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A view of Tehran from Cairo

August 16, 2011

Hussein Ahmed Shemit, one of the men accused of attempting to assassinate Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995, was arrested upon landing at Cairo International Airport on Sunday. Shemit is said to have been one of the leading members of Jihad, and his arrest is significant in two ways: first, it comes after 20 years in exile (maybe he underestimated the post-ouster political weather and figured it was secure to return now with his family, especially with Mubarak on trial), and second, he arrived from Iran (via Turkey). I don’t know what Shemit was doing in Iran but military officials in Egypt are undoubtedly asking that question.

(The assassination attempt of Mubarak—one of 12—in Addis Ababa. Photo from Ahram Online.)

It might have made me—a dual Iranian/U.S. national—slightly nervous to have known that I landed in Cairo just a few hours after Shemit, the intrepid sojourner if bad estimator of timing. But things took an awkward turn in a more personal encounter on the ride home from Cairo’s airport. To be loud and clear about it, I don’t subscribe to the All the News That’s Fit to Print School of Middle East Journalism, an unspoken careerist ritual in which scores of Anglo-American journalists or otherwise designated cadre of ‘experts’ are dispatched to cover the region through a combination of overestimated taxi cab diaries and wild (ranging from the tiresome to downright offensive) generalization. However, as mobile popular histories go, I happen to really enjoy cab conversations, even the more tedious ones. This particular cabbie was warm and effusive in his love for Egypt, and terribly friendly over the course of an hour-long, traffic-trekking path, save for one batch of serious-face: he wanted to know why ‘Iranians love to kill the Sunnis,’ why Shi’a ‘hate Sunnis even though they themselves killed [Imams] Hossein and Hassan,’ why his Bahraini ex-fiancée’s family rejected him because he wasn’t Shi’a, and finally, he punctuated his frustration with a concluding statement about the importance of Ahmadinejad’s ‘resistance against America.’

Halfway across the city my friend was getting his beard threaded at the barber shop when his mobile rang. At that exact moment when I called from the cab to tell him I’d arrived and to get directions to his apartment, the barber had been blasting what he considered Iran’s nefarious dealings with Egypt, and more alarmingly, casting suspicion on all Shi’a people in general. When he got off the phone, the barber wanted to know who had called (apparently the depilatory routine in men’s salons is a duration of unbroken time, inappropriately interrupted by my phone call), so my friend had to sheepishly admit (to a neighborhood regular already suspecting his bevy of foreign visitors) that it was his Iranian friend. The barber’s face drained of all color. He swallowed hard and stammered, ‘Oh.’

Back at his apartment we discussed how Mubarak’s decades of anti-Iranian propaganda have largely worked in Egypt. Only instead of making the general population deplore the Iranian government or the ‘Islamic’/theocratic democracy it wishes upon others, it has actually netted a resentment (and at times open hostility) on denominational grounds.

Not surprisingly then, the relationship between Iran and Egypt since 25 January—to the extent that it can be mapped through official statements and unofficial oral tradition—has been comprised of an anxious exchange of glances.

(‘Welcome’ in Arabic and Persian. Photo from AFP.)

A week ago, the first post-Egyptian revolution delegation made its way to Cairo from Iran, ostensibly to invite their counterparts to a ‘pro-Palestinian conference’ in Iran in October. But one gets the feeling that the visit consisted of more than a hand-delivered invite. It was only seven months ago that while the U.S. State Department upbraided the lack of ‘stability’ threatening to unseat their BFF Hosni (Hillary Clinton: ‘I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family’), Iran took a more cautiously supportive approach.

A statement signed by 214 MPs pledged strong ‘spiritual’ support for Egyptians in opposing ‘the tyranny of their rulers.’ It also condemned ‘efforts by certain western countries as well as the Zionist regime [Israel] to exhaust the uprising and separate it from Islamic values.’

The MPs and Khamenei weren’t the only factions who tried to imbue the Egyptian uprising with their own scent. The dominant face of Iran’s 2009 ‘Green Movement’ (I prefer to call it the Green mobilization), Mir Hossein Mousavi, claimed credit for the origins of regional Arab shake-ups thusly:

What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana’a, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.

Parliament and Khamenei imagined a religiously-inspired coefficient in the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, the first revolution in the Middle East/North Africa since 1979, and Mousavi’s camp too saw its own reflection. The instance reveals that dominant national narratives in Iran about revolutionary history since the overthrow of Reza Shah in 1979, beyond  their obfuscating and self-interested nature, have diminished the political memory necessary to inspire, influence, and ultimately mobilize radical uprising. This is why Mousavi’s statement wholly ignored his own base, which was said to be dismally uttering the refrain, ‘Tunis tunest, Iran natunest‘ (Tunisia could, Iran couldn’t), a reflection of the Green mobilization’s resentment with the dimmed achievements of the 2009 protests.

