I often agree with editorials in the Wall Street Journal. But this one seems to hit a flat note, to wit [emphasis mine]:
The result [of Morsi's overreach in Egypt] was political polarization, with the opposition and military uniting against the Brotherhood supporters who were Mr. Morsi’s last defenders. The millions of Egyptians who took to the streets were also protesting chronic gas and food shortages and a sinking economy. The uprising shows that the worst fate for Islamists can be to take power and thus be accountable for results. Unlike Iran in 1979, Egypt retains enough competing power centers such as a secular business class and judiciary to prevent an Islamist revolution.
Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by “retain.”
Iran before the revolution of1979 was actually fairly robust and “modern” (relatively speaking) under the Shah, at least as countries in that neck of the woods go. True, those elements of society (secular business class, judiciary) did not prevent an Islamist revolution in Iran, but that Islamist revolution was accomplished (much as Morsi’s election was) by stealth and deception. In other words, prior to Khomeini’s taking power (which, by the way, was the result of a referendum—in other words, people voted) the Ayatollah had held himself out to be a far more moderate person than he actually was (just as Morsi did). Khomeini’s revolution had had widespread support from people who should have known better but did not see what was coming.
And after he came to power, it didn’t take long at all for Khomeini to play his cards, and what cards they were! Khomeini makes Morsi seem like a meek lamb in comparison. For starters, Khomeini declared “”do not use this term, ‘democratic.’ That is the Western style…” And then on to the main course, where he followed the glorious example of late-eighteenth century France [once again, emphasis mine]:
The first to be executed were members of the old system – senior generals, followed by over 200 senior civilian officials, as punishment and to eliminate the danger of coup d’État. Brief trials lacking defense attorneys, juries, transparency or opportunity for the accused to defend themselves, were held by revolutionary judges such as Sadegh Khalkhali, the Sharia judge. By January 1980 “at least 582 persons had been executed.” Among those executed was Amir Abbas Hoveida, former Prime Minister of Iran.
In mid August, shortly after the election of the constitution-writing assembly, several dozen newspapers and magazines opposing Khomeini’s idea of theocratic rule by jurists were shut down. When protests were organized by the National Democratic Front (NDF), Khomeini angrily denounced them saying, “we thought we were dealing with human beings. It is evident we are not… After each revolution several thousand of these corrupt elements are executed in public and burnt and the story is over. They are not allowed to publish newspapers.”
Between January 1980 and June 1981, when Bani-Sadr was impeached, at least 900 executions took place, for everything from drug and sexual offenses to `corruption on earth,` from plotting counter-revolution and spying for Israel to membership in opposition groups. In the 12 months following that Amnesty International documented 2,946 executions, with several thousand more killed in the next two years according to the anti-regime guerillas People’s Mujahedin of Iran.
It goes on—and on, and on—with purges of more moderate clerics and the like. But I think you get the idea. The majority of the people of Iran, and the former power structure in the country (judiciary, military) did not like what Khomeini was doing. But as Khomeini knew, ruthlessly killing the opposition tends to have the effect of making that opposition rather ineffective. What’s more, it has a tendency to scare off further opposition.
So far at least, Morsi has done nothing of the sort, so those groups in Egypt have been able to “retain” some power.
Another huge difference between 1979 Iran and current Egypt is that the Shah had become an unpopular figure with a lot of baggage himself, having been in power far far longer than Morsi, and being a monarch (rather than elected) as well. The analogy with Egypt’s long-time leader (although not monarch) Mubarak would be more accurate, rather than Morsi (another parallel: Carter withdrew support from the Shah, much as Obama did with Mubarak). And Khomeini was a revered and powerful figure with a huge following, unlike Morsi. All of that helped Khomeini solidify his hold on the country. But his willingness to be absolutely and uncompromisingly ruthless in murdering the opposition was a huge part of what happened there, which cannot be ignored when comparing the two countries.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about how often it is that popular revolutions are betrayed by the leaders who are their beneficiaries (see this for a lengthy post on the subject). It’s the norm, actually, with the United States being one of the rare exceptions.
So, why hasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt followed the path of Khomeini in simply killing the opposition? I submit that it’s for three reasons: Morsi isn’t a tower of ruthlessness like Khomeini (who was more in the mold of 20th century tyrants, although he was a religious figure and most of them were not); Morsi lacks the political support, spooky presence, and aura of sanctity that Khomeini had built up; and public relations has become more important to dictators in this digital age in which opposition can be organized through Facebook and Twitter, and the whole world is watching far more intently.
But remember, just because Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has not gone the Khomeini route so far doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.
[ADDENDUM: I see that the military in Egypt has now arrested many Brotherhood leaders. That sort of thing has been going on in Egypt since the Nasser era, although Nasser himself was more Draconian, establishing concentration camps for the Brotherhood and torturing them, although only killing a few. Sadat and Mubarak made the Brotherhood illegal, but their imprisonment waxed and waned periodically depending on circumstances, and few if any were killed. However, it was Muslim fundamentalists (although not Brotherhood members) who assassinated Sadat (for a longer post I've written on the Brotherhood in Egypt, please see this).
The Shah of Iran had imprisoned Khomeini, but as ruthless as the Shah was purported to be (and I think it's unclear how ruthless he really was), he stopped short of killing him. That may have been his big error, although killing Khomeini may instead have had the effect of elevating him to martyr status and inspiring a revolution anyway. When faced with a force like that, or the Muslim Brotherhood, it sometimes seems as though there's no good way to handle it.