There has been a lot of commentary in the last couple of weeks about how the Egyptian uprising may go the way of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, or Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005, or the Hamas elections in 2006, all of which began in euphoria and democratic promise before turning sour.
To hear Fox News host Glenn Beck tell it, the real comparison should be to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He informed political commentator Bill O’Reilly that “Marxist communists” are behind the Egyptian demonstrations. For more rational critics than Beck, the idea is to temper the excitement and let the realists explain the facts of global political life to the naive enthusiasts who think something positive — even great — can come from the events unfolding in Cairo.
But this time the good guys are more likely to finish first. It’s the hardheaded gray beards who may have it wrong and the starry-eyed kids who may have it right, not just on the moral argument but in terms of the likeliest political outcome. No guarantees, of course, but the odds are favorable.
It’s understandable why some might fear another Iranian Revolution. That one, too, began with young people rebelling against a head of state, the Shah of Iran, who was at the time the closest American ally in the region. His regime, like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, had decent relations with Israel, while his secret police, the Savak, had repressed Iranian dissidents much as the Egyptian police have long brutalized Egyptians.
The difference is that the Iranian Revolution was always religious at its core. While it looked for a time in 1979 as if moderates might prevail, the Ayatollah Khomeini, living in exile in Paris, was from the start the spiritual leader of the protesters in the streets. Because Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation, which means its religious life is dominated by a hierarchy of mullahs, it was easier for extremist clerics to grab control of the revolution.
By contrast, Egypt is overwhelmingly Sunni, which in most forms has no official clerical authority. The demonstrations this month are strikingly secular, organized largely by an Egyptian Google executive named Wael Ghonim who was greeted as a hero this week when released from jail.
The colorfully named revolutions of 2005 are also poor models for predicting the outcome in Egypt. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine is failing today because of the return of Viktor Yanukovych, who took power in a legal election. After defeating liberal opponents last year, President Yanukovych is trying to restrict the press and rewrite the constitution.
Autocratic rule may happen in Egypt down the road; elections aren’t a panacea, just one step on a long road to democracy. But any autocrat tempted to follow Mubarak’s example would lose $1.5 billion in foreign aid from the United States. That money, once delivered willingly to Egypt in exchange for maintaining peace with Israel and helping fight terrorism, now has huge strings attached. While the U.S. can’t fully control events, the next president of Egypt — whoever it turns out to be — will know that taking steps to democratize is necessary to maintain support from the people in the streets and from allies.
The reason for the U.S. government’s slowness in adapting to the new realities of Egyptian politics is obvious: Certain policy makers and commentators are anxious about the arrival of a world they don’t know. It’s easier to resort to familiar historical analogies or stale paradigms (Mubarak versus the Muslim Brotherhood) than to confront uncertainty and begin to get acquainted with a whole new crowd of young reformers.
The story is moving on without the realists. They will be left behind by a dynamic inside Egypt that is more evolutionary than revolutionary. The right comparison for Egypt isn’t Iran, Ukraine or Lebanon, much less Gaza. It may be Turkey: a large, moderate Muslim nation that’s rapidly joining the global economy. Or what’s happening in Egypt may defy analogy entirely.
With U.S. help, Egypt can get to a much better place. But first we have to recognize that those lawyers, dentists, teachers and young job-seekers on our television screens aren’t fronting for Islamists or naive teenagers destined for the inside of a dungeon. They just want a little more freedom in their lives, and now have an exhilarating chance to get it.
Jonathan Alter is a national correspondent for Newsweek and author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”