Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 24 July 2010 12:00 UK

Iran and Egypt's restless wait for change

Villa in Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt
There are many elegant reminders of Egypt's past in Zamalek

Middle East correspondent Jon Leyne, who was formerly in Tehran and is now based in Cairo, considers how Iran and Egypt's different attitudes towards the past have sent the countries in divergent directions.

There is something about the innocent game of golf that seems to provoke certain Middle Eastern rulers.

For the revolutionary governments that have come and gone across this region, golf has sometimes come to symbolise the evils of wealth, privilege and foreign cultural domination.

I now live and work on Zamalek, an island enclave in the middle of the vast city of Cairo.

A large chunk of the island is taken up by the Gezira Sporting Club, a sort of country club in the heart of the city, with tennis, croquet, swimming, horse riding and golf.

During the wave of nationalism and nationalisation that swept Egypt in the 1950s, half of the course was confiscated by the government, reducing it to just nine holes.

In Tehran, I used to run on the path around the golf course at the Enghelab, or Revolution Club.

Egypt has slipped from revolutionary ferment to gentle stagnation

It suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards after the Islamic revolution of 1979, though the Iranians always have to be a little different. They cut the course down to an eccentric 14 holes.

It got me thinking about the similarities and differences between Iran, my last posting, and my new home here in Egypt.

Both are Middle Eastern countries with proud, ancient histories, and teeming young populations, restless for change. But their revolutions have taken radically different directions.

Take the Gezira Club. It is now owned, run and very well patronised by Egyptians. But inside, there is a reminder of its past as a club, originally for British military officers.

There is an old wooden honours board, showing the annual holders of the Lawn Tennis Association of Egypt titles.

For the first few decades all are foreigners - until 1929, when Mr A Shukri finally joined Mr A Riches to win the men's doubles title.

Reluctant revolutionaries

In Iran, one of the complaints you will hear about life under the Shah of Iran is of the foreigners' clubs from which Iranians were excluded, with signs outside saying: "No Iranians and no dogs," if you believe the stories.

Golf course in Zamalek, Egypt
Zamalek's golf course was originally the preserve of British officers

In Iran resentment against that sort of Western domination and discrimination produced a bitterness that those who now rule the country still harbour, feed on and cultivate.

They will tell you, as if it was yesterday, about the 1953 coup, backed by Britain and the United States, that ousted the democratically elected Mossadeq government.

By contrast, since I arrived in Egypt a month ago, no-one here has mentioned to me the Suez crisis of 1956, or Western opposition to the government of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the nationalist president of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s.

And whereas President Ahmadinejad works every day to revive the glory days of the Islamic Revolution, here in Egypt they have not even bothered to schedule a parade for their Revolution Day this week.

Instead the country has slipped from revolutionary ferment to gentle stagnation.

A recent new wave of economic liberalisation has produced faster growth.

But the benefits seem to have gone mostly to the elite, building new mansions on the edge of town, complete with what I am told is the best golf course in Egypt. Nobody is about to confiscate nine of their holes.

Untapped potential

In Iran last year I witnessed the remarkable scenes as millions of opposition supporters took to the streets to protest against President Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election.

The Nobel peace prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has caused a stir in Egypt by returning home and voicing strong criticism of his government.

But there is no sign of a mass movement in Egypt, no sign of the vibrant young generation who took to the streets in Iran.

There is not the level of resentment here against the government, or perhaps they just do not see any chance of changing things. The old guard seem much more confidently in control.

File photograph of young people in Iran
There is a dynamism about society in Iran that you do not sense in Egypt or indeed the rest of the Arab world

In Iran the population, particularly the women, are increasingly well educated and middle class.

Twice as many people have access to the internet as in Egypt, half as many cannot read.

A recent visitor pointed out they are also the most pro-American population in the Middle East, in stark contrast to their anti-American government.

Above all, there is a dynamism about society in Iran that you do not sense in Egypt or indeed the rest of the Arab world.

But both countries do share one overwhelming feature - a vast potential, unused human and natural resources, that are clearly not being realised at the moment.

Those around President Hosni Mubarak strongly deny rumours about his possible ill health. But he is 82 years old. He cannot last forever.

Despite talk of his son Gamal being groomed, there is no obvious successor.

In Iran those pressing for change want a new government, or maybe a new system of government. For a time last summer that sort of radical change seemed a real possibility.

In Egypt they will tell you the problems lie deeper. It is not just the government they want and need to change, it is society as well. So real change here could take a very long time indeed.

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