Egypt, Islam and Democracy: Critical Essays, with a New Postscript

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Review Article by Jon B. Alterman

Egypt, Islam and Democracy: Critical Essays, with a New Postscript, by Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 1996 and 2002. xi + 269 pages. $19.95.

Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience, by Caryle Murphy. New York: Scribner, 2002. vii + 359 pages. Notes to p. 337. Gloss. to p. 340. Index to p. 359. $27.

Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt, by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. xvi + 306 pages. Notes to p. 267. Bibl. to p. 293. Index to p. 306. $22.50 paper.

Ten years ago, some observers thought that the Egyptian government was on the brink of collapse. Sectarian violence that had begun in Upper Egypt had morphed into terror attacks in the center of Cairo. Government tanks had rumbled into the slum of Imbaba to retake the area from Islamist militants. Muslim charitable organizations had proven so effective delivering aid after a 1992 earthquake, and government organs so inept, that the government had banned such organizations from relief work. Egypt's frail Nobel Prize winning author, Naguib Mahfouz, narrowly survived having been stabbed in front of his home by a young militant armed with a cheap kitchen knife. Political emotions in Egypt were boiling, while political participation was reaching its nadir.

In retrospect, it appears that the Egyptian government was never close to collapse. In addition, it proved reasonably effective in stemming the growth of organizations actively plotting its overthrow. In recent years, imprisoned leaders of the Gama'a Islamiya have written books recanting their views, and attacks on both government forces and innocent civilians have faded away.

Yet it was not always clear this was the way the story would turn out, and all three of the books under review have their roots in a much more uncertain phase of Egyptian history. Each in its own way considers the challenges that faced the Egyptian state, and the state's responses to those challenges.

Even more importantly, each of these books explores the Egyptian public's responses to Egyptian government pressure. Throughout a period of increased state intervention in their daily lives, Egyptians carved out areas of autonomous activity. Equally importantly, many Egyptians established structures and value systems that gave meaning to their lives in the face of a system that many found dehumanizing. The fact that this process was colored by religion was not coincidental, and was perhaps inevitable. All three books help us understand why.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Egypt, Islam and Democracy is a collection of essays written over almost two decades. It was originally published in 1996, and reissued in 2002 with a brief postscript. In recent years, Ibrahim has emerged as a government gadfly, and more recently as an internationally recognized sometime political prisoner. Before that, however, Ibrahim had written pioneering sociological studies of Islamist militants long before they were in the headlines. Indeed, he had conducted groundbreaking surveys of more than 30 imprisoned activists even before the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 put militant Islam on many people's radar screens.

The first essay in this collection presents the preliminary results of that research. Such work appears dated now, but serves to remind us how little we had known about radical Islamist movements in this period. There had been little to go by besides Richard Mitchell's The Society of Muslim Brothers,1 which in any event concentrated on an earlier generation of Islamist-inspired activism. Ibrahim lays out the now-familiar ideology of Islamist rejectionists: the perception of weakness and moral decay, and the desire to create a true Muslim society. …