By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI
Egypt’s revolution has been reverberating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, terrifying every dictator and authoritarian ruler, from those of Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia to Algeria and beyond. Jordan’s King Abdullah II hurriedly sacked his prime minister and appointed a new one, ordered an increase subsidies for basic commodities to benefit the poor, increased the salaries of government workers, announced his support for democratic reforms, and invited the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to take part in a new cabinet. The Front, which enjoys the support of about 30 percent of Jordanians, turned down the invitation, saying that Marouf al-Bakhit, the new prime minister and a former army general, is incapable of implementing true reforms.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, promised his country’s parliament that he would not seek reelection in 2013 when his current term expires nor try to hand power over to his son. This is the same man who up until a month ago was trying to amend Yemen’s constitution to make himself president for life. It remains to be seen whether he will live up to his promise not to run again, as he has made similar pledges before, most recently in 2005, only to change his mind.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised to implement reforms by the end of the year. He has said that his nation is in a better position than Egypt and Tunisia because it has no ties with Israel, and his regime is not supported by the United States. February 4 was supposed to be the “day of rage” in Syria, with demonstrations against the government, but they did not materialize, presumably due to the heavy presence of security forces, as well as rain.
There have been demonstrations in Algeria, where a military coup in January 1992 that was supported by the United States and France prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from coming to power after it won elections the previous month. The result was a civil war in which at least 200,000 people were killed. At least three people have died of self-immolation during the past month. The government has stepped up purchases of wheat and other foods, fearing that what happened in Tunisia will happen in Algeria too. A national “day of rage” has been set for February 12. The government has already retreated by ending a state of emergency under which the country had been ruled for almost 20 years.
Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Abdullah, seems to be terrified by what is happening in the Middle East. On January 29, he called Hosni Mubarak to express his strong support. He accused foreigners of infiltrating the protests in Egypt to threaten its stability and security in the name of freedom of expression. Religious dictators who somehow see themselves as God’s representatives on earth seem either not to get the people’s message, or to get it only when it is too late.
The national “day of rage” for Bahrain has been set for February 14. Bahrain, where the the U.S. 5th Fleet is headquartered, is ruled by the Al Khalifa family, a Sunni tribe in a country in which two-thirds of the people are Shiites.
The Libyan people are supposed to have their national “day of rage” on February 12. Since Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2003, we have not heard much about the lack of democracy and violations of human rights there. In fact, Libya was rewarded by a 2004 state visit by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair who offered training to the country’s military. Libya reciprocated the favor by awarding oil contracts to British Petroleum. Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi called Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, “my friend.”
However, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have reverberated more deeply in Iran than anywhere else. At first, the hardliners were cautious and did not know how to react. After all, these are the same nations that the hardliners and conservatives have tried to befriend for years. Majles Speaker Ali Larijani met with Mubarak in Cairo in December 2009. Over the past several months, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s representative, Hamid Baghaei, has conveyed a personal message from the president to Yemen’s Saleh and traveled to Egypt.
Ahmadinejad has dispatched his chief of staff and in-law Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to Jordan with a message for King Abdullah, and he has often expressed his hope of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Egypt. Ahmadinejad was supposed to visit Tunisia himself in 2005, but after he spoke against Israel, his trip was cancelled.
At the same time, the absence of significant participation by any Islamic group in Tunisia’s revolution and in the first week of Egypt’s worried the hardliners. Their great “hope” for Tunisia was Rachid Ghanouchi who leads the Ennahdha (Renaissance) Party and lived in exile in London for years. On January 30, after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, he flew back to Tunisia from London, where he lived in exile for years. Upon arrival, however, he declared, “Some Western media portray me like [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, but that’s not me.” He also said, “Why do people want to compare me to [Osama] bin Laden or Khomeini, when I am closer to Erdogan?” The reference was to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim who has preserved Turkey’s secular democracy. That dashed the hopes of Tehran’s hardliners and conservatives of identifying a new Khomeini in an Arab nation that had experienced a popular revolt.