Egypt has rid itself of a symbol of despotism and crony economics with Mubarak’s removal, but there too, a whole series of internally constructed narratives about a revolutionary past—one begotten by the overthrow of King Farouk I in a ‘Free Officers’ coup in 1952—have impacted political action in the contemporary moment.

But I see two major differences between the political stories that Iran and Egypt have told their own people about their present-past, and these factors deserve an elaboration beyond the scope of this single post: (1) the hypervisibility of streets, squares, plazas, cinemas, and other public, urban spaces as venues of naming and renaming, remembering and forgetting, in effect stamping revolutionary history into the ordinary and everyday; and (2) the narratives of labor and syndicalist history, which are part and parcel of the experience of citizenship and imagined belonging in disrupting (in the case of Iran) or resurrecting (in the case of Egypt) effective and substantial political change. There are other aspects too: theocratic and neoliberalist ideology, securitized emotions like fear, anxiety, apathy, and other incalculable categories, that play a crucial role and sadly overlooked role in fashioning a common public history.

[Related: Seven Years Ago in Tahrir Square]

(Art: ‘Resurrecting the Heart’ by Ala Dehghan in Tehran.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amir permalink
    August 16, 2011 23:33

    I love how the author casts the Islamist regime in Tehran as a “theocratic democracy”. Here are some of the more salient features of said “democracy”:

    – a Leader for Life who can only be a male Shia cleric and was chosen 22 years ago by a majority of 86 Shia male “experts”

    – the Leader for Life can NOT under any circumstance be popularly elected

    – all of the most important functions of state are assigned to the Leader for Life by Article 110 of the constitution of this selfsame “democracy”, in effect making the Leader the Final Word

    – freedom of speech, press, and assembly are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in this “democracy”

    – individuals espousing one and only one line of political thinking are allowed to stand for elected or appointed office, i.e. those ascribing to Khomeinist Islamism

    – gross violations of human rights of domestic political opponents without equal in recent Iranian history. By way of example, the number of individuals executed by the revolutionary government in the year 1979 alone (i.e. before the Reign of Terror of the years 1981-1983 and the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988) exceeded the number of executions carried out in the years 1941-1978 during the reign of the last Shah

    – continuing use of executions on a scale exceeding almost every other country in the entire world (the IRI is 2nd in the world behind China, which has a population nearly 20 times that of Iran)

    I could go on, but I think these points suffice to convey the nature of the “democracy” to which the author refers.

  2. Nagi permalink
    August 17, 2011 02:33

    I enjoyed reading your post. It’s sad that there are Muslims out there either Shia or Sunni that have animosity toward each other because of political propaganda being fed to them from corrupt regimes. I, myself, a Yemeni-American judge a people, country, or leader based on their actions, not on what the mainstream media tries to force feed. And using this as compass, I can tell you this. Despite my disagreement with the way things here handled leading up to the elections in 2009, I have an abundance of respect for Iran, it’s people, and it’s leadership. The reason I say this is because of it’s independence from foreign influence (colonialism). Despite the political liability it has always supported the Palestinian cause. And has shown this support in more than just words. It’s commitment to educating it’s people. Iran’s leadership are not subservient to foreign powers, unlike many countries in the middle east. I can go on, but I have to get back to work.

  3. South/South permalink*
    August 17, 2011 08:55

    @Amir: I’m fine with quibbling over what the Iranian government calls itself, and put that line in quotation marks. Iran’s government views itself as an Islamic form of democracy and as mentioned above, idealizes that model for other majority Muslim nations. It would be better to ask (and I think that’s what you are posing, only without actually addressing the post, and introducing sarcasm) if and how theocracy can ever, or rather *should* ever take hold in a constitutional democratic structure. You already know what the Iranian government loudly and resoundingly has to say about that question. Personally, as an anti-theocratic thinking humanoid I am interested in the question of the serious, abusive appropriations of that mindset to perpetrate just about anything.

    And to @Nagi’s point I would say that internally the government has fortified those very authoritarian, capitalist, and highly corrupt features it outwardly dismisses in ‘foreign’ or occupying governments.

    Meanwhile, as I’ve noted on Twitter, I’ve encountered the third instance of anti-Shi’ism in three days. This while the Iranian government allows for almost zero coverage of Syrian atrocities. They only cover Syria when it suits them (e.g. on ‘dialogue and reform’). Neither of these things should surprise anyone, but as the post originally intended, it is significant to look at them in context.

    I appreciate commentary here. All ad-hominem attacks get deleted.

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