A popular revolution overthrows a dictator formerly supported by the United States. His regime is replaced by an agressive theocracy that rejects western influences and promises reform. The U.S. embassy is threatened by demonstrators who breach its walls, shouting "Death to America!" and demanding that "criminals" currently living in the U.S. be handed over for trial.
That was Tehran in 1976. Is it also Cairo in 2012?
For those of us old enough to remember the Iranian Hostage Crisis, there are haunting similarities. Here are some examples as reported by the Egyptian press.
Like Iran in 1979, Egypt's economy has stuttered to a halt, crippled in part by strikes:
Teachers and administrative staff of Cairo University have been on strike since last week demanding an increase in minimum wages, transport workers escalated their strike on Monday after their union representative was arrested and now Doctor Mostafa Al-Behairy has resumed the sit-in and hunger strike he started Saturday at the doctors’ syndicate in Cairo, demanding better working conditions for medical staff.
These work stoppages and Egypt's weakening tourist industry present a serious challenge to newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The economy is further threatened by delays in U.S. aid:
The violent demonstrations sparked by an anti-Islam video, and Egypt’s
initially clumsy response, have temporarily halted talks about a proposed
$1 billion in debt relief and how to speed millions in other aid to Egypt,
according to several U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity
because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.
Just days before protests erupted outside the fortress-like embassy compound,
American and Egyptian officials had been in the final stages of negotiating the
details of assistance that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Like the newly-installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, President Morsi is the head of a group once outlawed by the previous regime. He must now establish his leadership and consolidate his support:
Once upon a time, the MB could have argued it was a victim; it was a proscribed organisation, and frequently the scapegoat for the Mubarak regime. But, those days are over. Two years ago, it could only win seats in parliament if it ran members as independents. Today, the MB can virtually count on being the largest political force in a new parliament, due to its organisation and efforts, and one of its own sits in the president’s chair. The MB is many things: but it is not a victim.
Many political parties in democracies struggle with the notion of switching from a ‘party in opposition mode’ to a ‘party in power mode’. It is understandable if the MB has that struggle too. But the MB’s perception of victimhood and supporters identifying opposition to the MB as somehow rooted in an instinctive anti-Muslim and/or anti-Islam sentiment cannot be good for Egypt.
Some observers have suggested that the recent demonstrations were staged by Salafists in an attempt to undermine Mr. Morsi's authority. They hint at possible rifts among Egypt's Islamists and suggest that various factions are jockeying for greater power:
As for the Salafists, Jihadists and various other Islamist extremists, the film was the answer to a prayer. Not only did it provide a golden opportunity to strike against the revolutionary values they abhor as atheistic Western imports, it also gave them renewed access to the nation's political stage.
The furore in defence of the Prophet would also serve to undermine the rule of the reasonable, pragmatic Brotherhood, in favour of the more radical, more regressive, tendencies within Egyptian Islamism.
Those "radical, more regressive tendencies" have already been on worrisome display:
What is new now after the appointment of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Ministry of Information is that Egyptian state television allowed the appearance of a veiled newscaster. This step comes after all we have recalled about the development of the state of dress in Egypt and its movement from one form of radicalism to another. The step also comes in the light of the closure of a satellite channel, the imprisonment and trial of a journalist, and the banning of prominent writers’ articles following the appointment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to the press leadership positions.
Accusations of blasphemy followed by show trials are keeping tensions at a steady simmer:
A Coptic Christian schoolteacher, Bishoy Kamel, has been sentenced to six years in prison for posting cartoons on Facebook deemed defamatory to Islam and the Prophet Mohamed, and for insulting President Mohamed Morsi and his family.
Members of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya and various Salafist groups attempted to attack Kamel when he was led out of the court after receiving his sentence. They pelted with rocks the police car used to transport him away from the court.
It's not clear from President Morsi's recent actions if he is trying to harness this rising tension or simply control it:
A controversial draft bill, named the 'protecting society from dangerous people' bill, replicates the worst features of the widely-misused and now defunct emergency law, according to a statement issued by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR).
The bill, which was prepared by the interior and justice ministries and introduced by the incumbent cabinet led by premier Hisham Qandil, is yet to be approved by President Mohamed Morsi.
Like the old emergency law, which gave the police the right to arrest civilians without evidence and without charges, the 'protecting society from dangerous people' bill would give the interior ministry the right to put suspects under house arrest for up to 30 days. It would also enable the ministry to put suspects under surveillance or to order them to carry out community service, for an indefinite period of time.
Sometimes it appears that he is trying to co-opt it:Egypt's general prosecutor issued arrest warrants Tuesday for seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor and referred them to trial on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that has sparked riots across the Muslim world.
The case is largely symbolic since the seven men and one woman are believed to be outside of Egypt and unlikely to travel to the country to face the charges. Instead, the prosecutor's decision to take legal appears aimed at absorbing at least some of the public anger over the amateur film, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer and buffoon.
The prosecutor's office said in a statement that the eight accused, who include the film's alleged maker, face charges of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information. The office said they could face the death penalty, if convicted.
It's not inevitable that events in Cairo will lead to another 1979, but it's not paranoid or bigoted to notice the similarities. The conflicting pressures closing in on Mr. Morsi could even make such an outcome seem attractive now and then:
- Seizing the U.S. Embassy, taking hostages and demanding extradition of the accused filmmakers in exchange for their release would allow President Morsi to "out-Islamist" his Salafist rivals. It could broaden his base of support and enhance his stature in the region.
- A dramatic hostage situation would pull the public's attention away from strikes and economic hardship.
- The American hostages could be used as bargaining chips for a better aid package.
Mr. Morsi need not seize the embassy himself; he need only fail to prevent it. (Recall that the Egyptian police were mysteriously slow to respond to the previous assault.) This would allow him to reap all the benefits of the situation while suffering few of the disadvantages.
And to those pundits now claiming that the anti-film demonstrations were small, it's worth remembering that the Tehran Embassy in 1979 was overrun by only 400 unarmed students.
History doesn't always repeat itself. But we should all pay attention when it starts to rhyme.
Veiled Newscasters on State TV- Farid Zahrann/Daily News Egypt- 9/18/12
U.S. Denies Protests Stalling Aid to Egypt- afp/AhramOnline- 9/18/12
Rights Group: New Police Powers Law Recreates Mubarak-era Emergency Regime- Sherif Tarek/AhramOnline- 9/18/12
Muslim Brotherhood: Victimhood in Power?- Dr. H.A. Hellyer- Daily News Egypt - 9/18/12
Egyptian Copt Jailed for 'Insulting Islam, Morsi' on Facebook- Ekram Ibrahim/AhramOnline- 9/18/12
Egypt to Try 7 Copts, US Pastor over Prophet Film- AP/AhramOnline- 9/19/12
Doctors Join Teachers and Transport Workers on Strike- Hend Kortam/Daily News Egypt- 9/18/12
Conspiracies of Convenience: What's Behind the Film Fracas?- Hani Shukrallah/AhramOnline- 9/13/12
A Country of Extremists- Mahmoud Salem/Daily News Egypt- 9/18/12