Several hardliners expressed their dismay at the lack of visible presence of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters in the first week of the revolution in Egypt. Parviz Sarvari, a hardline Majles deputy and member of the legislature’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee (NFSPC), said, “The fundamental problem in Egypt and Tunisia is lack of leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood is still cautious, which is not acceptable, and the United States’s efforts on behalf of [Mohamed] ElBaradei has created some concerns.” Mohammad Saeedi, the Imam of Friday Prayers in Qom, declared, “The protestors in Tunisia and Egypt do not have a leader. The people of these two nations should know that Ayatollah Khamenei is leader of the world’s Muslims, and they should obey him.” Ahmad Khatami, hardline Imam of Friday Prayers in Tehran claimed that the revolution in Tunisia represents the “aftershock” of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, but did not identify the new movement’s leader. In another speech, Khatami expressed his hope that Islamic leaders will soon emerge in Tunisia and Egypt and “alleviate our concerns.”
But it was when many Iranians began likening the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to what happened in Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election that the hardliners started getting really worried. Then Mir Hossein Mousavi issued a statement praising the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and declaring their revolutions a continuation of Iran’s Green Movement. The hardliners began attacking him fiercely, calling him and Mehdi Karroubi the “Green Pharaohs.” The website Raja News, controlled by Fatemeh Rajabi, a hardline Ahmadinejad supporter, referred to Mousavi’s statement as a “hallucination” and asserted, “Those who protested Iran’s presidential election were Westernized and their leaders have close and friendly relations with Western countries…. What has provoked the rage and uprising of Arab people is that their leaders are Westernized.” Alef, a website controlled by Ahmad Tavakoli, a Majles deputy and maternal cousin of the Larijani brothers, published a piece addressed to Mousavi that declared,”You have been out of the political equation for quite some time. Writing this statement is not surprising. You did this because Mahmoud Abbas [president of the Palestinian Authority] gave you some money, which is the blood money for the innocent children of Gaza; the same Abbas who collaborates with [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak. The same Abbas that has a photo with Mubarak.” Jahan News, which is said to represent the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the website is run by Ali Reza Zakani, a former Guard commander — called Mousavi “the big lie of 2009,” and prophesied, “Undoubtedly the freedom- and justice-loving people of Egypt will do to the Arab dictator [Mubarak] what the people of Iran did with the Green Pharaohs.”
In a seemingly orchestrated manner, the hardliners and conservatives also began likening the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Abbas Kosari, a former Guard commander and deputy head of the Majles NSFPC claimed, “The reason for what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen is that their leaders have not paid attention to their people. People [in these countries] are religious and it is with such thinking that they have taken their positions.” Hossein Alaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ joint staff, warned the people of Tunisia about a “new dictator” and said of Ben Ali’s 23-year reign, “There was no free election in Tunisia to enable people to elect another person,” as if Iran does have such elections. Kazem Jalali, the spokesman for the Majles NSFPC declared, “The West is trying to control what is going on by replacing some officials with others, whereas the people of Tunisia and Egypt want fundamental changes,” as if Iranians do not want the same fundamental changes. Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the reactionary ayatollah and spiritual leader of the hardliners, claimed that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are the consequence of and modeled on Iran’s Islamic Revolution of Iran. Ali Larijani asserted that the Arab revolutions are driven by people returning to their Islamic identities. Brigadier General Abdolrahim Safavi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s regular armed forces claimed, “There is a pro-Islam wave in north Africa, particularly in Egypt.”
More pragmatic conservative analysts, such as Mohammad Sadegh Koushki, questioned the link between the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Koushki bluntly said, “What have we done for such countries that we expect their revolution to be Islamic? What is going on in Tunisia and Egypt is the result of people being tired of dictatorship, poverty, and corruption.”
Then, in his sermon during Friday Prayers in Tehran on February 4, Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the revolution in Egypt is the continuation of the 1979 Revolution in Iran and called on the Egyptian clergy to play a role in it. He argued that the primary motivation for the recent revolutions was that the people of Tunisia and Egypt were humiliated by having leaders who acted as lackeys of the United States and Israel.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood swiftly responded to Khamenei’s assertion, declaring, “Egypt’s revolution is a people’s revolution with no Islamic agenda.” Khaled Hamza, editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood’s official English website said, “The Egyptian protests are not an ‘Islamic’ uprising, but a mass protest against an unjust, autocratic regime that includes Egyptians from all walks of life and all religions and sects.” He directly denounced Khamenei’s claims that the protests are a sign of an “Islamic Awakening” inspired by the 1979 Revolution.
