Monday, February 14, 2011

Measure of Democracy: Egypt and Iran (I)

Is Egypt’s revolt leading to an Islamic government fulfilling multiple prophesies that I mentioned in the previous post?  One cannot dismiss this possibility out of hand but I believe the evidence does not support that outcome.
The revolts and revolutions of the 20th and 21st century were broadly shaped by their world context and the context of the 1979 Iranian revolution is fundamentally different than the 2011 Egyptian revolt.  In its drive for democracy the Iranian revolution faced extreme limitations forced on it by the Cold War, the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies.  During the 1960s and 70s the rapid growth of the Iranian student population in Europe and the U.S. and the effect of the open societies on them accelerated the desire for democracy among the educated youth.  At the same time their growing opposition to the Shah’s regime was facing retaliation by the Immigration offices and other security organizations such as the FBI who were following the Cold War policies of their respective countries.  In combination with the support of many other dictatorships in the world by the U.S., the net effect was to drive the Iranian youth toward extreme left, particularly communist ideologies.  The leftist tendencies among the youth were so great that it even affected the Islamic currents in Iran forcing them to integrate class struggle concepts into their own ideas.  In contrast, the revolt in Egypt does not have the constraints of the Cold War.
During the 70s, with the liberalization of visa requirements by the west to accommodate the Shah’s regime, the flow of Iranians to the west accelerated.  Most of the European countries lifted the visa requirement altogether whereby Iranians could travel there without prior approval, creating a continuous eyewitness flow of information between Iran and the West.  While the educated class salivated for the openness in the west, they saw their confinement in Iran due to the direct support of the Shah by the U.S. and Europe.
In 1978, with the rise of street demonstrations in Iran the western media was unmistakably focused on how the revolt could be thwarted and how to consolidate the Shah’s rule.   There is a big contrast with 2011 Egypt where the media is in outright sympathy with the Egyptian revolt and actively sought to isolate Mubarak.  With the overthrow of the Shah, the west re-instituted stiff visa requirements, practically dismantling the free flow of travelers established earlier.  In Egypt’s case, a similar measure, if taken, would have been to cut the internet connectivity from the outside to isolate the revolt.  This did not happen. On the contrary, the west strongly opposed Mubarak’s attempt to restrict the internet and cell phone access from inside the country, another important contrast.
With the overthrow of the Shah, instead of sympathy with the Iranian people, the west began a frontal attack against the revolution, first by blocking all the funds of the newly formed transitional government in Iran.  This isolated the remaining moderate elements in the Iranian society and created a general “anti-imperialist” atmosphere in the country.  The west never made any attempt to block the assets of the Shah, his family or his associates.  On the contrary, in Egypt’s case, the west is extending a helping hand to the newly forming transitional government, insisting that it has to include a broad spectrum of the opposition representatives within it.  Instead of blocking the transitional government’s assets, one reads about attempts to block the assets of the overthrown Mubarak, again another big contrast.
The educated class of Iran who was being wacked from behind by the West, facing the wrath of the Shah and its security forces as its immediate problem, did not have any alternative but to find a leadership to coalesce around; the presence of Khomeini solved this immediate problem.  There are no such pressures on the Egyptian educated class.
Mistakes by the western democracies could be explained away once one understands it within the context of the cold war. Ignoring that context and viewing that process three decades later, the whole scenario of the Iranian revolution resembles a conspiracy by the west to saddle the Iranians with an autocratic Islamic government.

In the 1979 world context, Iranian intellectuals ignorant of the real meaning of the Cold War, in their drive to succeed against the shah, had to put on a straight jacket.  Looking back on it several decades later, it seems like lunacy. More on this in my next post.

No comments: