Tehran to Cairo

It all looks dauntingly familiar — the spectacle on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. People in the streets, buildings on fire, a wavering army, a vanishing police force. We saw this 32 years ago, in 1978 and early ’79. That time, it was the Shah who was being forced out. Like Mubarak, he had ruled for three decades, been a staunch ally of the United States, stymied the reach of the mullahs. Like Mubarak, he clung to too much power for too long, became a victim of his own hubris (or paranoia), woke up one day and found himself alone in the world.

Fallen dictators, like happy families, are all alike: They are despised by many and adored by some, blamed for too much and given credit for too little of what has gone wrong or right in the country they ruled. Most become international pariahs. Hardly any is missed after he’s gone.

After he’s gone the people celebrate. Heads roll and statues are torn down and everyone is promised a piece of cake as well as their daily bread, and then reality sets in, troubles remain intractable, new tenants move into the old palaces and halls of power, and “revolution” proves to be just that: motion — not change — in a circle.

Revolution is a desperate, destructive, often useless act. Mostly, it ushers in a regime that is no better that its predecessor. Sometimes, as in the case of Iran, it manages to make the old dictator seem benign by comparison. “If only we had known what would come in his place…” has become an all-too-common refrain among the anti-Shah, pro-Khomeini Iranians of 1979. The Shah tolerated corruption, but not the kind of wholesale thievery practiced by the mullahs; he tortured and imprisoned his opposition, but not on the scale that is common under the mullahs. He should have, could have, and, given a second chance, might have respected the country’s so-called laws and constitutional freedoms. But, at the end of the day, when he had to decide between slaughtering his own people or losing the throne, he chose the latter.

That hardly qualifies the guy for sainthood, though it does illustrate the dilemma that so much of the world faces today: What’s in place is no good, but it may be better than what’s about to come. So you live with the devil you know until you can’t, until you’d rather die — actually walk in front of a tank or set yourself on fire — and then you have a scene like we’ve been watching in Egypt. It doesn’t matter what comes next; all they want is for Mubarak to go.

That’s a dreadful way to create positive change, of course, but sometimes the friendly dictator in charge leaves no options. And yes, you and I in Los Angeles and New York and London can see the folly of the masses and lament the looming takeover of the country in question by a batch of thugs with bigger guns and weaker morals, but we’re hardly qualified to pass judgment. 

I don’t blame the people of Egypt for wanting what the rest of us, in this country and parts of the West, take for granted. You have to have lived in a dictatorship to understand that kind of despair. You have to have to gone to school as a child in a place where teachers tell on the students, and kids are taught to betray their parents. You have to have seen your classmates and professors, your neighbors and family members disappear for months, sometimes forever. You have to have heard bedtime stories of people thrown from helicopters into marshlands, been warned at breakfast not to utter the dictator’s name except in praise.

What I will blame them for, if it comes to that, is getting rid of a secular dictatorship only to hand the country over to a bunch of religious hooligans. That the mullahs who claim the divine right to rule are almost invariably more ruthless, sinful and devious than their civilian counterparts did not come as a surprise to Iranian Jews and members of other religious minorities. Nor should it have shocked even the most casual student of Iranian history.

It must have been news to the Western policy makers who sided with Khomeini, however, and to the Iranian nationalists and secular activists who thought they could use him to rally the nation, force the Shah out, and establish democratic rule. On their hands, and perhaps their conscience, rests the blood of all the victims of the Islamic fundamentalist movement that started in Iran and that has poisoned the world. Nevertheless, if anything positive has come out of the Iranian revolution, it is that it put the lie to the idea that religion has a place in the government of a modern, educated and open society. That’s as true in the West as it is in Israel and, more pressingly today, in Egypt.

I don’t know if the people of Egypt are as convinced of this as they should be. I have a feeling that underneath all the calls for democratic rule and self-determination runs a torrent of religious fervor that’s going to be as difficult to contain as it was in Iran, and has been in Iraq and Pakistan. If so, then the fledgling forces of freedom in the region will have to depend on help from the outside.

The United States and Europe might not have been able to convince Mubarak to reform his regime when he still had the chance, and they may not be able to buy him enough time to do that now. But if they’re going to stand with the people on the streets (because it’s the right thing to do, or because the people are the side that’s winning), if they’re honest in their talk of the sanctity of human rights and the importance of freedom, then they must do their utmost to create and support a secular regime in Cairo.

That means no compromise, no deal with the devil, no bow to “cultural sensitivities,” no integrating of Shariah law into the new constitution.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.