I’ve shared everyone’s joy as revolutions roll across North Africa into the Middle East, catching breathless reports and live feeds all hours of the night and day. I have certainly been excited for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, shaking off brutal governments buttressed by US and other Western support. I find myself quietly rooting for the protesters in Bahrain when circling a roundabout or grit my teeth as I pull into a gas station with reports of more dead in Yemen on the radio. One thing that seems lacking in Al Jazeera’s play-by-play approach is analysis of what might be next. Now what?
I’ve had “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” by Genevieve Abdo on my shelf for a few years and my burning questions urged me to pick it up. Published over 10 years ago from many years of research Abdo conducted in the mid-late 90’s, it explores the grassroots Islamist movement building in Egypt for decades. As a Westerner, I know the average perception of political Islam is, as Abdo describes, ” a bearded man with a Kalashnikov.” In extensive interviews and field research with common people, religious leaders, political officials and intellectuals across Egypt, Abdo meets the faces of political Islam in Egypt and sets them apart from terrorist movements or proponents of what she calls “ideological societies” such as Iran. Though the work is a few years old, when I think of what comes after Tahrir Square I am struck by her descriptions of how Islamists have built populist support in professional syndicates, offered social services for the underemployed middle class, and tapped dissatisfaction with a corrupt Western-backed government among all walks of life in Egyptian society.
Abdo explores the roots of Islamist identity as she meets key figures in the complex relationship between the state and religion. She visits institutions like universities, the judicial system, and the prominent Al-Azhar religious school in Cairo. She devotes chapters to how Islamist students shrewdly built support in student unions, winning hearts with buses separated by sex to deal with overcrowding on public transportation, or in professional syndicates historically organized as fronts for the state. I was struck to be reminded Egypt has only had three presidents since it’s independence in 1952: a socialist pan-Arab nationalist, an ambivilant “believer President”, and a iron-fisted Western puppet. In her telling, none of these governments have truly “reached the people” and now each in turn have lost power in disgrace or assassination. While extremism has been a common current since the 70’s, she believes that it will never be the guiding force in Egyptian society.
Despite being banned for decades as “radicals,” the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, are Egypt’s most established opposition group. They represent a moderate Islamism familiar to a Turk perhaps but not the average American. Abdo’s meetings with the Brotherhood strike me as very reminiscent of Turkey’s Ak Party: pro-“Modernity”(read: capitalism), socially conservative, and with just enough Islamic ideology thrown in to raise the hackles of any secularist. Abdo’s tone fluctuates between triumphant and/or aloof as she describes a unique political movement that preaches moderation and piety but also advocates for female genital “circumcision” and censorship.
I know that the protests in Tahrir were largely organized by young, hep activists fed up with the Mubarak regime. Now that those activist have met their goal, however, it seems likely the Islamist movement that has been building in Egypt will offer a welcome return to order and unity as the country looks to the future. My experience in the Middle East is that it there is a pervasive value of order and social cohesion that we here in the West cannot fully understand. Today that order and unity is provided by a transitional military government, but I am with Abdo in predicting a more religiously driven Egyptian society. This book has expanded my understanding of what that would look like.