A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, by Mary Anne Weaver. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Girous, 1999. viii + 280 pages. $24.
Reviewed by Fawaz A. Gerges
This is neither a history book nor a sociological analysis of the contemporary Islamist phenomenon. It is not a travel book either. Weaver, an American journalist, who spent two years (197779) as a student in Egypt and since then has regularly traveled there, draws a sketchy portrait of a country and people whom she finds "strangely fascinating, enigmatic, and contradictory, filled with evasion and surprise." Her initial encounter with the land of the Pharaohs coincided with the Islamic revival that has left its imprint on the Egyptian state and society. The author was at a loss to understand the driving force behind this powerful sociopolitical current that was slowly, but steadily, changing the secular character of Egypt and threatening to embroil it in a bloodbath.
Weaver was particularly intrigued by some of her female friends and colleagues (at the American University in Cairo), who readily gave up their comfortable middle and upper class lifestyle and veils, and joined the ranks of Islamists. More important, in Weaver's eyes, were the armies of urban dwellers, professionals, soldiers, and officers who unleashed their fury against the ruling elite and their secular clients-symbols of political oppression and economic domination. The Islamists' onslaught culminated in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who himself had used and flirted with political Islam as a counterweight to the communists and Arab socialists.
Although Husni Mubarak inherited Sadat's legacy, in his first two terms in office he shifted course by expanding political space and allowing the opposition a margin of freedom. At the same time, Mubarak was forced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to embark on painful economic liberalization and privatization of the bloated and inefficient state-owned industries. The period of political stability that Egypt enjoyed in the 1980s resembled the calm that precedes the storm. Mubarak's half-hearted efforts at economic and political liberalization alienated a large segment of the population and fell short of the high expectations of Western financial institutions. His policies met with resistance by Islamists, who used religion as a means to mobilize socioeconomically marginalized, dissatisfied groups and to contest the regime's secular and pro-Western orientation.
By the early 1990s, Egypt faced a low-intensity war of attrition between the authorities and a large array of small militant Islamist organizations, resulting in thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in damage to the tourist industry. Indeed, the combination of security, political, and economic pressures augmented the Egyptian state's feeling of being under siege. The Mubarak regime responded in a two-pronged way. Firstly, it not only intensified and widened its crackdown on Islamic activists, but also did not distinguish between those who espouse violence and the vast majority who do not. Secondly, the Egyptian regime tried to seize the initiative from Islamists by adopting Islamic symbols and upholding principles that draw their inspiration from the Koran. …