My Take: Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979
February 2nd, 2011
09:38 AM ET

My Take: Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Americans are understandably both manic and depressed about recent developments in Egypt. The mania comes from 1776 and our own history of casting off a Pharaoh in the name of freedom. The depression comes compliments of 1979 and Iran, which saw populist street protests against a pro-American dictator co-opted into an Islamic Republic deeply hostile to the West.

And there are parallels between Iran back then and Egypt today. Both are large countries with sizeable, largely Islamic populations. And the leading opposition party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Arab Egypt is not Persian Iran, for the following four reasons:

One: Sunnis are not Shiites.

While Iran is roughly 90% Shia, Egypt is roughly 90% Sunni, and these two branches of Islam are very different politically. These differences between Sunnis and Shias are too numerous and nuanced to catalog here, but among the differences is that, for the Shia, religious power is concentrated in a powerful leader called the imam while, for the Sunni religious authority resides in the Islamic community as a whole.  As a result, Sunni history is largely lacking in figures such as the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini (“Imam Khomeini” to Iranians). And Egyptians are not likely to cotton to theocracy.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Egypt has a sizeable and influential Christian minority (roughly 10%), while Christians, at best, constituted 1.5% of the Iranian population before the 1979 revolution.

Two: ElBaradei is not Khomeini.

While the leader in waiting in Iran in the late 1970s was a cleric renowned for his hatred of the United States and western civilization, the man of the hour in Egypt is a deeply secular man whose rapid ascent in recent days is fueled in part by the fact that he is a fluent speaker of both English and American culture. A former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005) is both a technocrat and something of a nerd. He received his Ph.d. at NYU’s School of Law, where he also taught for much of the 1980s. So don't expect him to start issuing fatwas any time soon. 

It should be added that the protests so far have been, like ElBaradei himself, neither strongly anti-American nor strongly Islamist. The focus is on secular rather than religious goals: freedom, opportunity, democracy.

Three:  The Audio Cassette is not the Web

When Khomeini was in exile he spoke to his followers by telephone. These speeches were then copied onto audio cassettes and distributed around Iran. So the Iranian Revolution was, in a sense, a high-tech rebellion. But Egypt’s rebellion is happening via cellphones and various forms of social media, including a new service from Google that allows users to translate voicemails into Tweets. As a result, this uprising is far less centralized than Khomeini's revolt.

Four: Obama is not Carter

President Jimmy Carter has been widely criticized for fiddling as Iran burned. He didn’t see the revolution coming and when it came his (in)actions only fueled the anti-American fire. After the Shah left (supposedly for vacation) there was little left for Carter to do other than try to get his hostages back.

In a State of the Union speech that now seems years away, Obama spoke of our Sputnik Moment. Will this be his Carter Moment? I say no. As a student of the Christian realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama is a far more pragmatic politician than his predecessor. And as a student of history, he knows how Iran swallowed up Carter and is doubtless determined not to be swallowed up himself.

Analogies doubtless help us to think.  But they can also channel our thought in directions that confuse and cripple us. In this case, analogical thinking is forcing far too many among us to imagine that the only choices in Egypt today are the specter of the Iranian Revolution or the friendly ghost of the American Revolution.

But these are not the only choices. Far more likely than a Western-style democracy or an Islamic republic is something in between, a secular government in which both the military and Islamic parties play a role.

Admittedly, there are reasons for Americans and other westerners to worry about what is coming next. A December 2010 Pew Forum poll showed Egyptians to be more moderate politically than their counterparts in Jordan and Lebanon, and about as moderate as those in Indonesia. Yet 19% expressed at least some confidence in Osama Bin Laden–a worryingly high figure.

So the Muslim Brotherhood could become something like Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council, and Egypt’s army could become a Revolutionary Guard. But each of these prospects seems unlikely, fueled more by fear (and analogy) than logic.

Democracy is always messy; elections did put Hamas Islamists in power in Gaza. Nonetheless, as Egyptians lurch from monarchy toward something new, we should remember what the Egyptian people are trying to get across to Mubarak:  Egypt is its own country and Egyptians will determine its destiny.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Egypt • Iran • Islam

soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. rsgoldjw

    very good, it's very useful to me, thank you very much!

