with us on our legitimate concerns. Of course this requires the competence on the part of the CIA and other American intellegence services to identify these groups and to get support to them. Do they have this kind of competence? Frankly I doubt it and even if they had the competence I don't think they'd have much interest in such an assignment. I hope and pray I'm wrong of course.

B.Poster said...

"...and the West had better start preparing contingency plans..." I could not agree more. In fact, Ameerica should have already done so. If they'd have listened to me, they would have. I've been warning about Egypt since before the year 2000. Judging by the fumbling reactions of the American government, it appears nobody in a position of power listened to me.

Had this situation with the potentail revloution not arisen Egypt would have eventually cut America loose any way. As such, a situation where Egypt is an enemy or at the very least not supportive was going to be virtually inevitable even had the Mubarak government survived exactly as it was. We should have been looking to implement plan B long ago when we had some control over events.

I do have a question though. Just who is the "West"? If we think of the "West" as Western Europe, why should we expect them to assist us in any way? America is their strategic competitor. As such, any calamity that should befall us no matter how severe such a calamity may be will be viewed by them and their leaders as a good thing. After all any thing that weakens your strategic competitor is a good thing right? At least this is the thinking. Very short-sighted on their part, I think but it is their thinking. As such, expect no help from the "West." America is on its own here.

Rosey said...

uh...what's this about nukes in Egypt?

Freedom Fighter said...

Read the link. Apparently the Egyptians have been working on this on Obama's watch.

Dave Schuler said...

I, too, am concerned that a post-Mubarak Egyptian government will be dominated by the Ikhwan. However, even if that were to be the case I doubt it would become "another Iran".

For one thing there's no unifying figure as there was in Iran post-Shah. But more importantly are the differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Clerics only wield political power very indirectly.

Freedom Fighter said...

Hello Dave,
Actually Khomeini was very influenced by al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb's writing and ideas when he formulated his own ideas for an Islamist state.

A look at what Hamas and Taliban rule looks like is a pretty good view of what Ikhwan rule of Egypt would be like.

One chief difference ( and a minor one in terms of the West)is the emphasis on achieving a global caliphate by the Ikhwan as opposed to paving the way for the Hidden Imam to return and do so, as espoused by Iran's Twelvers.

Again, from our standpoint the difference in moot IMO.