The Middle East Channel

The war of narratives

"The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement, and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people [and the Tunisian people]," a buoyant if shameless Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian worshippers last Friday. "If the Egyptian people manage to continue their movement with the help ...

AFP/Getty Images.
AFP/Getty Images.

"The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement, and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people [and the Tunisian people]," a buoyant if shameless Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian worshippers last Friday. "If the Egyptian people manage to continue their movement with the help of God, they will cause an irreparable failure for the American and the Zionist regimes in the region." On Monday, his top ally, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, followed suit by addressing the demonstrators directly. "We see the faces of our martyrs in yours, and we see in your steadfastness in the squares the same steadfastness of the resistance’s heroes in Lebanon and Palestine," Nasrallah proclaimed. These marked the opening shot in the battle of foreign narratives to define the context and meaning of Egypt’s democracy moment.

Of course, revolutionary Iran has been utterly irrelevant in inspiring the Egyptian uprising — just as the United States has been. Many protesters in Tahrir Square, who rallied in favor of human dignity, political empowerment, and economic opportunity rather than a blind adherence to a confrontational agenda and greater religious influence in public matters, would find it insulting to suggest otherwise. But the cold war that opposes the United States and Iran in their struggle for regional influence is as much about narratives and soft power as it is hard power, something Tehran understands too well and Washington too little. Fundamentally, it is about convincing the Arab world that history is going its way. And in this struggle, Washington has few tools to win unless it realizes that a narrative is always best undermined from within than from without.

It was no surprise then that Khamenei and Nasrallah hailed Egypt’s "Islamic awakening." In their eyes, the uprising works to their benefit: It weakens the Mubarak regime that has been a reliable foe, it exposes Washington’s multiple contradictions and dilemmas in the Middle East, and it reveals the gap between the pro-Mubarak Arab rulers and their freedom-starved citizens.

In the war of narratives, Iran and Hezbollah have a decisive advantage. They have found ways to rekindle Arab pride after it was wounded at almost every level in past decades. Through propaganda, military successes, and political deeds, they have captured the Arab imagination. In the process, they have tried to redefine the intangible notions of karameh (dignity) and sharaf (honor), words much heard in Cairo’s streets these days, as requiring steadfast resistance to Western imperialism as much as an embrace of an alternative system of Islamist thinking and values. This ethos of muqawama (resistance) is perhaps best articulated by Alastair Crooke, an unabashed champion of Iran and Hezbollah, in Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

There is nothing the United States — or any other country — can do to undermine the Iranian narrative, however flawed. Indeed, Washington is decidedly on the defense even if the Egyptian protesters’ ideals are closer to American than Khomeinist ones. Thanks to repeated blunders, questionable relationships, pervasive interference, and failure to advance the Palestinian cause, the United States’ image and credibility in the Arab world are beyond repair. A greater Western commitment to democracy promotion would help only at the margin of Arab perceptions.

To make things worse, America’s Arab allies are in no position to assist. After all, what successful model can they oppose to Iran’s disingenuous but well-crafted assertion of having struck the right balance between Islamist values, popular representation, revolutionary ideals, state modernization, and defiance of the West? The three core Arab states, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, are in a sad condition after a series of disastrous political and economic choices, and the success of the tiny Persian Gulf city-states is hardly replicable elsewhere. Arab leaders have none of the required charisma, populism, and record to take on Iran and Hezbollah’s ideological campaign. The only viable example in the Middle East is a non-Arab one, Turkey.

It will take time for the battle of narratives to settle, but Washington should not take comfort in this. The crisis in Egypt is already a net strategic gain for Tehran, even if, just as the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, it is not one of its doing. Regardless of whether Mubarak goes (now or in September), the regime survives with the military at the helm, or the transition occurs along the lines wished by U.S. President Barack Obama, Egypt will be strategically paralyzed, operationally weak, and inward-looking for the foreseeable future. In zero-sum realpolitik terms, this is a net loss to U.S. regional policy.

Indeed, Egypt was Washington’s chief Arab conductor in its campaign to contain Iranian power. In Palestine, it helped prop up the Palestinian Authority, contain Hamas, and keep channels open with Israel. In Lebanon, it has been a forceful supporter of the anti-Hezbollah coalition (it also detained Hezbollah operatives who fled prison after the security breakdown last week). Even after Saudi Arabia softened its tone toward Syria, Egypt maintained a hard line toward Bashar Assad’s regime. And when Washington devised its strategy to contain Iran in the Persian Gulf, it made sure to involve Egypt. Thanks to its good relations with the Gulf states, Cairo helped solidify the anti-Iranian front.

Egyptian attention will now turn to domestic matters. Bad blood and mistrust will define relations between Washington’s and Cairo’s national security elites who will feel betrayed that Washington wavered in its support of the Mubarak regime. And if the Egyptian uprising ends in a bloodbath or massive repression, it will be impossible for Washington to maintain the same strategic relationship with Cairo, for it would face damning charges of condoning in Cairo what it condemns in Tehran. Even U.S. military aid to Egypt would be threatened, fundamentally changing the nature of their dealings.

In the meantime, the void left by Egypt’s absence on the regional scene will be hard to fill. Despite claims of religious and political leadership, Saudi Arabia has proved unable and ill equipped to lead, inconsistent, short-breathed, and paralyzed by the question of succession. No other Arab country has the political standing to lead. The United States has to come to terms with the sobering reality that an entire component of its regional strategy is unraveling. This latest blow shows that there was always a missing element in the U.S. approach to Iran.

Washington has defined its containment strategy in the narrowest possible way, focusing on building up the defensive capabilities of its allies as if Iran’s main challenge was conventional. But Iranian influence is about "Mullahs, Money and Militias," as aptly described by journalist Barbara Slavin. Military cooperation and arms sales cannot be the backbone of a campaign to roll over Iranian power.

What is missing is the values dimension. During the Cold War, Washington and its European allies shared ideals that they could defend and promote unabashedly to Soviet and Eastern audiences. This created a sense of common destiny among Western allies that helped them surmount the gravest moments and that inspired Eastern dissidents. There is no such community of values between Washington and its Arab allies, in contrast with the ties that link Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. While Western capitals were condemning the suppression of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, Arab officialdom remained silent because it doesn’t subscribe to any democracy agenda. Worse, Washington’s pressure on Mubarak has already unsettled its Gulf allies who believe that the United States is foolishly pursuing a democratization agenda that has repeatedly worked to Iran’s advantage.

In reality, Washington’s best bet is to hope that the Iranians will achieve soon and on their own what the Egyptians may be on the verge of doing. After all, the most potent challenge to the Khomeinist narrative came from within Iran in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election, and an inward-looking Iran would stop exporting its disruptive model of resistance.

Luckily, many Arabs no longer see Iran as a successful model after the 2009 Green Revolution either. They may agree with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli rants and Hassan Nasrallah’s proud defiance, but they are unwilling to adopt their resistance agenda — just as Latin Americans cheered and romanticized the Cuban Revolution but certainly did not wish it for themselves. It is telling that, when asked, young Arabs say they prefer to move to Dubai or Doha rather than Tehran or Beirut’s southern suburbs. If the protesters in Cairo have it their way, they may even have a dignified future in their own country that does not require enrolling in the muqawama.

Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East.

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