Trying to salvage 30 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak warned Egyptians near midnight on Tuesday that they faced a simple choice: “chaos” without him, or “stability” if he stayed on to September elections to manage a peaceful transition of power.
And yet Mr. Mubarak is not the only one waving the flag of fear about the ultimate outcome of Egypt’s pro-democracy standoff.
In the West and in Israel, some politicians and pundits warn that Mubarak’s fall would yield a disastrous takeover by Islamic militants, similar to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that transformed a pro-West regime into one marked by hatred for the US and Israel.
Experts who know both Iran and Egypt say there are distinct differences, however. They note one critical lesson from Iran’s revolution that should inform Mubarak’s handling of the crisis: so far, the Muslim Brotherhood – for decades Egypt’s largest opposition grouping – has played a small part in the protests, compared with the critical role that militant followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini played in Iran in 1979.
But a more important takeaway from Iran may be the events of Sept. 8, 1978, when security forces of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi fired on antigovernment demonstrators with helicopter gunships and tanks. The opposition claimed the death toll from Black Friday to be 4,000, with 500 dead in downtown Jaleh Square alone.
“If Mubarak stays for awhile [with US support] and there is a crackdown – then the dire predictions would come true,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a historian at Baruch College, City University of New York.
“In Iran, if the shah had been eased out earlier – before Jaleh Square – it would have been possible to have a compromise and peaceful transition,” says Mr. Abrahamian, author of “Iran Between Two Revolutions” and other books on Iranian history.
“After Bloody Friday, moderates were undercut and no possibility of peaceful transition could have occurred,” adds Abrahamian. “Similarly, a peaceful transition in Egypt is now possible, but if it is delayed and massive blood is shed then we will see the strengthening of extremists and the triumph of the die-hardists. The same people who wanted the shah to stay created the eventual disaster.”
Army tells protesters to return to 'normal life'
Washington has so far tread carefully with staunch ally Egypt, which has received tens of billions of dollars in US military and other aid since signing a peace deal with Israel in 1979. President Obama spoke with Mubarak for 30 minutes late on Tuesday, then announced that an “orderly transition” of power in Egypt “must begin now.”
The Egyptian Army – which has stated it supports “legitimate demands” of the protesters and would not fire on them – on Wednesday morning called for an end to the demonstrations. “Your message has arrived, your demands became known…you are capable of bringing normal life to Egypt,” said a military spokesman.
On Wednesday there was no sign that the protests would diminish, much less end. Tens of thousands of protesters across Egypt reacted angrily to Mubarak's speech Tuesday night, raising the volume of their demands for his immediate exit even before he finished speaking.
“The United States does not oppose the aspirations of the Egyptian people, but a single misstep could reverse this perception overnight,” says Columbia University history professor Richard Bulliet, in an analysis for Agence Global.
“Washington’s reluctance to embrace a post-Mubarak Egypt reflects gratitude for his past support of American policies ... [b]ut even more a fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will somehow emerge as the dominant force in a new Egypt,” says Mr. Bulliet. “Yet it was precisely America’s decision to cushion the shah’s fall and defy popular demands that he be held responsible for his autocratic rule that led to the debacle of the Iranian hostage crisis,” in which 52 US diplomats were held for 444 days from 1979 to 1981.
Descent into Islamic militancy?
Such analysis has done little to ease more alarmist views that Mubarak’s regime – even without the 82-year-old autocrat at the helm – is all that stands between Egypt and a dangerous and destabilizing descent into Islamic militancy.
Collapse of the regime could be “the biggest disaster for the region and Western interests since the Iranian revolution,” writes Barry Rubin, director of the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center, in a Monitor opinion piece.
Fall of the Mubarak government would be a “tremendous defeat” for the US that “could reignite the Arab-Israeli conflict and cost tens of thousands of lives,” suggested Mr. Rubin, the author of several books on the region.
Rubin paints the Muslim Brotherhood as radicals ready to pounce and do away with Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.
“Why does the Brotherhood not engage in violence in Egypt?” asks Rubin. “The answer is not that it is moderate, but that it has felt the time was not ripe.”
Experts on Egyptian politics say that such views exaggerate the abilities and the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood today. The group has been struggling – like all of Egypt’s fractured opposition groups – to keep up with the fast-paced protests on the street.
“The voices making comparisons with [Iran in] 1979 have failed to understand the seeds of the Islamic revolution, nor do they seem to recognize that today’s Egyptian uprising is a nonideological movement,” says Geneive Abdo, director of the Iran program at the National Security Network and The Century Foundation in Washington, in an analysis for Foreign Policy magazine.
“I have been surprised at just how minimal a role the Brotherhood has played so far – not only in the street movement, but in the consciousness of the young people in Tahrir Square,” writes Ms. Abdo, who has authored books on Iran and on Islam in Egypt, and lived for years in Cairo and Tehran.
“It is clear the new Egypt in the post-Mubarak era will be self-determined, more anti-American and closer to its Arab and Muslim neighbors. And this will happen whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood takes the driver’s seat in a new government,” Abdo adds.