Is Egypt the next Iran?

More than the storm sweeping through Tunisia in January, February’s events in Egypt leading to the stepping-down of President Hosni Mubarak stunned the world. Thirty years of autocratic rule came down in a matter of 18 days.

The domino effect, threatening to cause the downfall of Arab regimes friendly to the West, one after the other, notwithstanding, the possible strategic chaos due to a potentially unstable Egypt falling prey to Islamic fundamentalism jeopardizes the “peace plan” with Israel and destabilizes the whole region.  

Why be afraid? Is not the uprising stemming from a longing for liberty and democracy, values praised and preached in the West? In the end, Islamic mottos were absent in almost all demonstrations. A number of analysts reason that Islamic fundamentalism, as a threat to secular regimes, belongs to the past, so the fear is unfounded.

How not to be afraid? When unlike Tunisia, fundamentalist trends like the Muslim Brotherhood exist and are very much present in the Egyptian political arena? When Hamas and Hezbollah are congratulating the Egyptians for their victory? When a week before Mubarak’s departure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was boasting during Tehran’s Friday prayers, albeit in Arabic, the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution throughout the region? After all, Arabic countries are all Islamic countries, with the potential fear of an Islamic revolution always looming over their heads.

What is the answer? Events have shown that Islamic trends are in pace with the public quest for democracy. By themselves, they might not be dangerous. But they can be inspired, encouraged or even recruited by those who are the godfathers of what is known as “Islamic fundamentalism.”

How? Distinction should be made between the reactionary practice of Islam, which has existed for hundreds of years, and Islamic fundamentalism, which was not known in its present form before Ayatollah Khomeini came to power of in Iran. Deep inside, this is not an ideological phenomenon, but a political one. Khomeini himself called it the “absolute monarchy of the religious leader,” who can even cancel religious duties like praying or fasting if need be in order to safeguard the regime.

“Exporting the Islamic revolution” is the cornerstone of the Iranian regime’s strategy. This sort of Islam is not exported by cultural means, but by spending billions of dollars ($13 billion in Lebanon after the 2006 war against Hezbollah by Israel), through huge state institutions and, if need be, by resorting to extreme violence. Sunni Muslims are threatened as much as Shiites. Compared to Islamic fundamentalism as a dangerous cancer producing mortal “metastases” in other countries, traditional reactionary interpretations of Islam would not be more than a benign tumor limited to their own perimeter.

The Egyptian uprising can be successful, in democratic terms, to the extent that it can be isolated from Iranian interference. Presence of Islamic trends, Muslim Brotherhood included, is not the predominant factor. Those movements have metamorphosed a lot. The best example: After Khamenei’s instigating speech cited above, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly responded that “the uprising in Egypt is a revolution of the Egyptian people and is by no means linked to any Islamic tendencies.” Furthermore, they returned the ball home by mentioning a full paragraph of a declaration issued by Maryam Rajavi, herself a practicing Muslim, president of Iran’s principal opposition movement seeking to overthrow the regime in Iran, calling Khamenei’s position a sort of whistling in the dark to safeguard his own regime weakened by a general uprising a year ago. Wisely enough, the Iranian opposition’s position was published widely by the Egyptian media, trying to keep Iranian interference away.

True, we should be on guard. The internal weakness of the Islamic Republic of Iran, threatened by the restless youth fed up with political religion, should not deceive anybody. Because the clerics know of no other way out of their problems but to export them elsewhere, the more problems they have at home, the more they tend to cross their border lines. Sure, we have to react, but we should not be afraid.

We should not be afraid because the regime in Tehran is out of breath, after lengthy in-fighting and facing hard and organized opposition itself. Demonstrators are already back to the streets in Tehran. We should support them. We should recognize the Iranian opposition, very much organized contrary to the Egyptian and the Tunisian cases, and give them support. We should preach a regime change there. That is what the Iranian people are looking for, and that is how we can keep, at least, Islamic fundamentalism on the defensive.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights for a variety of publications.