Forget About 1979

Towards the end of the first iteration of the Green Movement, when the beatings came more freely and the regime had let loose the security forces, I found myself seeking shelter with a group of protestors inside one of the many suit shops that line Vali Asr Boulevard in central Tehran, the merchants there quietly supportive of the cause.

With the sound of batons rattling off the store’s corrugated metal curtain, one of our number observed that the regime’s lack of friends was a serious problem. What country would provide sanctuary to fleeing members of the Islamic Republic: “At least when the Shah went into exile, he had friends to take him in.”

“Where will these guys go?” We half-heartedly considered the possibilities. “How about Caracas? They’re friends with Chavez, aren’t they?” Another suggested Pyongyang. Discouraged, we agreed that this government was not going anywhere soon. Iran 2009 would not be like Iran 1979.

With the story not yet over in Egypt or Tunisia, rumors swirled earlier this week that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was contemplating a trip to Venezuela, soon denied in bizarre fashion by Qaddafi himself. The events unfolding in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan have the look and feel of a comprehensive reshaping of the region, an Arab 1989. One question being asked, particularly in regards to Egypt, is whether the historical starting point for this upheaval in fact lies outside of the Arab world, in the Iranian Revolution.

Is Egypt 2011 like Iran 1979? A number of analysts have drawn the conclusion that the end of autocratic rule in Egypt presages the rise of yet another Islamic-style theocracy in the Middle East.

Others, most notably Olivier Roy and Asef Bayat, have argued that the protests currently spreading in the Arab world represent non-ideological movements, led by a “post-Islamist generation”–one that is focused on bringing about more effective and accountable government.

Is Egypt like Iran? It is a comparison that just a month ago would have been unthinkable. During the height of the 2009 protests in Iran, the Washington Post ran an article under the headline, “Arab Activists Watch Iran and Wonder: ‘Why Not Us?’”

Now, with Mubarak gone and a resurgent Green Movement again taking to the streets across the Islamic Republic, the question has been unexpectedly reversed: Could Iran become like Egypt? Many Iranians look to Egypt and wonder, why not us?

The scenes from Tahrir Square this month suggest that Egypt is like Iran, though not in the ways supposed by most commentators; Egypt is the Iran of 2009, not 1979.

What we learned in Iran was that greatness often lies in the margins of the revolt, in the ordinary life that continues away from and around the edges of action on the streets and the squares.

The routine and persistence of daily customs in Iran in 2009 became, for us a means, of preserving our dignity, a way to demonstrate that even in incomparable times the only thing that would limit our ambition was preservation of the extraordinary aspects of daily life.

We saw this greatness repeated in the images of Egyptian families camped out together in Tahrir Square, sharing meals taken from ubiquitous Styrofoam containers, and in the account of a Cairene bread maker who continued his work throughout the demonstrations.

Even in the aftermath of success, with the first part of their revolution over, ordinary citizens returned to central Cairo to carry out the chore of cleaning up after themselves, manually placing the stones drawn from the pavement back into the ground.

The similarities must not be overstated. In important ways Iran is not like Egypt: In Cairo, the conflict centered on a clear demand – that Mubarak must go. We have already seen that the departure of high-ranking leaders is an unlikely option in Iran – There will be no Sharm el-Sheik, no helicopter ride to safety for the regime elite.

Accordingly, necessarily, how the struggle has taken shape in Iran and what demonstrators have been fighting for is also different. In Iran, the democracy movement constitutes a moral struggle to appropriate and redefine a righteousness also claimed by the regime: What constitutes the “true Muslim,” the “good Iranian?”

This is one of the great strengths of the Green Movement; and it is what has allowed its leaders to continue to operate, with legitimacy, despite considerable harassment and pressure by the state. The defining characteristic of the movement since its inception is its compatibility with the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic, and the shared terms of Islam and democracy.

A week ago Monday there came reports that as many as 350,000 Iranians had marched in several major cities to show their solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, and to shame an Iranian government, which had not hesitated to the removal of Mubarak as an “Islamic revolution” and which now the Qaddafi’s regimes violence against protestors as “unacceptable.”

In this new environment, one wonders how much longer the status quo in Iran can last. Iranians travelling to Egypt are often approached by merchants and cab drivers who, looking to hustle a few dollars, put on the charm with lines like, “Irani? Irani? You have the face of an Egyptian.” It may be the case that soon, politics in Iran will also come to resemble the “face” that Egyptians have recently shown to the world.

Shervin Malekzadeh recently received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. He reported from Iran for The Washington Note, the New York Times,, and during the 2009 Green Movement under the moniker “Shane M.”


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