Danger in denial: Too soon to revel in Egypt’s revolution
The ABC’s London bureau was effectively in mourning when I arrived as a correspondent at the beginning of 1980.
Tony Joyce, a witty, talented and energetic reporter from the bureau, had been shot in the head in Zambia six weeks before.
The pistol bullet ricocheted inside his skull, and the unforgivable behaviour of the Zambian authorities meant that by the time he was medevacced to London, it was too late.
From November 1979 to early February 1980, he was in a coma. On February 3 - exactly 31 years ago - he died.
It was a terrible way to start a career as a foreign correspondent: I can hardly describe the bleakness and grief in the bureau, because Tony had been so well-loved and was so much missed.
One consequence was that the organisation was deeply wary of sending anyone anywhere with a whiff of danger, and it was weeks before my requests to get out and start some proper reporting were answered.
The destination was Iran, and the big story was the American hostage crisis.
Iran had been in the headlines for more than a year by this time.
The Shah had fled, and Ayatollah Khomeini had returned on February 1, 1979.
But that was just the beginning.
Khomeini told foreign journalists before he returned that he had no intention of instituting a theocracy, and for the first few months he seemed to be keeping the promise.
With the Shah gone, a secular, relatively moderate government took over, under prime minister Mehdi Bazargan, an engineer, academic and intellectual.
But in November 1979, fundamentalist students took over the US embassy, and Bazargan found himself and his government powerless to do anything about it.
He resigned, and the liberal-democratic Islamic phase of the Revolution was over.
By January, Abolhassan Banisadr was president, a man who, though acceptable to the Ayatollahs, was still pragmatic enough to do business with the rest of the world.
Beneath him, a massive struggle was going on.
Religious factions stepped up their push for a fully “Islamic” Revolution, complete with the full application of Sharia law.
But more secular groups were still vying for power, and this being the height of the Cold War, some of them were being funded from Moscow.
So this was the picture when I arrived in Iran: US hostages still in captivity, demonstrations almost daily, gatherings of half a million people or more at Friday prayers, car bombs, parcel bombs, bombs in wash-bags and briefcases, newspapers full of denunciations and executions.
Not to mention the full-blown war, to which I travelled, in the north-west, as the Iranian army tried to contain Kurdish demands for autonomy or independence.
One day in late April, on the campus of Tehran University, we arrived to interview one of the opposition groups.
It was a peaceful spring morning, with no-one around.
We were ushered into an anteroom and asked to wait.
We waited. And waited.
After about half an hour, we could hear a commotion outside. The windows in the room were about 2.5 metres up, so we couldn’t see out. We tried the door, to find we were locked in. Eventually someone came to apologise and explain.
The building was under siege by about 5,000 Basiji, half-trained thugs throwing rocks and using crowbars and any other weapon they could find.
An hour or so later, we were ushered out the back. We didn’t get the interview.
Remember, this was more than a year after the Revolution. But the Revolution was still going on.
That’s my dominant memory of that time in Tehran: you were always in danger, but you never knew where the danger was coming from or when.
Why am I writing about this, three decades on?
Because the elation of toppling a corrupt dictator is enormously satisfying, but it does not last.
Because a revolution is not a matter of a week or a fortnight, but of months and often years.
Because pragmatic leadership after a revolution is not necessarily enough, and revolutionary turmoil frequently favours, not the best, but the most ruthless.
I met a lot of people socially as well as professionally in the time I was in Tehran, and most of them had supported the Revolution to begin with.
But most of them were, by 1980, profoundly disillusioned, because they had wanted a genuine democracy, not one in which only candidates approved by the Mullahs could stand.
They’d wanted a secular, progressive state in which they could keep the technological advances embraced by the Shah, but throw out his murderous secret police the Savak.
Instead, after an inevitable purge, Savak continued under a new name (Savama) as the secret police of the Ayatollahs.
One friend of mine in Iran, Bahram Dehqani Tafti, was one of the progressives deeply disillusioned by the way the revolution had turned out.
Towards the end of my time there, he was murdered, apparently by thugs sent by the mullahs of Esfahan.
That’s how revolutions go wrong.
I realise that, as this article points out, scepticism at a time like this is not a popular position.
But the illusion at the beginning of a revolution is that everyone wants the same thing.
It’s easy to sustain because the immediate goal - bringing down a tyrant - is shared.
It’s after that that it starts to splinter.
Out of chaos come forth leaders: but revolution means that they, too, are always in danger.
In the French Revolution, Danton was no angel, but a saint compared to Robespierre, who sent him to the guillotine. The Revolution consumed itself and eventually Robespierre himself lost his head. Only the arrival of a dictator, Napoleon, ended the process.
In Russia, the liberal Alexander Kerensky was no match for the sheer ruthlessness of Lenin, and died in exile.
The pragmatic Abolhassan Banisadr, who I mentioned earlier, proved too moderate for the religious hardliners and was ousted within 18 months. He ended up in exile, though he was luckier than the Shah’s last prime minister Shahpour Bhaktiar, who was assassinated in Paris.
Of course there are counter-examples: the American Revolution, South Africa under Mandela, Czechoslovakia under Vaclav Havel.
Revolutions can nurture greatness, and out of their ashes better societies can be formed.
But in 18th century America, as well as 90s South Africa and Czechoslovakia, opposition leaders had emerged well before the revolution itself, with clear moral purpose and structured goals.
I worry that that has not happened in Egypt.
I profoundly hope that I’m wrong.
I just think that it’s much too early to celebrate.
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