Egypt and Iran: The goose and the gander

The 1979 Iranian revolution can provide a historical framework around the events unfolding in Egypt.

egypt march
"The military's crackdown will afflict and plague the political future of Egypt in shapes and forms even worse than what Iranians experienced over the past thirty years," writes Hamid Dabashi [Reuters]

On August 14 in Egypt – the day that the military moved in and began the massacre – there were a sordid few among Iranians who expressed via social media glee and a seemingly deep vicarious satisfaction that the Egyptian military had “cleansed the streets from criminal Islamists”. By no stretch of imagination was this a typical or representative view.

Though only representative of a small but vocal minority, the view didn’t resonate with even the more moderate and less belligerent Iranians who learned a valuable lesson from the revolution of 1977-1979 in Iran. It had taught them how militant Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini had outmanoeuvred all the other factions, murderously suppressed them, distorted the revolutionary culture that had occasioned the revolution in the first place, and brutally imposed a militant lslamist rule over the democratic will of an entire nation. Based on that history, all Iranians understood what had to be done. It thus came as no surprise when the Egyptian army intervened, so that Egyptians wouldn’t suffer for the next thirty years what Iranians have endured over the last three decades. 

It was the same thought, expressed more violently by more vulgar people, guardedly by those who know how to camouflage their sentiments, and even reasonably by the more reasonable people, who would not endorse the massacre or even the coup, but could “understand” why the army had to intervene. 

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Listening Post – Egypt: Morsi, the military and the media

Such off-the-cuff online jubilation at the massacre of the pro-Morsi demonstrators by the Egyptian army reveals the sore and unsheathed verve of the history we are living, the ugly and gruesome bile of the monstrosities that hides under the shining show of clean-shaven faces and suits, and it is precisely on that naked site that we are at one and the same time blinded and enlightened by the rapidity of the events as they unfold, along with the reminiscences of the past revolutions, coups and counterrevolutions they invoke. 

In the midst of all such historical realities and reminiscences, I am in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood protest not because I have any sympathy for their political agenda, but in fact precisely because I categorically reject and oppose it. I am not blind to Morsi’s incompetence, or the Islamists’ outdated and outrageous sectarianism, or their anti-Shia, anti-Coptic vandalism and vulgarity, or their embracement of neoliberal fanaticism which allows the World Bank and the IMF to run the Egyptian economy.

In between the liberal/secular anti-Morsi activists and the pro-Morsi Islamists, my political sentiments are categorically and squarely with the “Statement from the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists on the massacre in Cairo“: “The bloody dissolution of the sit-ins in al-Nahda Square and Raba’a al-Adawiyya is nothing but a massacre – prepared in advance. It aims to liquidate the Muslim Brotherhood. But, it is also part of a plan to liquidate the Egyptian Revolution and restore the military-police state of the Mubarak regime.” The absolutely brilliant statement continues to assert that they are no supporters of Morsi, nor did they endorse the sit-in but that the military coup “aims to break the revolutionary will of all Egyptians who are claiming their rights, whether workers, poor, or revolutionary youth, by creating a state of terror”.

Iran and Egypt

But the persistent comparison of Egypt now with the Iran of more than thirty years ago still provides us with a larger historical frame of reference from which Egyptians can perhaps take a lesson or two in these dark hours. It is from that vantage point that I oppose the military coup and the slaughter of the pro-Morsi lslamists, not despite the horrid events that happened in Iran over the last thirty years but in fact precisely because of it.

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The criminal thievery that happened in Iran over thirty years ago must not be reversed by going to the other extreme and this time to the liberals, seculars, and like-minded among the left wing to do to the Islamists in Egypt what the lslamists did to their Iranian counterparts thirty years ago. 

During the revolution in Iran, it was the secularists and liberals who were the victims of the Islamists. In Egypt now, it’s the exact opposite. It is imperative that the pro-coup supporters learn that lesson of history and to express unconditional support and sympathy for the MB, and then sit down with them to talk and reconcile their differences without the slightest intervention by the military. 

