The Hijacking Of A Revolution
Tunisia totters in a post-revolutionary limbo. The police in Cairo are overwhelmed by the sheer number of protests and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak calls in the army to restore order. All the while, a worrying vacuum of real intelligence about the protesters' motives is providing an opening for the most extreme elements to seize power.
Of course, the protesters are all motivated by resistance to the ruling elites. But what else? Aside from "Allahu Akbar", do any of the leaders behind these protests have any sort of platform for what comes after? How do they intend to "win the future" for their countries, as US President Barack Obama might put it?
In many ways, it's an unfair question.
First priority is toppling the police state and getting your people out of the torture chambers. After, you can have the luxury of figuring out the stuff that normal governments have to deal with, boring stuff like nationalizing or privatizing institutions, promising infrastructure investment and negotiating free trade agreements. For now, it's "death to the dictator" and "this is what democracy looks like!" The "get government's hands off my medicare" stage of sloganeering comes later.
Still, there is a real danger that the disunited and politically incoherent leftist movements largely leading these protests will ultimately cede power by default to the Islamists. No one fights among themselves better than leftists. Meanwhile, the Islamists - despite their brutal agenda - have a united vision and discipline that puts their socialist counterparts to shame. So, are we looking at a delayed Khomeinist revolution in these countries based on the Iranian model?
In How Iran's Revolution Was Hijacked, Mark Bowden explains how the Islamists did it:
The movement to oust the Shah was primarily a nationalist one, albeit colored by the religious rhetoric of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Many of those who took to the streets in 1978 and 1979 were motivated not by a desire to establish a theocracy but by the same thing that stirs the reform movement there today—a desire to cast off authoritarianism and establish democracy. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy was the pivotal event in the takeover of the revolution by the mullahs of Qom.
Religion did play a big part in the Iranian revolution and Khomeini was its galvanizing figure. But the ayatollah was ambivalent about the idea of clerical rule.
When he returned to Iran from exile in Paris, he set up a secular provisional government in Tehran that was headed by Mehdi Barzagan, a liberal and a democrat. A constitutional convention was convened to sort out what permanent shape Iran's new government would take, and among those participating in that fundamental exercise were communists, socialists, democrats and plenty of other nationalists who did not pray five times a day for religious rule.
Young revolutionary Islamists, alarmed by this secular drift and recognizing that they were in a minority, banded together. Representatives from the five main universities in Tehran formed an organization they called "Strength in Unity." One of these men was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Is the Ayatollah's "global revolution" about to become a reality? It's too soon to tell. But from outside where these revolutions are taking place, we need to be prepared for such an eventuality. Not one Iran, but two, or three. Maybe even that much mythologized Caliphate stretching from North Africa across to the gates of Persia.
Since overt Western intervention runs a high risk of acting as a poison pill for any secular opposition, it will be up to the protesters inside these countries to prevent this disaster from playing out. And let's be clear, as bad as it would be for the rest of us, it would be far worse for the people living in those countries, who will have passed from the frying pan into the fire.
That said, secular protesters will be accused by the radical religious groups of colluding with Western powers no matter what happens. If they're going to get smeared anyway, our options for helping are greater than we suppose. As much as we can, our political leaders ought to be offering real support to democrats. As much as we can.
Jonathon Narvey is the Editor of The Propagandist