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Is Egypt the New Iran?

For me, today’s crisis in Egypt is a reminder of the 1979 Iranian revolution. I had returned to Tehran, Iran, from the US to visit my family that very hot August. The days of that visit were spent wondering where the anti-Shah demonstrations by thousands of Iranians would lead. This was an unexpected revolution. Who could have predicted that the Shah would be forced to leave? Who would ever have thought that an Ayatollah who was living in exile in France would replace one of the most powerful men in the Middle East? No one could have anticipated it.

One thing that I remember vividly of that blazing August morning was my first encounter with the demonstrators when I walked out of my mother’s house to buy herbs for her Persian stew from the corner vegetable vendor. I saw a long line of demonstrators chanting “The Shah must go! Long live Iran!” Once I got closer to the demonstrators a few of them shouted to me “Sister, cover your hair!” followed by a dirty look. I was no supporter of the Shah, yet neither was I a supporter of the opposition. Certainly my limited encounter made me uneasy and anxious about the outcome.

Other vivid memories from that summer were the ardent political debates between family members and friends at dinner. Some were strong supporters of the Shah, while others were totally committed to his removal from power at any cost. During those tense, hot months of August and September, our dinner parties often ended in heated arguments and the ultimate departure of some angry guests. I was worried that women of Iran would be worse off with the new regime if the mullahs were to lead. For my views I was accused for being too westernized and called gharbzadeh (westoxicated) because I had been living in the United Sates. Most Iranians involved with demonstrations thought and hoped that the Shah’s departure would open the way for the formation of a democratic Iran. Many of my friends and relatives told me that the mullahs would not rule anything except the mosques and that this would be the first step to freedom.

As the protests intensified, martial law was instituted in Iran and I worried about being unable to return to my home in the US. I recall my pro-Shah family members and friends cursing then-President Jimmy Carter for his part in the crisis and confusion. Carter had been pressuring the Shah to make reforms giving the Iranian people freedom of speech and press. At last the Shah ordered the freedom of thousands of political prisoners from the infamous Even Prison. Daily papers quickly published stories of prisoners being beaten and tortured night after night. These stories helped fuel the rage of the demonstrators who would not stop at anything short of the Shah leaving Iran. What was most notable was the determination of the Iranian women. Many began wearing the traditional chador and used the anonymity of this covering to assist them in printing and distributing flyers, copying tapes of Khomeini’s speeches, and giving blood to those injured during demonstration. These women were dreaming of a new democratic Iran where they would have equal rights before the law. It did not take long for them to discover that they had been deceived by Khomeini’s lies and false promises. Many of these brave women were put in prison, raped, executed, or forced into exile.

Will the people of Egypt be better off after President Mubarak leaves? Will the women of Egypt be better off if the Islamists win power? The events that have rocked Egypt for the last two weeks have surprised the world, but if we look closer we will see that nothing started two weeks ago. The perception of the uprising in Tunisia is that it “spread like wildfire,” inciting discontent all over the middle east, but Egypt was not a political vacuum before Tunisia. In fact, Egyptians have been unhappy with President Mubarak for a long time. His 30 years of dictatorship have not earned him respect among either the educated or uneducated Egyptians. The anger and frustration of the Egyptians, particularly the youth, reflects their daily struggles with their lack of jobs, economic insecurity, high inflation, hunger, and political repression. They demand to have a higher standard of living and a democratic government free from corruption. The most remarkable difference between this uprising and the one in Iran in 1979 is the ease with which demonstrators can now organize and communicate across the world with the help of the Internet, cell phones, and Twitter. As hard as the government tries to stop the protest and the communication, it is no longer successful.

President Mubarak has said that there is no leader that might emerge to take his place. That is true. How can a country under dictatorship for so long develop a democracy overnight?

One organized group which has so far remained behind the scenes is the Muslim Brotherhood, who opposed the 2005 re-election of Mubarak. Although technically the group is illegal in Egypt, they have been active in politics nonetheless.

Another important aspect of this situation is Israel’s future. The most important ally of the US in the middle east might find itself with unfriendly neighbors and problematic borders.

There is no way of knowing what the future holds for Egypt, but one thing is clear—it will never be the same as before the protest.

What I saw in Iran during that summer of 1979 makes me fear for the future of Egypt’s civilians, in particular the vulnerable position of women, who often find themselves on the wrong side of history after serving on the front lines of revolution.

Behjat Henderson, PhD, is a lecturer in political science with a focus on the Middle East, at Buffalo State College. She grew up in Iran and studied at the American University in Beirut and at SUNY at Buffalo. Before the revolution, she was the assistant to the minister of the state in charge of women’s affairs in Iran.

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