Huffpost WorldPost
Shadi Rahimi Headshot

Egypt Is Not Iran

Posted: Updated:

Now that Egypt's ongoing revolution has delivered the country its first Islamic president, there's a common Iran-related theme I've been noticing among the Egyptians I speak to online and follow daily -- "Egypt will not be Iran."

Gigi Ibrahim, a young activist who is among Egypt's Twitterati, summarized the threads in one tweet: "There needs to be a clear message to the west that Egypt WILL NOT be Iran and it can NOT even be!! STOP this Islamist SCARE!!!"

I've heard this sentiment echoed since the first day I arrived in Cairo last May, where I lived for eight months. I was picked up at the airport by an Egyptian student, Refaat, who said upon hearing that I was Iranian-American: "I love Ahmadinejad."

I was surprised. I had expected a young Egyptian activist to align himself with Iranian activists, not Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election in 2009 sparked the first of many YouTube and Twitter-fueled uprisings soon to follow in the Middle East/North Africa region. But during our drive to Tahrir Square, Refaat shared a perspective I would hear echoed: "I love him because he says 'F-you' to the West."

He went on to explain that living under the rule of a U.S.-backed dictator his entire life (26 years) meant an admiration of such leaders who take political stands against the West (despite the same leader's repression of his own people). In Tahrir that day, I filmed young activists who showed me tear gas canisters imprinted with "Made in U.S.A." I interviewed a young man selling Osama bin Laden shirts, who argued that Western governments including the U.S. and Israel should be considered "terrorist."

I asked Refaat -- who, like the majority of Egyptians, is Muslim -- if he desired or feared that Egypt would become like Iran after revolution, an anti-Western Islamic state. "No we'll never be like Iran," Refaat said. Even if Islamic leaders came to power, he said, Egyptian Muslims are of the Sunni sect, while Iranian Muslims are Shi'a, which has a hierarchical clerical structure and a judicial system based on Shi'a Islamic law, or sharia.

The Egyptian revolution was not an Islamic uprising or an "anti-Western" uprising, others in Tahrir said, and in conservative regions, even devout residents protect their tourism-based incomes, which include availability of alcohol and openness of dress.

"There's three things you never mess with when it comes to Egyptians," joked an activist friend. "Their women, their pride, or their money."

When I first arrived in Cairo, it had been five months since the uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. A police force once feared for corruption and brutality -- including the beating death of Khaled Said, news of which helped fuel the uprising -- appeared castrated. Activists would hold modest protests against jailing of 12,000 civilians who were facing military tribunals, but across Egypt, soldiers were still regarded with reverence for having "saved" the people from the police during the uprising.

The country was, and still is, being run by a military regime that promised transitory rule. Activist warnings about military rule came to head in August, on the first day of Ramadan. I was in Tahrir when soldiers drove in with tanks. Mubarak's trial began two days later, as police stood guard in Tahrir, and soldiers were stationed around it.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned for Parliament by handing out packaged vegetables with their logo and meat -- a prized gift during the holy month.

In October, nearly two-dozen Coptic Christians were killed by soldiers in a massacre driven in part by sectarian propaganda fueled by state TV announcers. In November, clashes erupted when police and soldiers tried to remove a sit-in. Young men held back security forces from Tahrir for a few days in the face of tear gas and ammunition.

About 2,000 were injured and 40 were killed in five days of fighting, including a well-known Muslim cleric. Graffiti on the walls of Cairo included an image of the cleric and a young Coptic protestor killed in October holding hands in unity. Parliamentary elections were held several days after a truce was brokered by Muslim clerics. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice (FJP) party won a majority of the seats.

Fast forward seven months to today, and the FJP's Morsi, a former prisoner under Mubarak's regime, has won the presidency over Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister, during elections managed by the military regime.

"No more military rule and trials inshallah (God willing)," a 29-year-old revolutionary activist wrote me. "Damn I am excited. And the revolution continues."

Just a few days before, this same activist had written me to share his belief that the elections would be "stolen" by Shafiq and military rulers, following a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that dissolved the parliament. The military rulers had also removed the president's power to control the military and seized other authority.

The activist had emailed me a famous photo from Iran's 1979 Revolution, showing the firing squads used to execute rebels and Shah supporters. "This will be Egypt," he had written me. "Egyptian activists will face trouble soon."

Clearly, Egyptian and Iranian societies are as different as their relationships with the West and Islam. Iran's revolution was more than 30 years ago. Oppositional audiotapes helped shape one religious leader as the voice of the revolution. A national referendum formed an Islamic Republic, and the transition period included a war with Iraq.

But while some Egyptians on Twitter have been virtually rolling their eyes at warnings of an Islamic state, some Iranians are reminding them the same promises President-elect Morsi has made, like not enforcing the hijab for example, had also been made in Iran.

So far, Morsi has kept his promise to leave the FJP after being elected. He has vowed to be the leader of "all Egyptians." I know just as many who boycotted the elections as those who voted for Morsi as the "lesser of two evils." Since Morsi's win, Muslim Brotherhood members have been joining secular activists in Tahrir to chant, "Liberal, secular, Islamist, revolutionary -- all one hand against military rule."

And some of the most revolutionary activists I know are surprisingly giving Morsi the benefit of the doubt, with a caveat. Yesterday, Iranians tweeted news of two alcohol drinkers sentenced to death, and an apparent falsified report that Morsi had spoken to an Iranian news agency. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old Egyptian activist named Mohamed wrote asking his peers to focus on the lack of a constitution and parliament.

"My dear not-pleasant-about-the-results friends," he wrote, "you can be only divided into two groups. Islamophobics (YES YOU ARE) and anti-Ikhwan politics. As for the first type, you need to stop it. I don't think Morsi would drop everything and look at your hair or your beer. More important issues at hand. As for the second type, I know it wasn't the most pleasant choice, but it was the less harmful option. Let's see if they can deliver."

"If they can't," he added. "See you in Tahrir."