Center for Strategic Communication

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.