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‘Inside Egypt’
‘Inside Egypt’
I’ve been semi-permanently based in Egypt for about a decade (apart from a two-and-a-half-year stint in Saudi Arabia from a few months before September 11, 2001, when I was the managing editor of the English-language daily Arab News). I speak
Thursday, August 14,2008 09:39
by Middle East Strategy at Harvard

I’ve been semi-permanently based in Egypt for about a decade (apart from a two-and-a-half-year stint in Saudi Arabia from a few months before September 11, 2001, when I was the managing editor of the English-language daily Arab News). I speak the Egyptian Arabic dialect fluently, and consider Cairo my home. So after I left Saudi Arabia and published my book on that country, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005), I instinctively made my way back to Egypt.


I suggested to my publisher that I should write a book on contemporary Egyptian politics and society since—amazingly—there’s no similar book out there, and apart from Saudi Arabia it’s the Arab country I’m most familiar with. Egypt, moreover, is the most populous Arab country, the region’s historic trendsetter, and a crucial U.S. ally. So it’s important that Westerners and Washington-based Mideast policy makers understand the inner workings of this country better—especially as it appears to be entering a period of serious instability.


In Inside Egypt, I try to achieve two main goals:


To undermine the misconception that Egyptians are passive and apolitical, used as they are to being governed by a pharaoh and having their lives determined by the alluvial rhythms of the Nile. I offer a new reading of modern Egyptian history, which shows that about every three decades Egypt is rocked by revolutionary or near-revolutionary change. In 1919 Egyptians rose up against British rule, which led to partial sovereignty. In January 1952 half of Cairo was burned to the ground by angry mobs, and in July that year the Free Officers seized power. In 1977 bread riots nearly brought down the regime of Anwar Sadat, and four years later he was assassinated by Islamists. We are about three decades since that the last period of turmoil, and Egypt is now witnessing the biggest wave of industrial unrest and social instability since before the 1952 coup. The country, I argue, is ripe for another uprising.



To undermine the belief, growing in Western policy circles, that the Muslim Brotherhood has gained widespread popularity in Egypt, and therefore should be cultivated as an acceptable alternative to the Mubarak regime. The group apparently has about 500,000 members—out of a population of 78 million. There are probably a million or so more Egyptians who are vaguely sympathetic to their goals, or who would support them because they believe any group would be better than the tyrant who rules them at present. In other words, at most they have the support of about 2 percent of the population. As I show in Inside Egypt, there are obvious reasons why their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam doesn’t resonate among ordinary Egyptians, one of which is that the kind of Islam practiced by the country’s Muslims is an intriguing mishmash of Sunni, Shia, and Sufi traditions. For instance, there are at least six million men in Egypt—about a third of the adult male Muslim population—who are members of one Sufi order or other; and at least twice that number of men—and countless millions of women and children—participate in the festivals the Sufi orders organize called moulids. That these figures are likely to surprise outsiders is proof of how the coverage of Egypt in the Western media has tended to favor analyzing developments almost exclusively in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the detriment of other more moderate and mainstream Islamic trends. The Muslim Brotherhood condemns moulids as un-Islamic, and that is one of a number of reasons why they can count such a small number of members in their rank and file. Praying to holy men and women, even celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, is akin to idolatry, according to these Sunni fundamentalists. Add to this the roughly 10 percent of the population that is Christian, and other large ethnic groups like Bedouin and Nubians for whom Islamism is anathema, along with secular Egyptians and moderate Sunnis and fiercely independent tribal Upper Egyptians, and it isn’t difficult to understand why the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to garner mass support, and never will. Most Egyptians, I believe, live in horror at being ruled by a hard-line Sunni Islamist regime. The Muslim Brotherhood have been cultivated as a political opposition force by Mubarak himself precisely to play up the fear in Washington of an Islamist takeover if he is removed from power. Western policy makers who promote the Muslim Brotherhood are, however inadvertently, doing Mubarak’s dirty work for him, and in the process they are doing a great disservice to the Egyptian people and display a terrible misunderstanding of the complexity of Egyptian society.



Last month, the Egyptian regime banned Inside Egypt from being imported and sold in the country, the first time a book about politics has been banned in Egypt during the 27 years of Husni Mubarak’s regime. The news was picked up by dozens of blogs, the wire services, BBC Word Service, BBC Arabic TV, The Bookseller, the vibrant Egyptian opposition press, and the pan-Arab media. Having thus catapulted the book into the international headlines, the Egyptian ministry of information then suddenly backtracked, issuing a lengthy statement claiming that Inside Egypt had not been banned but rather approved for distribution. That denial was carried on the front page of every Egyptian daily newspaper. The following day, the independent daily Al-Masri al-Yawm and the opposition weekly Al-Dustur carried full-page reviews of the book, the contents of which were summarized on both front pages. The Associated Press meanwhile issued an update confirming that the book had indeed been banned initially but then “released” by the censor’s office.



I consider this u-turn a small victory for free expression in Egypt and the wider Arab world. The ban had resulted in Inside Egypt becoming the most discussed book on the country in living memory. Hopefully, the publicity surrounding the temporary ban will lead in the coming weeks and months to a more detailed discussion of the book’s contents in the Western media.



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