Cairo's Protests Reverberate in Tehran

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In Iran, both the regime and the opposition are working to co-opt Egypt's popular uprising88491413p.jpg
A wide range of observers, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Fox News' Glenn Beck, are warning that the downfall of the U.S.-backed dictator in Egypt could lead to another Iranian style theocracy in the Middle East. Others, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, are drawing parallels between the Egyptian protests and Iran's Green Movement uprising of 2009. This debate is raging nowhere more fiercely than in Iran itself, where many Iranians -- on both the right and the left -- are clamoring to claim the Egyptian revolution for themselves.

On one side of the political spectrum are a group of conservative parliamentary members, Revolutionary Guard leaders, and even the Supreme Leader himself, who are trying to cast the Egyptian revolution as a part of a greater Islamic uprising across the region. In a sermon last Friday, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei painted the events in Egypt as an "Islamic awakening" that signals an "irreversible defeat" for American hegemony in the Middle East. Jahanbakhsh Mohebinia, a senior Parliamentary member, went one step further, claiming that the toppling of Hosni Mubarak's regime will result in the formation of "the Continent of Islam" -- a phrase sure to send many a Fox News commentator screaming for the airwaves.

On the other side are Iran's youth and the leaders of the Green Movement, some of whom are even taking credit for the popular revolution that is now taking place in Egypt. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the man whose loss to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections launched the largest and most sustained demonstrations in Iran since the 1979 revolution, voiced his confidence that "the starting point of what we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, San'a, Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez stems from the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran, where millions of Iranians marched in June of 2009." A statement in the university journal Daneshjoo News made the point in starker terms: "The democracy movement we started is spreading in the region and today we are witnessing the awakening of the Arabs. It's time for us to once again join hands and prove to the world that dictatorship must end."

It is this latter notion -- that the events in Egypt could push Iranians to align in popular demonstrations against their government -- that has raised the ire of the country's regime. Iranian state media coverage of the Egyptian demonstrations has been both ubiquitous and remarkably candid, if a bit oblivious to its connotations. Iran's government-employed news commentators have been quite critical of the use of force by pro-Mubarak supporters against unarmed protesters on the streets of Cairo, apparently totally unaware of the irony of their criticism. Meanwhile, both leaders of the Green Movement and supporters of the Iranian regime have taken turns claiming the mantle of the young Egyptian protesters for themselves and comparing each other to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime. An absolutely riotous op-ed in Iran's Jahan News, which is associated with the Revolutionary Guard, declared that "the freedom- and justice-loving people of Egypt will do to the Arab dictator what the people of Iran did with the Green Pharaohs," meaning the leaders of the Green Movement.

The Egyptians themselves seem either unaware or simply uninterested in the debate taking place in Iran. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has backed away from any connection either to the Green Movement uprising or to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. "The Muslim Brotherhood regards the revolution as the Egyptian people's revolution, not an Islamic revolution," read a statement by the organization. "The Egyptian people's revolution includes Muslims, Christians and [is] from all sects and political tendencies."

The protests in Iran, by employing new social media technologies to rally against authoritarian regimes that wield total control over the levers of communication, at the very least set the stage for what is now taking place across the Middle East (I was among those who predicted in 2009 that the next target of the so-called Twitter Revolution would be Hosni Mubarak). But what Iran-watchers have been eagerly waiting to see is whether the dramatic success of the ongoing Arab push for democracy will reenergize the dormant Green Movement in Iran and get Iran's youth back onto the streets.

After all, Iran is facing many of the same economic woes that plunged Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt into revolt. As outlined by the Asia Times, Iran's rate of economic growth is close to zero, compared to three percent for Tunisia and 4.6 percent in Egypt. The official unemployment rate in Iran is reported at about 15 percent of the working-age population, and while that is roughly similar to the unemployment figures in Tunisia, most independent estimates place Iran's unemployed at closer to 30 percent. While Egypt's rate of inflation stands at an astonishing 12 percent, that is approximately half of Iran's inflation rate, which economists estimate to be close to 24 percent. According to the United Nations, some 20 to 30 percent of Egypt's population lives below the poverty line (the number in Tunisia is about eight percent). Compare that to the approximately 25 percent in Iran.

All of this has people wondering whether what began in Iran two years ago could possibly make its way back to Iran in the near future. That is certainly what the Green Movement hopes will happen; its leaders recently petitioned the government for a permit to stage a protest in Iran next Monday in order to "show solidarity with the popular movements in the region and specifically the freedom-seeking movement embarked on by Tunisian and Egyptian people against their autocratic governments." There is no chance the Iranian regime is going to let that happen. In fact, the government has just shut down access in Iran to Reuters and Yahoo News, perhaps in recognition that the events in Egypt are increasingly difficult to spin into pro-regime propaganda. Instead, the regime has announced it will stage its own rally in support of the people of Egypt to coincide with the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 Revolution, which takes place this Friday. Of course, the last time the regime tried to celebrate the revolution's anniversary, it had to flood the streets with tens of thousands of armed security guards and shut down virtually all access to mobile phones and the internet, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, just to keep the event from being hijacked by the Green Movement.

It was Egypt's foreign minister who perhaps best summed up the situation in Iran by condemning the Iranian regime for "distracting the Iranian people's attention by hiding behind what is happening in Egypt."

"Iran's critical moment has not come yet," said Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "But we will watch that moment with great anticipation and interest."

Whatever happens in Iran Friday, we should do the same.

Photo: Tehran, June 23, 2009. Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

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Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God as well as Beyond Fundamentalism and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East.

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