Iran’s mullahs are falling all over themselves to take credit for the wave of democratic fervor sweeping Egypt. Poverty, unemployment, oppression by a corrupt government — bah! According to the Ayatollah Khameini’s Friday sermon, it was the 1979 Iranian revolution that inspired the protesters in Tahrir Square. Isn’t it obvious? (This claim contrasts quite strikingly, by the way, with the movement afoot to assign credit to George W. Bush and his Freedom Agenda for the Egyptians’ newly awakened desire for democracy. Both claims are fishy, though one much more than the other.)
The loopy suggestion that the Iranian theocracy is the guiding light for the Egyptian protesters is no doubt particularly offensive to the throngs of pro-democracy Iranians who tried in vain to wrest their country out of the hands of those same mullahs in 2009. They, not the Ayatollah Khameini and his ilk, are the true antecedents to the demonstrators in Cairo. The Iranian leadership understands this very well, and is now closely monitoring the citizenry to prevent any reignition of the Green Movement as a result of the upheaval in Egypt.
Khameini’s attempt to verbally hijack the Egyptian democratic movement for an Islamist cause had a clear purpose: to remind Islamist fellow travelers in Egypt that the situation represents a great opportunity. (He helpfully switched from Farsi to Arabic during his sermon to ensure comprehension among Egyptian listeners.) Khameini urged the Egyptian protesters not to back down “until the implementation of a popular regime based on religion” — an admirably clear instruction that should serve to remind liberal democrats abroad, eager to welcome Islamists into any future Egyptian government in the name of tolerance and inclusion, just what is at stake here.
The American government might be a little fuzzy on this premise, but the Egyptian government is not. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told MENA (the Egyptian state news agency) that Iran has “crossed all red lines” by purporting to “jump on Egypt’s aspirations or those of its youth.” “The political and public movements towards reform in Egypt alone will design the future of the country and not the wishes of the mullahs of Iran,” he said. “Instead of seeking to distract the Iranian people with Egypt’s political movements, the Supreme Leader should look to Iran and its people who have been aspiring to freedom from an oppressive system.”
The mullahs’ specious claim to credit provides a useful corrective. It reminds us that the Egyptian pro-democracy movement is not — yet — an Islamist movement in sheep’s clothing, but is vulnerable to such co-option and must be protected. It illuminates the divide between the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s homegrown fundamentalists) and the protesters themselves, whose expressed goals are primarily economic, social and political rather than jihadist.
The Brotherhood, in keeping with its shiny new image as an organization of political moderates, has decried the Iranian call to arms as a misrepresentation of the Egyptian democracy movement. That’s the kind of talk that opens doors, not death-to-Israel ranting. The Brotherhood’s canniness is already paying substantial dividends: it will almost certainly cease to be outlawed and will probably be on the ballot in the next election.
That might not seem like much — everybody’s entitled, right? — but if you want to know where it can lead, ask Sa’ad Hariri. Until very recently, he was Prime Minister of Lebanon. The militant Islamist group Hezbollah — which, by the way, is shortly to be indicted by a UN tribunal for assassinating Sa’ad’s father Rafik when he sat in the PM’s chair — muscled its way into the Lebanese government and now owns it. It didn’t take very long, either.
The Brotherhood’s success in Egypt will depend in large part on American credulousness. It is concealing its Islamist agenda behind a smokescreen of Western-friendly language, but that agenda hasn’t changed one jot. The Brotherhood’s true goals are easily found by anyone with the inclination to look. The White House and State Department appear unconvinced by the ideological link that connects Iran’s mullahs to Egypt’s Islamists. Maybe the Ayatollah Khameini can get their attention.