A Note of Warning and Encouragement for Egyptians

From an Iranian writer who lived through the 1979 Revolution.

Abbas Milani

 

After days of unrest, after declaring martial law in some of the country’s main cities, the authoritarian leader gave a much anticipated television speech. His tone was repentant. He promised change and reform. The people wanted democracy and he promised to bend to their wishes.  
For a long time, the United States had been advising him to open his political system—but had been seen publicly as his chief supporter. The U.S. president had given lofty and elegant speeches defending democracy and human rights, assuring the people of the Middle East that the United States supported their democratic demands. But both the leader and his American supporters were caught off-guard by the size of the demonstrations. American officials began trying to walk a dangerous tight-rope: offering support for the beleaguered leader but also establishing ties and credibility with the opposition.
When the leader tried to use the force of his military to calm the situation, the United States issued ambiguous statements, indicating support for the leader’s desire to establish law and order on the one hand while at the same time insisting that the march of democracy must continue, and that the use of force could not be a solution to the country’s problems. Benefiting from the subsequent chaos, radical Islamists, posing as democrats, used the chance to seize power and deracinate the democratic movement in favor of tradition and theocracy.
The country I am speaking of is not Egypt in 2011 but Iran in 1979. The leader is the Shah, not Hosni Mubarak. Yet, as this history makes clear, the parallels between then and now are numerous. And they offer some key lessons for Americans and Egyptians alike.

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