    May 9, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  2. BM

    The Egyptian Revolution 2011

    September 12, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  3. from cairo egypt

    just to say one thing there 's statment we say in egypt alway ( what didnt kill us , make us stronger )
    thanks and hamas , hezb allah , qatar .... etc ll know what egyptians are made off and time ll show we ll work but you wait and see

    thanks =)

    February 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  4. Muneef

    The Egyptians youth want this ruling party system system ruling before they leave back to their homes,in fear that the system will be chasing them collecting them from their houses since their pictures all were cought by the media...all those youth will end up martial courted or vanish... The system has to go even before the president,it's presence is a danger to freedom of those who used their rights of expression and freedom of speech....

    February 4, 2011 at 5:59 am |
  5. Tommy TT

    The question isn't "Is this Iran 1979?" It's "Is this Paris 1789? Or Moscow 1917?" Both revolutions started with populist ideals but were taken over by monsters.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  6. Muneef

    Al-Baqara sura 02:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, (Abraham prayed): Our Lord! Accept from us (this duty). Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower. (127) Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Relenting, the Merciful. (128) Our Lord! And raise up in their midst a messenger from among them who shall recite unto them Thy revelations, and shall instruct them in the Scripture and in wisdom and shall make them grow. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Mighty, Wise. (129) And who forsaketh the religion of Abraham save him who befooleth himself? Verily We chose him in the world, and lo! in the Hereafter he is among the righteous. (130) When his Lord said unto him: Surrender! he said: I have surrendered to the Lord of the Worlds. (131) The same did Abraham enjoin upon his sons, and also Jacob, (saying): O my sons! Lo! Allah hath chosen for you the (true) religion; therefore die not save as men who have surrendered (unto Him). (132) Or were ye present when death came to Jacob, when he said unto his sons: What will ye worship after me? They said: We shall worship thy God, the God of thy fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, One God, and unto Him we have surrendered. (133) Those are a people who have passed away. Theirs is that which they earned, and yours is that which ye earn. And ye will not be asked of what they used to do. (134) And they say: Be Jews or Christians, then ye will be rightly guided. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Nay, but (we follow) the religion of Abraham, the upright, and he was not of the idolaters. (135) Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. (136) And if they believe in the like of that which ye believe, then are they rightly guided. But if they turn away, then are they in schism, and Allah will suffice thee (for defence) against them. He is the Hearer, the Knower. (137) (We take our) colour from Allah, and who is better than Allah at colouring. We are His worshippers. (138) Say (unto the People of the Scripture): Dispute ye with us concerning Allah when He is our Lord and your Lord? Ours are our works and yours your works. We look to Him alone. (139) Or say ye that Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know best, or doth Allah? And who is more unjust than he who hideth a testimony which he hath received from Allah? Allah is not unaware of what ye do. (140) Those are a people who have passed away; theirs is that which they earned and yours that which ye earn. And ye will not be asked of what they used to do. (141).

    If you are monotheist and not Polytheist, not Idolater, make or worship partners with God... Guess you in the right Abrahamic track the True Base of Submission within all holy scriptures...(God+HolySpirit+Apostle=The scriptures of the Holy Messages all through Generations from old).   

    February 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Muneef

      As-Saff sura 61:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth halloweth Allah. And He is the Mighty, the Wise. (1) O ye who believe! wherefore say ye that which ye do not? (2) Most odious it is Unto Allah that ye should Say that which ye do not. (3) Verily Allah loveth those who fight in His way drown up in ranks, as though they were a structure well compacted. (4) And recall what time Musa said Unto his people: O my people! wherefore hcurt ye me, When surely ye know that verily I am Allahs apostle Unto you! Then when they sweryed, Allah made their hearts swerve; and Allah guideth not a trans-gr-essing people. (5) And recall what time Isa, son of Maryam, said: children of Israil! verily I am Allahs apostle Unto you, confirming the Taurat which was before me, and giving the glad tidings of an apostle who cometh after me: his name will be Ahmad. Then when he brought Unto them evidences, they said: this is magic manifest. (6) And who is a greater wrong-doer than he who fabricateth against Allah a lie even as he is summoned Unto Islam? And Allah guideth not a wrongdoing people. (7) Fain would they extinguish the light of Allah is with their mouths and Allah is going to perfect His light, even though averse may be the infidels. (8) He it is Who hath sent His apostle with the guidance and the true religion, that He may make it triumph over all religion, even though averse may be associaters. (9) ye who believe! shall direct you to a merchandise that will deliver you from a torment afflictive? (10) It is that ye should believe in Allah and His apostle and strive in the way of Allah with your riches and Your lives That is best for you, if ye only knew! (11) He will forgive you your sins, and make YOu enter Gardens whereunder rivers flow, and happy abodes in Gardenscc Everlasting. That is the mighty achievement. (12) And also another blessing which ye love: succour from Allah and a speedy victory. And bear thou the glad tidings Unto the believers. (13) O ye who believe! be Allahs helpers, even as Isa, son of Maryam, said Unto the disciples: who shall be my helpers Unto Allah? The disciples said: we are Allahs helpers. Then a part of the Children of Israil believed, and part disbelieved. Then We strengthened those who believed against their foe; wherefore they became triumphant. (14).

