Egypt takes no chances over Iran-inspired demonstration
The Egyptian authorities were taking no chances. There were at least as many vehicles stuffed full of Egyptian police and security parked near the downtown Cairo square as there were individuals gathered to demonstrate.
There were more than a dozen big trucks and pick-up vans lined along roads leading off Talaat Harb square.
The handful of demonstrators were so heavily outnumbered by baton-wielding security that the gathering to mark the death of Neda, a woman killed during demonstrations over a disputed presidential election in Iran and now a symbol of that protest, never really began.
One member of liberal opposition Ghad party, which had called for the show of support, was bundled into a security truck when she started chanting slogans backing Ayman Nour, who ran for Ghad and lost against President Hosni Mubarak in 2005.
Three more suffered the same fate, party members said. All were released a few hours later.
“The people of Iran were silent before (the election on) June 12 … The street had no voice,” said Nour, addressing a group of his supporters later in his office above the square from which signs were draped with “Ghad: Farewell Neda.”
“(I say) to the regime in Egypt, don’t be fooled by the appearance of calm,” he said, comparing the streets of Cairo, capital of the Arab world’s most populous country, with Tehran.
But is there really a comparison to be made?
Egypt, like Iran, boasts of having a revolution that toppled its monarchy. But Egypt’s 1952 overthrow was led by a group of military officers with Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in their rank. Most Egyptians heard about the revolution from the radio.
In Iran, the 1979 revolution followed months of demonstrations that brought thousands of Iranians onto the streets as the cycle of protester deaths and mourning marches against the shah gathered momentum. Many Iranians were inspired by the words of the exiled cleric, soon to become founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But many others were leftists and communists with a different agenda for change.
Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who inherited Khomeini’s mantle, has the powers of any autocrat in the Middle East or elsewhere. But beneath him are a multiplicity of political forces, all vying to sway political debate albeit, usually, within boundaries set by Iran’s system
of clerical rule.
In quieter times in Tehran, analysts would point out that Khamenei sought a consensus, part of a political balancing act, even if he tended to side with more conservative factions. Divisions have now emerged in the Iranian political establishment and Khamenei has openly taken sides. But there were ready-made sides to take inside the fractured polity of the Islamic Republic.
In Egypt, political debate is little more than a monologue. Mubarak contested his first multi-candidate election in 2005, and Nour came a very distant second. The ruling National Democratic Party has a crushing majority in parliament. Other political parties are weak and fragile. The biggest opposition bloc — the Muslim Brotherhood — with a fifth of parliament’s seats is officially banned, regularly has activists detained and only won seats in the lower house by fielding candidates as
Nour, jailed until last year on what he says were politically motivated charges, alluded to the differences by mentioning the internal debate in Iran between reform-minded politicians and conservatives, even before ordinary Iranians took to the streets. He also pointed to the presidency.
“What happened in Iran does not mean it is the worst. In the past 30 years, Iran has had (several) presidents,” Nour said, without needing to explain to his listeners that Egypt has had just one for the past three decades.
Around 2005, a pro-democracy movement in Egypt gathered some modest momentum. But even at its height, it rarely managed to draw more than several hundred protesters onto the street.
Again, the security forces were always out in droves.
If anything brought Egyptians out in protest in recent decades, it was bread not politics. In 1977, bread riots rattled the then government of President Anwar Sadat, later assassinated by Islamists. Surging prices and shortages of subsidised bread in 2008 also sparked protests that sometimes turned violent. The government responded by hiking some state wages but a fifth of Egypt’s 77 million people still live in dire poverty.
So the silence now on Egypt’s streets may well be a very different calm to the one that preceded the storm that was unleashed after Iran’s presidential vote. Nour’s comparison may find supporters but it presents plenty of questions.