What makes a revolution succeed?

While the aspirations are different, Egyptians could take five lessons from Iran’s 1979 revolt.

anti=-shah protests Iran [GALLO/GETTY]
While Egypt’s army is popular, trusting military forces is not always the best plan for revolutionaries [GALLO/GETTY]

On February 12, 32 years this week, Iran proclaimed its revolution a success: the Shah was gone, the military had been decimated, and a new era could dawn.

Although what followed turned out very differently than what the Egyptians are hoping for, Iran’s was one of the great revolutions of the 20th century, and Egyptians might well look to it for inspiration in their effort to oust an entrenched regime and gain new rights.

Today, the Egyptian military has assumed command, with promises of free and fair elections. Does this mean the demonstrators can go home and trust their army? Egypt and Iran are very different, their aspirations and media eons apart, and, one hopes, the future the Egyptians construct will be more democratic and safe for those reaching for popular victory.

Nonetheless, for those along the Nile facing quickly changing events, the Iranian revolution offers some useful lessons.

Lesson one: Revolutions take time

From the day when the Iranian revolution is generally thought to have begun, sparked by the death of 400 people in a theatre fire in Abadan, Iran’s main oil city, to the pronouncement of victory on February 12, 1979, a year and a month had elapsed.

Demonstrations took place both in winter snow and searing summer heat, people were shot, the uprisings after their initial newsworthiness was no longer featured by the international media. But the rallies continued and grew, the people hung on, the sacrifices they had already made driving them to over-turning a military regime.

In Egypt, we are seeing the demands shift as the true purpose of the uprising becomes clear – to remove the regime, not just its many Gorgan-like heads. Mubarak’s resignation, and the shift into military hands, may mean little. Changing a regime is a lengthy process, requiring vision and organisation, and, as the Iranian demonstrators discovered, tenacity.

Lesson two: Entrenched regimes don’t leave quietly

After three weeks of upheaval, Mubarak may, or may not, be truly gone. Significantly, he is still in Egypt; ousted presidents, such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, are usually not really ‘gone’ until they are in exile. The Shah hung on for a year despite the continuous chants  of “Death to the Shah”. In his last days, like Mubarak, the Shah attempted to create a transitional government drawn from the existing regime,  replacing his prime minister with a new though trusted face. 

The Shah, in fact, went through three prime ministers – first one with a democratic reputation, then a general, finally a member of one of Iran’s great tribes and leader of the main opposition party – the National Front (though by then, it was but a shell).

The people in the streets accepted none of them. Like Egypt’s vice president Omar Suleiman, the Shah’s hand-picked leaders made small concessions accompanied by threats: the people had to go home, the military was in control and running out of patience, democracy Western-style was not appropriate for Middle Easterners.

For Iranians, like Egyptians, the important point was to rid themselves of an elitist, corrupt regime, whoever was at its helm. And so the demonstrations continued even after the Shah fled, ensuring the  existing edifice in its entirety was at last swept away.

Lesson three: The army is not reliable

Unlike in Egypt so far, the Iranian military – at the time considered the fifth most powerful in the world – did not refrain from turning on its people. 

The Friday Massacre in October 1978 was only one of many instances when the army shot live ammunition into the crowds. And, although to date, the Egyptian military has refrained from such outright attacks, the risk of it turning violent hangs perpetually over the people in the streets.

The army, which now commands the government, has made strong calls for stability, indicating the risk is chaos if rallies continue. Yet, despite similar statements from the army in Iran, the demonstrators continued. Though there had been bloodshed, demonstrators there refused to turn their ire on the army, and eventually, they wore the soldiers down.

Flowers were hung from the barrels of their guns. Families, friends and neighbours hugged and chatted with the soldiers as they marched by them in the streets, draping banners across the tanks parked on the sidewalks, spraying slogans on their metal sides, and festooning them with posters.  

For Egyptians, this is an important lesson. The military retains significant fire-power, and today is giving mixed signals – a possibly dangerous moment. There are reports of  younger members of the corps joining the demonstrators, even as the old guard has dug in. Staying peaceful in the face of military power is perhaps one of the greatest tools in the hands of the demonstrators, and one not to be squandered.

Lesson four: Strikes are key to success

In Egypt, one of the game-changing developments over the past week has been the wave of strikes in provincial towns by factory workers demanding better pay and benefits.

In Iran, the strikes, which began in the oil fields and spread across the country, were critical in bringing the regime to its knees. The shortages of gas and kerosene (which many Iranian households depended on for heating during a winter far more inclement than Egypt’s) led to lines that snaked for blocks from the gas stations, many of them with waits lasting 48 hours.

Through the night, drivers sat patiently in their cars, and under their motorbikes and hand-carts, despite the government insisting that Iranians had no stomach for such deprivation. Only the elite and military obtained petrol, and drove almost proudly through the nearly empty streets, a move that strengthened popular resolve against them.

Strikes, though not always continuous, spread to factories, industrial complexes, and critically, to electrical plants, which cut power for four hours everyday. This coincided with the state television-controlled evening news hour, a strategic move;  Iranians ate dinner to candlelight and got their news instead through the radio, mainly the BBC.  

The strikes gave backbone to the movement – while enabling the strikers to join the demonstrations. They carried economic as well as psychological power, and the Iranians, like the Egyptians, showed a willingness to live with  hardship to obtain the departure of the regime.

Lesson five: State-controlled media drift is an important accomplishment

In Egypt, the upheaval has reflected the times: the demonstrations began with blogging and tweeting, and gained momentum through live webcasts, Facebook and mobile phone.

Even when Mubarak shut down the internet and cellular networks, the high-tech communications continued.

Naturally, Iran benefited from none of this. However, the drift of the state-run media is a bell-weather of how events are proceeding. Iran’s Kayhan and Etela’at newspapers, much like Egypt’s al-Ahram, were government mouthpieces. When Kayhan and Etela’at first showed people in the streets burning the ubiquitous pictures of the Shah, which until then had hung on every office wall and family hallway, the grip of the state was viscerally understood to be slipping.

The same has happened with al-Ahram, which, this past week, reported the news more even-handedly. For Egyptians, this is a milestone, and the wedge toward true media freedom. Of the many freedoms being sought, free speech, and the right of free assembly, are the first marks of real success.

The Nile Wave may appear victorious – but so far, there are few guaranteed changes coming to Egyptian lives.  Despite the jubilation, the same old military faces remain in place. If the movement is to gain its just reward, Iran’s past may help to bring a dose of reality to the present, and with luck, brighten Egypt’s future, even as its own remains en-shadowed.

Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian is an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Center of the University of Utah. She lived in Iran during the Revolution and Hostage Crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.