Egypt, the United States, and the Ghost of Khomeini

Are there any similarities between Iran of 1978 and Egypt of 2011?  Sadly, yes.

To start with, autocratic leaders who gradually managed to alienate the majority of their populations ruled both countries for thirty years.  Both statesmen suppressed the activities of the democratically inclined and secular political forces -- a huge mistake that brought about the fatal narrowing of the social base of their regimes.  Undoubtedly, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was a dependable American ally, who for the duration of his domination over Iran was able to bring stability into a volatile, very important, and permanently explosive region.  The same characteristic is valid for President Mubarak of Egypt.  Last but not least, both secular leaders and the regimes created by them faced the opposition of the Islamic fundamentalists.

It is obvious that there are also important differences between the situations in Iran and Egypt.  The most important one is the status of both leaders with regard to the army.  Given the military credentials of President Mubarak, his relationship with the officer corps of the Egyptian army, and the degree of his control over it, he continues to exercise at least a certain degree of influence even in the midst of the crisis.  An important fact that should not be ignored is the far more important role played by the Egyptian army, which since July 1952 has the status of a guarantor of the political system of the country -- a fact that provides Mubarak with leverage the shah didn't have.

Looking at both situations from different angles, there was a similarity between the reactions of the American leaders to both challenges.  President Jimmy Carter back in 1978 and President Barack Obama now have a primarily negative view of the dictatorial leaders from the Middle East.  The first reaction of President Obama to the Egyptian crisis was remarkably similar to President Carter's attitude to the first outbreak of the mass demonstrations against the shah three decades ago.  In both cases, the essence of the high-level warnings issued by Washington to the dictators was not to use force against peaceful demonstrations expressing the will of the people.

In both cases, the presidents of the United States were wrong, because the demonstrations shaking Tehran at the time and Cairo now have a clearly visible violent and Islamic component.  As far as the current crisis ravaging Egypt is concerned, there are three extremely important dimensions that remain hidden to President Obama (or did he deliberately ignore them?).  The first one involves the mysterious release of hundreds of criminals, including a large number of hardcore jihadists, from Cairo jails.  The second dimension involves the abandonment of the Egyptian control over the border with the Gaza Strip -- a situation that enabled the appearance on the Egyptian political scene of some Hamas related "activists" who undoubtedly will extend support to their ideological "brothers" from the Muslim Brotherhood.  The third and an extremely important dimension of the Egyptian crisis is the immense role an American strategy will play in its solution.

Before discussing such a positive approach, however, what should be underlined is the fact that the absence of such a strategy will bring a real calamity to the long-term strategic interests of the United States.  At the same time, instead of living in dreams about democratic society, the people of Egypt will be seized by the tentacles of a new dictatorship immeasurably worse than the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.

In order to prevent such a disaster, American policymakers should act immediately.  Their first step should express itself by sending a message to the commandant of the Egyptian army that in Washington's eyes, the army should play the role of a temporary custodian of the country until the outcome of the elections already scheduled for September.  During the period preceding the elections, the American diplomats and special envoys should establish contacts with the representatives of the new secular and democratic organizations that will make their appearance on the political scene of the country.

This situation will provide at least a certain amount of hope that a national debate preceding the elections will expose the intentions of the Islamic fundamentalists to make use of a democratic rhetoric while pursuing dictatorial goals.  Luckily, at least occasionally, the jihadists are very open in discussing their ideas.  Research conducted by the University of Maryland between December 9, 2006 and February 15, 2007 with 1,000 respondents who sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood showed that 675 of them expressed their preference for the unification of all Islamic countries "into a single Islamic State or Caliphate."

The danger looming over Egypt is a serious one.  There is still hope, however, that the country won't display the naïveté of the leaders of the Iranian democratic forces, who paid with their lives for the tragic mistake of trusting the sweet talk of Khomeini.  All those who have forgotten the lessons of the Iranian tragedy should be reminded that what the ayatollah was offering was the creation of "a unified front against the dictatorship of the shah."

Georgy Gounev teaches Contemporary Mid-East History and International Relations at two California colleges.  He and authored the book The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon. The Islamization of Europe and its Impact on American-Russian Relations, scheduled for publication in March or April.