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Opinion: After Egypt, Is Iran Next?

Feb 11, 2011 – 1:58 PM
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Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin Contributor

Egypt and Iran are now joined by a date on the calendar: Feb. 11 is Revolution Day in both countries.

But Egypt has a far better chance at realizing the hopes of its revolutionaries for a transition to real democracy than Iran did 32 years ago.

Unlike Iran, where the fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini constructed a system that gave him -- and his theocratic successors -- ultimate authority, the Egyptian revolution has no charismatic leader. What it does have is the prospect of elections in which multiple qualified candidates can participate.

President Hosni Mubarak could not bring himself to utter the words on Thursday that he would step down and let others determine Egypt's fate. Today, he silently flew to his winter resort home in Sharm el-Sheikh. He left it to his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, to announce that Mubarak had decided to "waive" his office and pass power to senior Egyptian military officials to supervise a transition.

As millions of Egyptians erupted in celebration at the achievement of their main demand, the military issued a statement promising constitutional amendments leading to "free and fair presidential elections."

Egyptians -- and their friends in Washington and Europe -- will need to remain vigilant that these promises are kept. In particular, they must hold the military to its pledge to lift a 30-year state of emergency that has strangled opposition politics "as soon as the current circumstances are over" -- presumably once the demonstrators go home and order is restored. A statement from the military high command added that "the armed forces are committed to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people."

While some observers warn that the military will seek to manipulate the process, its behavior thus far -- refusing to fire on protesters and perhaps giving Mubarak his final walking papers -- suggests a more optimistic scenario. The military also remains a guarantor that the conservative Muslim Brotherhood will not be able to game the system and seize control.

Considerable hard work is ahead for Egypt's fledgling civilian politicians, including youngsters whose mastery of social networking tools were the modern "plagues" that forced Egypt's latest Pharaoh to let go.

For now, the world can only marvel at the first great revolution of the 21st century: a historic event that has broken once and for all the stereotype that Arabs are not ready for democracy and freedom.

Since little Tunisia stood up last month and forced out its own dictator, the contagion has been spreading in the Middle East.

The next stop could well be Iran, where a similar people-power movement was brutally suppressed after disputed 2009 presidential elections.

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Iran's government has sought to identify with the Arab revolts and claim them as a victory for an anti-Western alliance. Addressing his own Revolution Day rally today, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that "a new Middle East is emerging without the Zionist regime and U.S. interference, a place where the arrogant powers will have no place."

However, the contrast between the scenes of authentic jubilation in Cairo's Liberation Square and the canned commemoration in Tehran's Freedom Square could not have been more graphic.

Ahmadinejad and "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must surely know that the desire for freedom and political participation that is sweeping the Arab world will not stop at the border with Iran.
Filed under: Opinion, Arab World Unrest
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