Egypt and Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives

by Jeffry R. Halverson and Steven R. Corman

Recent events in Egypt have led some quarters to suggest we are witnessing a case parallel to the 1979 revolution in Iran. Back then, the fall of the Shah left a political vacuum that allowed religious hardliners to take control and create a new theocratic and stridently anti-western government.

In his New Republic article, Abbas Milani, co-director of Stanford’s Iranian Democracy Project, views the situation in Egypt as precarious. He cites numerous similarities with Iran, including the actions of the United States, the presence of ambitious Islamist political forces, and the importance of the two states in the political economy of the Middle East. Fareed Zakaria voiced similar concerns in a Washington Post essay. Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, too, has claimed that Iran set the example for the Egyptian revolution.

While the similarities between Egypt and Iran should be recognized, there are important differences in the domain of narrative, which has unusual power to shape the course of events. A narrative is a system of stories with shared themes, participants and events. Some narratives rise to the level of master narratives, becoming deeply embedded in a culture and reproduced over time. The “American story” is an example of a master narrative in the United States. Such narratives provide an important framework for events and strategic answers to questions of identity among members of a culture.

The Shia master narratives that set the symbolic stage for the emergence of a hardline theocracy in Iran are missing in Egypt’s Sunni culture. Revolutionary Shi‘ism is based on the Mahdi master narrative, which recounts the ninth-century disappearance and future return of the Twelfth Imam to usher in a new age. Unlike Sunni Muslims, Twelver Shi‘ites believe governments are illegitimate in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. But because they are a necessary evil, a just and pious jurist (a Shi’ite cleric trained in Islamic law) can rule in the absence of the Twelfth Imam until his return as the Mahdi. This principle of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) was enshrined in Iran’s 1979 constitution and formalized by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he created the office of Supreme Leader.

A Sunni variant of the Mahdi concept does exist, but it is less prominent and very different than the Shi‘ite Twelfth Imam. There is no Sunni doctrine of velayat-e faqih. Accordingly, while Shia revolutionaries are part of a clerical hierarchy, Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brothers are lay figures. For example, the current Murshid of the Muslim Brotherhood is a professor and specialist in veterinary medicine.

Another Shia master narrative also reveals important differences between Iran and Egypt. The Battle of Karbala tells how the third Holy Imam, Husayn ibn Ali, and a party of his supporters and family, were unjustly attacked and martyred in 680 by the forces of the illegitimate tyrant Yazid, the reigning Caliph in Damascus. The narrative establishes a fundamental conflict in the world and conveys the idea that it is better to die than to live under the tyranny and injustice of worldly infidel powers.

The Karbala master narrative is so pervasive and ingrained in Iranian culture that many scholars see it as the basis for modern Iranian nationalism. The prominence of this master narrative for Iran is reflected in its confrontational, suspicious, and defiant attitude toward outside governments and power structures. In contemporary analogies, the United States and Israel assume the role of Yazid. This attitude even extends toward neighboring Sunni countries, whose belief system is (for the Shia) inherently corrupt. After all, Yazid was a Sunni (or proto-Sunni).

For Sunni Muslims, Karbala is little more than a tragic event in Islamic history when the pious grandson of the Prophet and his family were killed. Egyptian Sunnis, in particular, are aware of the tragedy of Husayn at Karbala, but the narrative is not a significant part of Egypt’s theological or political lexicon. There, negative attitudes toward the United States and Israel are rooted in ongoing political grievances (such as Israel-Palestine) and not in notions of a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, where malevolent governments have their way until the apocalyptic reappearance of the Mahdi.

So while there are some political similarities between Egypt and Iran, their master narratives reveal many differences in the likely role of political Islam in the two states. Revolutions are by nature unpredictable and anything could happen, but the narrative rationality that paved the way for theocratic rule in Iran is simply missing in Egypt. This, combined with generational differences noted by Olivier Roy, makes the creation of a hostile Islamic state in Egypt seem unlikely.  Even if such a government did come to pass, the narratives suggest that it would probably bear little resemblance to revolutionary Iran.

For more on master narratives, visit the Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism website by the CSC.