This is not the first time that the Arabs have swiftly responded to Khamenei and his fantasies of leading the Islamic world. After the ayatollah criticized the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in his sermon during the public prayers celebrating the end of Ramadan, Fatah, the Palestinian movement, quickly issued a statement condemning him and calling his comments “shameless.” Just two weeks later, after Ahmadinejad criticized the direction of the negotiations between the two sides, Nabil Abu Rodeina, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said, “A person who is not representative of the Iranian people, has committed electoral fraud, has repressed the Iranian people and stolen power, cannot speak about Palestine.”
Neither Khamenei nor any other official cared to explain why the 1979 Revolution has reached these countries only now and not much sooner. None of them dared to talk about the many similarities between what happened in Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 election and what is happening now in Egypt. None mentioned the fact that a most important goal of the 1979 Revolution was freedom. Otherwise, the only similarity between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is that all three countries were ruled by secular, pro-Western dictatorships. None has said why they condemn the attacks of Mubarak’s supporters on the peaceful demonstrators, but unleashed the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia on the peaceful demonstrators in Tehran and elsewhere after the 2009 election. They invoke the pharaohs to describe Mousavi, Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami, but do not bother to explain to people the criteria for being a pharaoh, because they recognize that the criteria would fit themselves, not the leaders of the Green Movement.
As Mousavi’s online newspaper Ghalam-e Sabz put it, “The people of the region are against dictatorship, whether it is in the name of religion or secularism.”
Why do the hardliners insist that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are influenced by the 1979 Revolution in Iran? The reasons are multifold. First is that after claiming for three decades that they are a model for the rest of the Islamic world to follow, it is impossible for the hardliners to acknowledge that a revolution taking place in one of the most important Islamic nations is not modeled after Iran’s. The second reason is that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been distinctly nonideological, led in a secular manner, even though the leaders are probably practicing Muslims. The third reason is that the two revolutions have been largely peaceful, aided by the military, which in each case has refused to shoot at peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. One has already succeeded, and the second is on the verge of success. The hardliners are keenly aware of dissatisfaction in the rank and file of Iran’s armed forces. The fourth reason is that the hardliners know that both regimes were supported by the West and in particular the United States, yet the people have succeeded with virtually no practical help from foreign powers. This debunks and deflates the hardliners’ claim that only the foreign powers want to change the Iranian regime and that, except for a small segment of the population that is pro-Western, the people are satisfied with the present political system.
But perhaps the most important reason is that the hardliners are worried that the success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will energize and bring the Green Movement out onto the streets once again. They are well aware of the fact that the movement is alive and well, bidding its time and waiting for the right opportunity to resurface. Furthermore, these developments are happening at a time when the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution approaches, reminding the people of the unfulfilled promises of their own revolution.
In a letter to Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar, Mousavi and Karroubi have asked him to issue a permit for demonstrations in support of the revolution in Egypt on Monday, February 14. That has put the hardliners in a very difficult position. If they do not grant the permit, their stream of propaganda promoting their supposed support of the Egyptian people will be exposed as hollow and meaningless. But if they do issue the permit, the Green Movement will have an opportunity to demonstrate its strength.
Similar to Tehran’s hardliners, Barack Obama also seems not to grasp what is going on in Egypt. His administration favors a transition from Mubarak to Vice President Omar Suleiman, a staunch Mubarak supporter who since 1993 has been at the helm of Egypt’s security apparatus, one of the most notorious such forces in the Middle East. In other words, Obama wants Mubarakism without Mubarak. That is no longer sufficient for the Egyptian people. In their entire 7,000 years of history, this is the first time that they have a real chance of electing their leader freely. They will not miss the chance this time, no matter what the U.S. and Israeli establishments want.