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Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, centre, arrives in Tehran following an exile in France, Feb. 1, 1979. (GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, centre, arrives in Tehran following an exile in France, Feb. 1, 1979. (GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Marina Nemat

Lessons from a revolution (Iran's, that is) Add to ...

Every word of Mona Eltahawy's weekend Toronto Star column about Egypt is packed with excitement, and rightfully so; she wants freedom and democracy for her homeland. She's young and full of energy and, as far as I could gather, has never lived through a revolution.

History is probably a thing of the past for her and is irrelevant to the amazing energy of the hundreds of thousands of people who have filled Egypt's streets in recent days, demanding the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the long-time dictator and U.S. ally. As she writes about Egyptians of all ages and backgrounds coming together to demand freedom, Ms. Eltahawy almost sounds bubbly, as if such events have never happened before anywhere else in the world.

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She reminds me of my friends and some family members who, during the starting days of the demonstrations in Iran that led to the Islamic revolution of 1979, were entirely consumed by the need to get rid of the king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but had no real plan for building a better future. It is believed that 98 per cent of the people of Iran supported that revolution, and this is probably true, because I was there and I saw the energy of the people on the streets of Tehran; like the Egyptians, Iranians demanded freedom and democracy, and they were sure they would get it.

Ms. Eltahawy writes that demands for freedom and dignity fuel the protests in Egypt. The people of Iran demanded the same in 1979. She speaks about the success of the movement in Tunisia and the fleeing of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator. After the shah fled Iran, the country had something that almost resembled democracy for about a year, until the new regime established itself and the crackdowns and arrests of dissidents began.

I now read that Tunisia's main Islamist leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has returned to that country after 22 years in exile. That reminded me of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini. Before his return to Iran, he had promised that he would step aside and would not seek power, but this isn't what happened. It didn't take long for him to announce himself as Iran's Supreme Leader, who could veto the decisions of the president and parliament, or, in other words, the decisions of the people.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt have unleashed their power, and they believe they're in charge. Yes, maybe for a while. But for them to remain in charge, they need a leader, someone to guide their explosive energy in the right direction and, we hope, to a free election. But in the absence of such a leader, power is up for grabs. This is the lesson of history.

Ms. Eltahawy writes about two phone calls she received from Cairo: one from an activist with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main Islamist group, and one from a human-rights defender who's a member of a liberal group, both concerned about the violence against demonstrators. She mentions that the Mubarak regime is trying to make it seem that the Brotherhood is driving the protests, something she believes is far from the truth, and it could very well be. But the question is: How long will the Muslim Brotherhood wait on the sidelines before pouncing for power? It's hard to believe they would just step aside out of the goodness of their hearts.

In the early days of the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah, all Iranians, including liberals, Marxists and Islamists, took to the streets and seemingly fought for the same ideals. It was only after the shah went into exile and Ayatollah Khomaini came into power that serious cracks began to appear in the movement. Soon, the Islamists won the race for power, and this led to a horrific dictatorship that has been ruling Iran with an iron fist for more than 30 years.

I commend the people of Egypt and Tunisia for their courage, and I wish them freedom and democracy. I encourage them to continue their movement, but I also urge them to be alert and to learn from history. In 1982, only three years after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, I was arrested at the age of 16 for speaking up against the new regime. I was tortured and raped, and many of my friends were executed, so I hope the people of Egypt and Tunisia forgive me for being cautious.

It's so easy to lose oneself in the excitement of a revolution and in hope of a better future. But let's not forget that freedom and democracy are complicated and difficult to achieve, and they need a lot more than the goodwill of the people.

Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed .

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