3 Responses to “Egypt and Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Gentlemen,
    You seem to be saying that a “hardline theocracy” in a Islamic context can only develop in a milieu that’s Mahdist–as is Twelver Shi`i Iran. There are two problems with this “master narrative” that you are following:
    1) Many Islamic governments and regimes that would be gauged “hardline theocratic” today have existed over the span of 14 Islamic centuries–and most of them were Sunni: the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans, to name only the most prominent examples.
    2) Sunni Mahdism has been, if anything, MORE prominent, activist and jihadist in Islamic history than the Shi`i variants (see my book “Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden,” Greenwood, 2005). Dozens (at least) of charismatic Sunni leaders have declared themselves to be the Mahdi and many have seized power and some (Ibn Tumart of Morocco, 12th c.; Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan, 19th c.), often with the support of mystical Sufi orders, have created states–going over the heads of the Sunni establishment ulema and creating theocracies sans any usage of vilayet-i faqih.
    Your analysis suffers from ignorance of this historical data.

    • halverson says:

      Dear Timothy,

      First, I would not say that a “hardline theocratic” regime can only develop in a Mahdist milieu – obviously the Taliban shows that isn’t true (although ‘theocratic’ is technically a misnomer). The point of the blog post was to show in terms of narrative rationality (as opposed to the instrumental rationality of politics) why Egypt will not resemble revolutionary Iran. On that point, the Mahdist element is essential.

      Second, I really have to disagree with you on this statement you made: “Many Islamic governments and regimes that would be gauged ‘hardline theocratic’ today have existed over the span of 14 Islamic centuries–and most of them were Sunni: the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans, to name only the most prominent examples.” Comparing or conflating the imperial Caliphates (especially the Umayyads and Abbasids!) with Islamist projects in contemporary nation-states is highly problematic and a dubious analytical approach. I strongly disagree with that entire approach – I tackled some of the problems inherent in this in my book Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam if you want to peruse my argument/point of view on this.

      Third, there are indeed some notable episodes of Sunni “Mahdis” running around and stirring up revolt in history. But that’s not happening in contemporary Egypt, certainly not among the Muslim Brothers, and if Dr. Badie or someone else were to step forth in Cairo with Mahdist claims he would be laughed out of the capital. Furthermore, instances such as Ibn Tumart (an eccentric example, and bit of stretch) and Muhammad Ahmed hardly prove your assertion that Mahdism is more prominent in Sunnism than Shi’ism. I really must disagree with you on this point too. Indeed, given the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni (ca. 90%), it seems reasonable that one would find, as you argue, more instances of Mahdist claims among Sunnis (if that is indeed correct). That does not point to a greater importance of the Mahdi construct in Sunnism.

      But to bring the discussion back to the subject of the blog, Sunnis don’t believe that the Mahdi is the only legitimate political ruler; as you know, he’s an obscure eschatological figure in Sunnism that has yet to come. Sunni governments are legitimate without the Mahdi, but Shi’ite governments are not; thus, Shah Ismail made the eccentric claim to be the Mahdi (even though the identity of the Mahdi is already known in Shi’ism) when he established the Safavid Empire. Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih allowed him to legitimize political rule with vital Mahdist authority (because the Mahdi was born centuries ago and exists in occultation), without facing the serious trouble of claiming to be the Mahdi himself. It also infused a degree of infallibility (the Imams, including the Imam al-Mahdi are infallible) into the office of the Supreme Leader. In Sunni Islam, the Mahdi is a ‘common’ mortal who has yet to be born, and thus no one can communicate or represent him, nor do Sunnis need to make such claims in order to legitimize political authority; they would have to claim to be him (like Muhammad Ahmed in Sudan).

      So these are some of the important distinctions between the Egyptian and Iranian cases I’m trying to point out through the use of narrative. As I noted in a previous COMOPS blog post on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Ikhwani govt in Egypt (as unlikely as that is) would resemble the AK Parti in Turkey far more than revolutionary Iran.

  2. Dr. Halverson,
    I agree with you that Egypt will probably not come to resemble the IRI–at least I hope not.
    My point was not to “conflate imperial caliphates with Islamist projects” today; rather, my point–which I obviously should have taken more time to explain–was that by modern, post-Enlightenment standards the Umayyad, Abbasid and even Ottoman states could very well be considered “hardline” and “theocratic.” I recognize the difference between imperial Ottoman rule, with its variegated Islamic power blocs, and what the Taliban or AQN prefers.
    And there have been many more examples of Sunni Mahdism in history than the two examples (Ibn Tumart and Muhammad Ahmad) that I named; in fact, the tally runs into the dozens, if not the hundreds (my friend David Cook thinks it runs to the thousands). And I fail to understand why you dismiss Ibn Tumart as “eccentric” and “a bit of a stretch”–considering that a state based in no small part upon belief in him as the Mahdi lasted for over a century and ruled a vast territory in North Africa. I would submit that you need to study the history of Sunni Mahdism more before you dismiss it so readily.