      Al-Fath sura 48:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      He it is Who hath sent His apostle with the guidance and the true religion that He may make it prevail over all other religions, and Allah sufficeth as a Witness. (28) Muhammad is the apostle of Allah. And those who are with him are stern against the infidels and merciful among themselves; Thou beholdest them bowing down and falling prostrate, seeking grace from Allah and His goodWill Mark of them is on their faces from the effect of prostration: such is their similitude in the Taurat. And their similitude in the lnjil: like Unto a sown corn that putteth forth its shoot and strengtheneth it, and swelieth, and riseth upon the stalk thereof delighting the sowers. Such are the early Muslims described that He may enrage the infidels with them. Allah hath promised Unto those among them who believe and work righteous works, forgiveness and a mighty hire. (29).
      Al-Ahzab sura 33:
      There is no reproach for the Prophet in that which Allah maketh his due. That was Allah's way with those who passed away of old – and the commandment of Allah is certain destiny – (38) Who delivered the messages of Allah and feared Him, and feared none save Allah. Allah keepeth good account. (39) Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets; and Allah is ever Aware of all things. (40) O ye who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance. (41) And glorify Him early and late. (42) He it is Who blesseth you, and His angels (bless you), that He may bring you forth from darkness unto light; and He is Merciful to the believers. (43) Their salutation on the day when they shall meet Him will be: Peace. And He hath prepared for them a goodly recompense. (44) O Prophet! Lo! We have sent thee as a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner. (45) And as a summoner unto Allah by His permission, and as a lamp that giveth light. (46) And announce unto the believers the good tidings that they will have great bounty from Allah. (47) And incline not to the disbelievers and the hypocrites. Disregard their noxious talk, and put thy trust in Allah. Allah is sufficient as Trustee. (48).

      Muhammad sura 47:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Those who disbelieve and hinder others from the way of Allah, He shall send their works astray. (1) And those who believe and work righteous works and believe in that which hath been revealed Unto Muhammad -and it is the truth from their Lord- He shall expiate their misdeeds from them and shall make good their state. (2) That is because those who disbelieve follow the falsehood, and those who believe follow the truth from their Lord. And thus Allah propoundeth Unto mankind their similitude. (3).

      Al-E-Imran sura 03:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      It was by the mercy of Allah that thou wast lenient with them (O Muhammad), for if thou hadst been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from round about thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when thou art resolved, then put thy trust in Allah. Lo! Allah loveth those who put their trust (in Him). (159) If Allah is your helper none can overcome you, and if He withdraw His help from you, who is there who can help you after Him? In Allah let believers put their trust. (160) It is not for any prophet to deceive (mankind). Whoso deceiveth will bring His deceit with him on the Day of Resurrection. Then every soul will be paid in full what it hath earned; and they will not be wronged. (161) Is one who followeth the pleasure of Allah as one who hath earned condemnation from Allah, whose habitation is the Fire, a hapless journey's end? (162) There are (in diffrenent) degrees (of grace and reprobation) with Allah, and Allah is Seer of what ye do. (163) Allah verily hath shown grace to the believers by sending unto them a messenger of their own who reciteth unto them His revelations, and causeth them to grow, and teacheth them the Scripture and wisdom; although before (he came to them) they were in flagrant error. (164).


      February 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  7. Egyptian Copt

    I am a first generation american, born to Egytian parents, one of whom is a coptic orthodox (the other catholic). The author's theory that christians, who make up, he says, a "sizable" percentage (10%) of the population, somehow changes the dynamics of this (Egypt) predominantly muslim nation and region is ludicrous. The christians of Egypt, particularly the copts, are oppressed by the current government and will be by any future, muslim government. In fact, there are attacks against copts on a regular basis (including during these protests) that are never reported by mainstream media. Please don't be fooled into thinking that because Egypt has a christian minority that somehow this could prevent Egypt from going the same way of Iran. We should all be very concerned as the Egyptian government transfers power. Unfortunately, muslim governments cannot be truly democratic as they will be inclined to suppress and oppress non-muslims. Before we all support "freedom" in Egypt you should ask yourself what the next Egyptian government will be and whether real "freedom" will come or is really even desired by the Egyptian people/government.

