Protests in Egypt and Lessons from the Iranian Revolution


February 4, 2011

Reports are coming in from Egypt that counter-demonstrators sponsored by the government are attacking protesters demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Furthermore, the Egyptian government is blaming the protesters for disrupting food distribution across Cairo and other major cities, hoping to turn ordinary Egyptians against the protesters.

Historical lessons from the Iranian Revolution show why these, and several other Egyptian government policies, are all very bad ideas.

When protests had broken out in the city of Qom in January 1978, the Shah’s security forces had used lethal force against the protesters, killing a few. The following day, more protesters came out; security forces used lethal force again, killing even more civilians. Although the government was initially able to halt large demonstrations, forty days after the first riots, thousands poured into the street to commemorate the deaths. (Holding a memorial service forty days after someone’s death is a tradition in many Muslim countries.) In what came to be known as “forty-day cycles,” the number of demonstrators – and frequency of demonstrations – increased to the point that not a day went by without a mass protest in Iran in the summer of 1978.

Nevertheless, by August, it seemed that the Shah was still in control of the situation. But then a fire broke at Cinema Rex in the oil town of Abadan on the Persian Gulf on August 19, killing more than 400 people. It would turn out, after the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, that anti-regime militants had started the arson. But so many Iranians were fed up with the Shah and his heavy-handed methods in summer 1978 that they chose to blame his secret police, the SAVAK. The result? More protests and even more killings. In November 1978, the Shah chose General Gholam Reza Azhari to lead a military government and stem the tide. Two months later, the Shah fled Iran.

So, what does all this mean for Egypt?

First of all, it’s a horrible idea to pit one group of citizens against those demanding better living standards and democracy. Soon, the government-sponsored mob just might join the protesters.

Moreover, involving the Egyptian military in the political process is also dangerous. Few militaries are experienced in riot control. Trying to get the military to clamp down on protesters might result in bloodshed, something that Egypt has avoided so far.

To be sure, Egypt is not Iran. But the lesson from the Iranian Revolution is that more blood spilled means people becoming more violent in their resistance to the government. The Shah’s foolish policies had marginalized peaceful reformers and paved the way for uncompromising radicals. In Egypt, the largest political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has not yet responded to the events with violence. But that might change if violence becomes the only viable alternative to the current deadlock.

The lesson from Iran is that President Mubarak should walk away from this mess while his country still has democratic and peaceful alternatives. The Shah of Iran had left his country with none.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ

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3 thoughts on “Protests in Egypt and Lessons from the Iranian Revolution

  1. When the Mubarak government falls, the military will be the only respected government institution left standing. As such, it must not only maintain the peace (the police have proved themselves violent and corrupt) but must play a vital roll in ensuring democratic change.

    When the Shah fled Iran, so did most of his military leaders; this left a huge power vacuum filled by whomever pomised to restore order and peace to the streets. The Islamic fundamentalists were able to fill that void and have now been in power for 32 years. If the Egyptian army falls away, it will open the path for a potentialy funamentalist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who will use their own security apparatus to restore order.

    The army has so far managed to fill there roll as a protector of the people of Egypt by, for the most part, limiting street violence. They are necessary for the transition and need to be part of the process. The question to ask is: When the transition is complete, will the army stand aside and resume it roll as protector of the people, rather than entrench itself and become a protector of its own interests?

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