You Say You Want a Revolution?

The dire warning 1979 Iran gives 2011 Egypt.

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.”

Finding undue resonance in oil field “worker komitehs” and the peddling of Marxist literature in Tehran, future Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird wrote in the The Nation that “there is every reason to believe that the still unpublished [Iranian] Constitution will include all the elements of a liberal democratic system.” Mother Jones envisioned that the Islamic Revolution would result in “democratic reforms, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the astronomical waste of huge arms purchases, and a constitutional government.” French philosopher Michel Foucault similarly claimed that in Khomeini’s Iran “minorities will be protected and free to live as they please,” “there will not be inequality with respect to rights” between the sexes, and clerics would have no “role of supervision or control.”

The Left couldn’t have been more deluded in their romantic real-time portrayal of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Nearly everything said in The Nation and Mother Jones turned out to be horribly wrong. Therein lies a lesson for everyone on how not to interpret events unfolding in Egypt.

There is something narcissistic in seeing ourselves in the protesters, control-freakish in imposing a coherent narrative on chaotic protests, parochial in projecting our political ideals on their uprising, hubristic in believing half-a-world-away words by U.S. leaders will direct Egyptians who don’t care for us to resolve this dispute to our liking.

When we don’t know anything about someone we assume they are like us. But Egyptians are not Americans, so transposing our ideas on them will serve only to further confuse. So, too, will the binary thinking that automatically awards deposers the label of “liberator.” The deposers of repressive regimes do so out of a desire to escape repression. They often depose repressive regimes to become the repressors themselves. Hosni Mubarak is a bad guy. His replacement could be a very very bad guy.

“We should smile and embrace instability,” Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post. “And we should rejoice—because change, in repressive societies, is good.” That’s what people thought in Paris in 1789, St. Petersburg in 1917, and Tehran in 1979. One might presume that the repeated experience of bad going to worse would discourage such dangerous optimism for Cairo in 2011. Alas, that presumption wouldn’t have learned anything from history, either.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other broadcast networks. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at