The Nature of "Revolutions" in the Middle East

Question: What is the nature of the “revolution” in Egypt and where is it going?

Some news-making answers:

Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei (Iran’s Supreme Leader): “This is what was always referred to as the Islamic awakening created by the victory of the great Revolution of the Iranian nation.” (TV Press, February 4, 2011).

Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister of Israel): “In a time of chaos, an organised Islamic group can take over the state. It happened in Iran [in 1979] and it also happened in other places” (The Australian, February, 2, 2011).

Mirhossein Mousavi (Iran’s 2009 presidential candidate and leader of the Iranian Green movement): “The slogans of the Iranian nation who took to the streets in 2009 . . . have reached Egypt” (Reuters, February 2, 2011).

Ali Larijani (Speaker of Iran’s Parliament): “What is happening these days in Tunisia and Egypt is a kind of Islamic awakening that the Westerners should pay attention to” (Press TV, February 3, 2011).

John McCain (US Senator): “This virus spreading through the Middle East proves the human yearnings” (AP, February 3, 2011).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “The Specter of 1979 Is Haunting the Middle East” (Headline, February, 3, 2011).

Kayhan (Iran’s daily principalist newspaper): “The Dawn of Khomeini in the Arabic Middle East” (Headline, February 2, 2011)

In his 1969 book Perception & Discovery: An Introduction to Scientific Inquiry, the philosopher of science N.R. Hanson has a chapter entitled “Seeing and Seeing As.” In it he presents a famous example of gestalt switch, a funny looking picture which could be construed as either a bunny rabbit or a duck. The question is which do you see; and the answer is what is the context? You might see a bunny rabbit or a duck, depending on whether you put the picture in the midst of either bunny rabbits or ducks. That, of course, is normal and expected. But if you see the same funny looking picture in the midst of a mixture of bunny rabbits and ducks, or even in the midst of elephants, and you still insist that it is a duck, then you might only see what you would like to see. This seems to be the story behind the above answers concerning the nature of the Egyptian “revolution” and its future.

Before going any further let me explain why I put revolution in quotation marks. The term is perennially unclear.  Does “revolution” mean a complete change in economic structure and a corresponding overhaul of political and legal institutions, the kind of revolution that Marx had in mind in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy?  Or could something as trifling as overthrowing a two-bit dictator be called a “revolution”?  These days, it seems the term is being used more and more in the latter sense.  Indeed, the former is so drastic and epoch making that it is hard to come up with an example of it. And if such revolutions did take place, their gestation periods were very long. Certainly, such revolutions as the “bourgeoisie revolution” that Marx seems to have had in mind in A Contribution were centuries in the making and did not take place overnight.  Thus, in the absence of grand changes in economic structure and corresponding superstructure, we use the term “revolution” loosely, whether we are conscious of it or not.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which many see as the inspiration for the Egyptian Revolution, should be looked at in the loose sense mentioned above. It originally started as a massive, popular uprising against the Shah, a ruthless dictator who had a symbiotic relation with the “West,” particularly with the US and Israel. They scratched his back and he scratched theirs, that is, they helped to keep him in power and he helped to maintain their “interest.” The “interest” included exchanging petrodollars for arms, which in turn were used to maintain “law and order” in the Persian Gulf region.

The simmering discontent among the populace, building up over decades, eventually reached a boiling point and led to massive demonstrations against the monarch in 1978 and 1979, particularly when economic bottlenecks brought additional hardship in Iran.  Since the dictator had managed to silence all opposition to his rule, the demonstrations in Iran originally were mostly leaderless and spontaneous. However, the religious groups—which the Shah could not eradicate since their lives were intertwined with the fabric of the society—soon filled the vacuum and took over the leadership. In a classic case of “seeing and seeing as,” these groups saw the popular revolution of 1979, the Iranian Revolution, as nothing more than an “Islamic Revolution.”

The Islamic Revolution ended the institution of monarchy and, with it, the decades-old symbiotic relation between the monarch and the “West.” “Iran was lost,” to use the language of Washington policy makers. Yet, almost to the last minute, the US tried to cling to its strongman, denying that he was a dictator and violated human rights. Indeed, it seemed the policy of human rights, designed by the US policy makers to combat “communism,” had no application whatsoever to the client states of the US. Thus, in 1978 President Carter toasted his friend, the Shah, and stated:

Iran is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you. There is no leader in the world for whom I feel such deep gratitude and personal friendship as the Shah (The New York Times, January 1, 1978).

But once the winds against the dictator started to blow so fast that saving him appeared to be impossible, the “West” discarded the old ally like a piece of trash and tried to make a deal with the future rulers of Iran.

Internally, the Islamic Revolution ended the oppressive rule of the monarch but imposed on Iran the “Velayat-e Faqih,” or the “guardianship of the jurist.” The constitution of Iran became “The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran” and its first article read: “The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic, endorsed by the people of Iran on the basis of their long-standing belief in the sovereignty of truth and Qur’anic justice.” Iran became the “Islamic Republic” and judicial matters were subjected to religious interpretation. Whereas in the old order the monarch defined the bounds of freedom, now “Islam,” as interpreted by the “Islamic jurist,” defined the limits of what one can and cannot do.

