Before anyone rushes to celebrate the much-predicted fall of Egypt’s General Hosni Mubarak, let us consider his case in light of the fate of another American ally.
The year is 1977. The day is New Year’s Eve. The place is Tehran, Iran. The event is a state dinner held by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah (or King) of Iran, to honor a visit from President Jimmy Carter.
After some kind words from his host, Carter responds with effusive praise of the Shah (some of which he’d previously trial ballooned):
“Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. [Iran and the US] share industrial growth, we share scientific achievements, we share research and development knowledge, and this gives us the stability for the present which is indeed valuable to both our countries… “We have no other nation on Earth who is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security. We have no other nation with whom we have closer consultation on regional problems that concern us both. And there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.”
The rest of the story is well known – about a year later, on January 16, 1979, the Shah fled Iran after an uprising against him.
In the intervening months, the Shah had gone from an American ally, to an openly despised figure. He died not long after in Egypt, a lonely exile -- not at all the fate one would expect for a man who had enjoyed the “personal gratitude and personal friendship” of an American president.
And Iran was soon under the thumb of religious zealots who shared little in common with the United States. As for that joint commitment to industrial growth, science, research, stability, etc. that Carter spoke of – Iran’s new rulers had nothing but contempt for such merely materialistic goals.
How did the Shah go from American ally to pariah so quickly? The Shah had two major flaws in Western eyes, as has been noted many times before. Being a king, the Shah had no desire to accommodate popular political pressure; and he was seen as too brutal in his efforts to quash challenges to his rule.
The Shah’s haughty attitude and intolerance for criticism made it hard for Western leaders to openly embrace him (Carter’s toast notwithstanding).
And with domestic protests against the Shah growing in the late 1970s, as academic Gary Sick has written, sympathy among US policymakers began to shift from the Shah’s regime to its critics.
Some analysts came to the conclusion that, rather than trying to help the Shah retain power, the US would be better off backing the his opponents – in part because the opposition’s perceived commitment to human rights, freedom of speech, etc. seemed more in line with Western political norms than the Shah’s ideas.
Sick summarized the anti-Shah viewpoint as follows: “If only we would disengage ourselves from the Shah's rule, we could have a progressive, nationalist regime [in Iran] run by moderate, middle-class professionals whose respect for individual freedoms and human rights was closer to US values than the manipulative and repressive rule of the Shah.”
What happened instead is that the post-Shah political vacuum gave religious fanatics the opportunity to push the moderates aside, and establish the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Looking back on the anti-Shah tilt of some policymakers and their enthusiasm for his opponents, Gary Sick observed that “it is all too human to imagine that the alternative to an unpleasant situation will somehow be an improvement.”
As with the Shah, those who are ready to cheer Hosni Mubarak’s fall seem too ready to assume that the alternative to the general’s continued rule “will somehow be an improvement.”
Such was the mindset that contributed to the loss of Iran.
Thirty years later, will the same mindset result in the loss of Egypt?