The military’s crackdown will afflict and plague the political future of Egypt in shapes and forms even worse than what Iranians experienced over the past thirty years. Murderous repression of the lslamists on the model favoured by General el-Sisi will make their defunct political ideology martyrological, vindictive and triumphalist.  

As a militant ideology, Islamism is now completely and irreversibly insensate, and will have no place in the future of Egypt or any other Muslim country.

As a militant ideology, Islamism is now completely and irreversibly insensate, and will have no place in the future of Egypt or any other Muslim country. As a mode of postcolonial ideology, Islamism did all it could to oppose tyranny and resist colonialism and imperialism. It was the twin product of the military tyranny that Mubarak represented before his demise. The day Mubarak fell, so too did the Muslim Brotherhood – in principle, in legitimacy, and in ideological appeal.  

Two critical factors however are of immediate concern here. First, the eventual eradication of the politically defunct Islamist apparatuses – like the Muslim Brotherhood – from the current political scene has to be gradual, without violence, and through the mundane matter-of-factness of facing a worldly Egypt they could not possibly rule. And second, upon the exhaustion of Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi brand, Muslims qua Muslims have every right to participate in their politics as they please. The eventual and mundane (not forced and violent) dissolution of militant Islamism will forever liberate Muslims to enter the realm of their politics as free historical agents, with a postcolonial subjectivity that is no longer beholden or hateful of the delusion that calls itself “the West” and “the Rest”.

This is precisely the lesson of the Iranian revolution for Egypt. Consider the cadre of aggressive ideologues who call themselves “religious intellectuals” and who were instrumental in robbing Iranian political culture of its cosmopolitan worldliness that included Islam but was not limited to it. They were thus definitive to the consolidation of militant Islamism in Iran, helping the nascent Islamic republic to purge the universities, lead cultural revolutions, Islamise the social sciences and the humanities, and other accouterment of an undaunted totalitarianism. 

Look at them now – the best of them, the most prominent – are either suffering in the dungeons of the Islamic republic, been the targets of assassinations, or else run away to western Europe and north American universities in search of one adjunct professoriate position or another, where they are today among the staunchest critics of the Islamic republic.

From Brotherhood to bureaucrats

Iranians today are afflicted by a disastrous Islamist regime that is an affront to their historic struggle for democracy, and every four years they have to endure the charade of yet another “election” in which they have to do the best they can to sustain a sense of sanity and security in a violent and turbulent region. But still they manage to elect a Rouhani who instantly slaps them in the face by appointing to his “ministry of justice”, no less, a notorious hanging judge who is detested by the left and the liberals alike.

The country is under severe economic sanctions, and in order to protect their own people, even political prisoners have to plead with Obama to stop these crippling sanctions on them. And who speaks against this Islamic Republic? The morally corrupt and politically bankrupt MEK (People’s Mujahedin of Iran), the ludicrous monarchists, and a band of riffraff “expat opposition” feeding on the generosity of neoconservatives.

The end result is the clumsy continuity of a regime that so fundamentally lacks legitimacy that every four years it must go through all sorts of shenanigans to stage its legitimacy. Is that ideal? Of course not. But that is the best Iranians can do – a nation tired of revolutionary grand narratives, tired of grand delusions, and almost categorically committed to an ethic of responsibility. If you compare Iran with Egypt or Syria or Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan, things look much saner than anything we see in the region. Still a far cry from where Iranians want to see their country – but they look at their neighbourhood and at nights go to bed thankful for the saintly patience they have historically accumulated eventually to outmanoeuvre a constitutionally illegitimate, corrupt, and morally bankrupt regime that rules over them, and all its pestiferous oppositional forces that are even worse. 

Have Egyptians spared themselves that fate with this military coup? Absolutely not. They have endangered their future even more, and the sooner they realise that and sit down – MB and non-MB, Muslims and non-Muslims – to settle their differences in a peaceful and enduring manner, the better. The slaughtering of the Muslim Brotherhood will not eradicate them. It will turn them into martyrs. Instead of martyrs, they need to be allowed to become what history has in store for them: bureaucrats.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature a Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012).

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