Special Commentary: How Iran Views the Egyptian Crisis

Muslim Brotherhood Member address protesters in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt.

On the official website of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (https://khamenei.ir/), the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, an edited audio statement was posted last year addressing a Palestinian group in which the Ayatollah predicates sweeping change in the region. In the recording, he declares that “with the will of God a new Middle East is beginning to form and this Middle East is an Islamic Middle East.” With that statement, Khamenei puts an Islamist spin on the mass uprisings that have engulfed North Africa since last month. In an orchestrated way, such depictions have also been reiterated by other ruling Iranian clerics, senior army officers and representatives of the regime, who advocate the view that Egypt’s insurrection was inspired by Islamism, directed against tyrannical powers supported by the U.S. and its allies. As Ahmad Khatami, a hardliner cleric, describes it, these new uprisings signal the birth of a new order, an Islamic Middle East (Fars News, January 28).

The official response by Tehran has remained remarkably consistent. While reports of the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen found their way to the top of the news in the state media, official Iranian accounts have been largely framed in reference to the memory of the 1979 revolution that led to the downfall of the shah’s regime, a close ally of the U.S. (Mehr News, January 28).  Similarly, a number of print media outlets closely aligned with the hardliners have described the recent uprisings as the long overdue “aftershock of the Islamic Republic” (Tehran Times, February 1). Similar references to the revolution can also be heard by Major-General Rahim Safavi, a major paramilitary figure, who identifies the 1979 Islamic Revolution as “the conceptual framework” for the popular revolts in North Africa (Press TV, February 2). The most important of the hardliner news outlets, Keyhan, describes the popular demonstrations as having shaken the “seat of the Pharaoh,” a reference to Mubarak’s regime as a modern day, ungodly power (Keyhan, January 31). Still, anti-government Egyptian protestors have also found supporters in the Iranian parliament. In the days following the unrest, 214 Iranian parliamentarians signed a statement that showed support for protestors and rejected the “malicious” intent of Western powers, namely the U.S., to prevent the uprising from taking its natural Islamic course (IRNA, February 1, Fars News, February 1). It seems as though the Islamist spin will most likely continue through this coming Friday Prayers, when the Supreme Leader will address the nation on the Egyptian uprising (Al-Manar, February 1).

Iran severed ties with Egypt in 1979, when the new Islamic Republic declared Egypt as an agent of Zionism for signing the 1978 Camp David Accords. Ever since, and especially after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Iranian regime has predicated the collapse of the Egyptian government to be followed by an “Islamic” political order. Yet despite claims by Tehran’s hardliners and some alarmist factions in Washington that the latest situation could lead to an Islamist takeover similar to the Iranian revolution with the collapse of a pro-U.S. government, today’s Egypt may more closely resemble the Iran of 2009 than that of 1979. Similar to the Iranian opposition, Egyptian protesters have demanded accountability and an end to corruption; they want change and they appear to want it now. Democracy, rather than Islamist populism, seems to be the main ideal of the Egyptian demonstrators.

This is essentially the view that is shared by the Green movement, whose leader, Mir-Hussain Mousavi, declared on the official website “Kalemeh.com” that origins of the demonstrations in Cairo, Tunis and other cities in North Africa can be traced back to the mass protests in Tehran in 2009. He further argues that “the interests behind the ideology ruling the country (Iran) do not allow realities to be presented. The loudspeakers and spokespersons of the leaders do not pay attention to the corrupt and dictatorial actions of the Egyptian pharaoh which has created this explosive situation in Egypt through arrests, interrogations, fabrication of cases, and the plundering of people through gangs and associates” (Roozonline, February 1). This presents a historic lesson for the Islamic Republic to learn, Mousavi claims, which should not go unnoticed.

While it remains to be seen if a new democratic Egypt will emerge out of the current crisis, which appears to be increasingly more violent, the latest events have been viewed by some as warning signs for the Iranian establishment. In a famous statement given in November of last year, Ayatollah Ahmad Jananti, the head of the conservative-dominated Guardian Council and a major supporter of the Ahmadinejad regime, cautioned against the country’s “seditionists,” describing them as “fire under the ashes” (Press TV, November 12, 2010; IRNA, November 11, 2010). In many ways, the anxiety of the ruling elites in Iran comes from the unpredictable nature of protest movements that continue to thunder across the region and that could turn the 2009 ashes into new flames of rage.