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Hundreds dead, violent street demonstrations, a repressive autocratic regime nearing its third decade, new technology fueling the protests, and the threat of Islamic fundamentalists filling the void—one could be talking about Egypt today or Iran in 1979. Perhaps more indicative of the parallels than the similarity of events on the ground are the far-away reactions.
“Proving the Iraq war wasn’t needed, these protests in Egypt, as well as in Yemen and Tunisia, are all aimed at dictators supported by the US,” responded Chris Matthews to the upheaval in the Arab world. For Elliott Abrams, “the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that [George W.] Bush had it right.”
Reactions to unfolding events often tell us more about those reacting than about the events themselves. This is true about Western reactions to the crisis in Egypt. It is also true about reactions to the crisis in the region a generation ago.
Many left-wing Westerners found a kindred spirit in the Ayatollah Khomeini — whose despotism went on to viciously persecute homosexuals, religious minorities, women and political opponents — and to engage in general bellicosity. In 1979, all of that was yet to come, yet large segments of the Left saw themselves in the Islamic revolutionaries — while it wasn’t difficult to predict the ensuing authoritarianism of the new regime. The revolutionists were anti-American, and so were Western radicals. More importantly, the revolutionists were revolutionists and that somehow made them Marxists.
Calling the Islamic Revolution “one dictatorship replacing another” was to “oversimplify,” reported the Manchester Guardian’s Liz Thurgod. The left-wing daily repeated Khomeini’s claims to support political and religious freedom, predicting in February 1979 the emergence of an “introverted” nation ready to jettison “big arms spending.” The Guardian reassured, “The excesses of such regimes as Libya and Saudi Arabia have been ruled out.”
Ted Grant, a mainstay on the UK Left, found in the Islamic Revolution “scenes reminiscent of the February Revolution of 1917.” Predictably, he credited an imagined proletariat for the revolt against the Shah. “As the struggle deepened, it was the movement of the working class, as in Russia, which became the main battering ram for the awakening people.” The religious nature of the movement was downplayed or explained away. “Support for Khomeini will melt away after he forms a government,” Grant forecasted, and “trade unions in Iran will have an explosive growth.”
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