Thirty years later, after a tumultuous and contentious election in Iran in 2009, those masses who could no longer tolerate the limits of their freedom found an occasion to take their case to the streets. The use of modern technology, such as cell phones and the internet, facilitated organizing the demonstrations. But these demonstrations were, once again, mostly leaderless and spontaneous without clearly articulated and defined goals and demands. What united the masses seemed to be what the Iranians had fought for since the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911: attaining basic freedoms and liberties.

However, the problem of “seeing and seeing as” crept in. Those who saw the demonstrations in the context of a “stolen election,” saw the uprising as a “Green Revolution” in support of this or that presidential candidate, even if these candidates represented the same old guards in new clothes. Those in the “West” who were infatuated with modern technology, mostly the “technology geeks,” saw the events as a “Twitter Revolution.”  And some, living in the heart of the US, saw the events as a “civil rights movement,” analogous to that carried out by the African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s. The “principalists” in Iran, who have seen years of sanctions and threats by the “West” to overthrow the Islamic government, saw the events as nothing more than a “sedition” organized and supported by the “West.” In sum, people saw mostly what they wanted to see, even if the context was not exactly there and their imaginations seemed to be running wild.

The revolution in Egypt, too, presents the dilemma of “seeing and seeing as.” It would be easy to see this event in the context of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The dictatorial rule of Mubarak is similar to that of the Shah; so is his symbiotic relation with the “West.” With brute force Mubarak has maintained “law and order” in Egypt. He has also preserved the interest of the US and Israel in the region, including helping to perpetuate the occupation of the Palestinian homeland. The “West,” in turn, has maintained his rule. Similar to the Shah, Washington has continuously denied that Mubarak is a dictator. Indeed, as late as January 28, 2011, Vice President Biden stated on PBS’s NEWSHOUR: “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” And similar to the Shah, the US has stood by its strongman almost to the last minute. But, once the winds against the dictator started to blow so fast that saving him appeared to be impossible, the US was willing to discard him like a piece of trash. After all, two-bit dictators are a dime a dozen, and there are many more where they came from.

However, rather than seeing the Egyptian Revolution in the context of the Iranian Revolution, many have been looking at it in the context of the Islamic Revolution. This includes such mortal enemies as the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel. They see what they want to see, even though there is no sign of any Islamic Revolution in Egypt. Indeed, shortly after the proclamation of Ayatollah Khamenei concerning the nature of the revolution in Egypt, the official websites of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood [MB] stated: “MB responds to Iran’s Islamic Leader Mr Khamenai: The MB regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution asserting that the Egyptian People’s Revolution includes Muslims, Christians, from all sects.” Yet, neither the leaders of Israel nor those of Iran seem to accept this disclaimer. The reasons for the reluctance are, of course, very different. The Israeli leaders would like to create a boogeyman to scare the world so that the Israeli-friendly dictatorships in the Middle East, such as Mubarak, continue to reign and maintain “law and order.” The leaders of the Islamic Republic, on the other hand, have their own reasons to insist that what we are witnessing is the spread of the Islamic Revolution. This includes glorifying and preserving a system that does not tolerate any dissenting voice.

There are, of course, other ways to see the Egyptian revolution. Indeed, there are some parallels between this revolution and the 2009 post-presidential election in Iran. For example, similar to Iran, the use of modern technology made organizing demonstrations in Egypt easier.  Consequently, the Egyptian government, similar to the government of Iran, tried to suppress such uses and blamed external forces for the demonstrations.  In the height of the absurdity, the authorities in Egypt even blamed Israel, which has steadfastly stood by Mubarak, its partner in crime, for the turmoil!  But the analogy soon ends and it makes no sense to see, as the leader of the Iranian Green movement sees, the slogans of the “stolen election” in Iran reaching Egypt. In all the pictures of the demonstrations in Egypt that have reached us, there is not a single placard saying “where is my vote,” a placard that was visible in the Green demonstrations.

Lastly, there is the US policy maker’s way of seeing the revolution in Egypt. This is exemplified by Senator McCain, who sees the “human yearnings” that are spreading across the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, as a “virus.” If these “human yearnings” are for freedom and liberty, then one has to say that mankind has been chronically sick, since the yearnings are universal. But, it seems that for the likes of Mr. McCain, who sees the people of the Middle East as nothing more than the vassals of the US and Israel, the yearnings for freedom and liberty become a virus when it reaches countries such as Egypt.

It is hard to predict how the events in Egypt will unfold. Revolutions are notoriously unpredictable. But if we put this revolution in the right context, a broad and historical context, it is easier to see the ultimate outcome. Whether Mubarak, or for that matter any other dictator in the region, falls today or tomorrow is immaterial. What matters is what is happening in the streets of Egypt and some other countries in the region. The mass movements show that the region has finally reached the level of development that allows people to challenge the dictators that rule them, particularly the dictators who are nourished from outside. It is time for those who still see the world in the old context of colonialism to see the new reality of the Middle East and come to terms with it. It is also time for the dictators, even the independent ones, to see the writing on the wall.

SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at:

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: