One storyline that’s making the rounds in the wake of ongoing protests in Egypt is that an applicable comparison can be made to Iran’s “green revolution” of 1979. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed in today’s New York Times titled, “Get Ready for the Muslim Brotherhood” that states as much, warning the U.S. that it should support Egypt’s secular left to prevent another theocratic government from taking over in the Middle East. (Hirsi Ali, it must be said, is about as anti-religion as Bill Maher, but with more street cred.) On Feb 6, John Simpson made the comparison in his Telegraph column. He writes, “All this reminded me strongly of being in Tehran during the year-long revolution which culminated in the Shah’s flight in January 1979.” Israel’s Netanyahu made the comparison on January 31.
Juan Cole takes pains in his Feb 2 column at Informed Consent to debunk the comparison of Egypt to Iran, point by point. He writes:
Egypt is, unlike Iran, not primarily an oil state. Its sources of revenue are tourism, Suez Canal tolls, manufactured and agricultural exports, and strategic rent (the $1.5 bn. or so in aid from the US comes under this heading). Egypt depends on the rest of the world for grain imports. Were it to adopt a radical and defiant ideology like that of Iran, all its major sources of income would suddenly evaporate, and it might have trouble even just getting enough imported food. Moreover, the social forces making the revolution in Egypt have a significantly different profile and different dynamics than in Iran.
Some analysts read off support for the MB from Egyptians’ religiosity. Egyptians have been undergoing a religious revival in the past couple of decades. You have to think about them like southern evangelicals in the US. When I am in Egypt it reminds me a lot of South Carolina in that regard. But that people go to mosque, or that their women wear headscarves, or that they value religion, does not necessarily translate into them voting for a sectarian and somewhat cliquish group like the Muslim Brotherhood. Many pious Muslims are factory workers and so closer to April 6 than to the Brotherhood. Many women who wear headscarves do so to legitimate their entry into the modern labor force and appearance in the public sphere. National identity co-exists with the religious. Egyptians are also great nationalists, and many insist that the Egyptian nation is a framework within which Christian Copts are completely legitimate participants.
A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Egyptians favor democracy in almost all situations. And fully 60 percent are very or somewhat worried about the specter of religious extremism in their society. About 61% do not even think there is a struggle between modernizers and religion in Egypt.