    February 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  8. alex johnson

    The shah was a progressive ruler who wanted the best for his country. He made mistakes, but the devil that replaced him destroyed Iran. Many people in Iran today suffer greatly. I hope those who wanted khoemeini suffer forever.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  9. Cy in DC

    Actually Stephen, this is exactly like Iran in 1979. As some have pointed out here the revolution in Iran started by groups of disenfranchised, which included liberal groups, Islamists, communists, technocrats, and labor unions. The goal of the movement was the same as in Egypt, to remove the Shah (or in Egypt's case the President), and replace him with a democratically elected government. However, following the revolution, and the chaos that ensued (which included the storming of the American embassy), Khomeini took control of the government to "ensure a peaceful transition". Shortly after that, all secular parties were dissolved and banned, their members were arrested, and their leaders executed. You don't think this will happen in Egypt? Believe me that's the path they are heading for...and if you think this doesn't affect us here in the US, then you probably don't realize that Egypt controls the Suez Canal, where all of mid -east oil goes through before coming here.

    February 3, 2011 at 4:14 am |
  10. Joe

    Obama is every bit as naive as Carter. He came in saying if we just dialogued enough with China, N. Korea and Iran that that would have a significant impact on those regimes for human rights and peace because they would see our point and be persuaded to agree. Nothing has come of all his talk with them. They have used the time he gave them without sanctions to build up more weapons and become even more aggressive. Same goes for the Muslim Brotherhood. They're sensible-guy-next-door types, right? The want real democracy, just like the protesters, right? WRONG AGAIN. They undoubtedly will use the protesters and El Barradei, and have, to do the heavy lifting, and once they are elected, will muscle him aside and try to seize power for themselves and dispense with free and fair elections, just as Mubarek did, with a difference!!!! No free speech, press, or religious expression and worship allowed. Remember, these are self expressed friends of Hamas and Al Quaida. Anyone with a different opinion will then have to go underground. I'm sorry to Obama administration and others of like mind will be and are too late to recognize this. The taliban would be honored to work with them!

    February 3, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  11. mmi16

    For a 'outsider' to fathom the internal politics of Middle Eastern countries is like wading into a cesspool and trying to choose the best turd. The problem is – all turds are turds.

    February 3, 2011 at 3:22 am |
  12. Reality

    Saving all Muslims, including (B)iraq Hussein Osama, is quite easy!!!

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.
    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send her/him a copy and help save the world.

    Analogous free programs are available for saving Christians, Jews and Pagans.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  13. Edmond

    This inspires me because they stood for what was right...same message being sent here

    February 2, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  14. steveo

    better learn how to ride a cammel n milk a goat europe is next to be annexed into middle east /..................

    February 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  15. Enoch

    The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology was made clear in the sermons of one of its leading preachers based in Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Two years ago, the Anti-Defamation League posted several of his teachings, one of them a call that Israel and Jews be dealt with by the Almighty who should "kill them, down to the very last one."

    In a sermon aired in January 2009 on Al Jazeera television, Qaradawi said, "I will shoot Allah’s enemies, the Jews, and they will throw a bomb at me, and thus I will seal my life with martyrdom." Two days later, Qaradawi gave another speech that also aired on Al-Jazeera, where he claimed that Adolf Hitler was sent by Allah to punish the Jews.

    February 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  16. Keith

    One thing is certain, there will be a new, more hostile enemy on Israel's western border. A regional war is fast approaching involving Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinians, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This war will get so violent that many will think it to be WWlll. Israel will win and expand its borders in this conflict. Islam's back will be broken. How do I know? Read Psalm 83.

    February 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  17. Enoch

    Isa 19:1 The burden against Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, And will come into Egypt; The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.
    Isa 19:2 "I will set Egyptians against Egyptians; Everyone will fight against his brother, And everyone against his neighbor, City against city, kingdom against kingdom.
    Isa 19:3 The spirit of Egypt will fail in its midst; I will destroy their counsel, And they will consult the idols and the charmers, The mediums and the sorcerers.
    Isa 19:17 And the land of Judah will be a terror to Egypt; everyone who makes mention of it will be afraid in himself, because of the counsel of the LORD of hosts which He has determined against it.

    February 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.