A Portrait Of Egypt

Theodore Spencer reviews 'A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam' by Mary Anne Weaver.


Theodore Spencer
March 23, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

| In "A Portrait of Egypt," Mary Anne Weaver has a jolting message for everyone who is hoping for peace in the Middle East: Be afraid, be very afraid. Weaver, a staff writer for the New Yorker, makes a clear and convincing case that the inhabitants of the most populous and influential Arab nation will soon topple President Hosni Mubarak's military dictatorship and install an Islamist regime in its place, with a domino-effect potential for the entire Arab world.

The fuel for the unrest is less the Koran than the rise of astonishing economic inequality and brutal repression. Since the '70s, Weaver writes, when she was a graduate student at the American University of Cairo, Egypt has lost its complex social and economic layers, becoming a land of haves and have-nots, where the capital city is home both to dealerships doing a brisk trade in $400,000 Mercedes and to slums with, on average, 3.7 people living in every room.

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One of the surprises in Weaver's book is its portrait of Mubarak -- a man usually pictured in the Western press as a stalwart agent of peace -- as a distant and brutal leader whose regime jails and tortures people without cause and, according to Amnesty International, gives its forces "an official license to kill with impunity." Another is Weaver's ability to get into the Muslim mind and provide a three-dimensional portrait of the Egyptians who believe that Islam is the answer. She shows how Islamists have taken control of the trade unions, the universities, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the arts -- democratically, and to such an extent that their coming to national power appears to be just a matter of time. "Islam," Weaver observes, "is the world's only major faith that can truly be defined as political."

But Islamists wouldn't be on the brink of power today, she notes repeatedly, were it not for three radicalizing events of 1979. The Iranian revolution, the most stunning Islamic political victory in centuries, emboldened Islamists throughout the world with its example of a loosely formed and heavily repressed opposition toppling the Shah. The Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel enraged Egyptian Islamists, who felt that their president, Anwar el-Sadat, had sold out the Palestinians. And the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a war that would not only unify Islamists throughout the world but also provide a U.S.-funded training and networking ground for extremists who would later turn on the United States.

The tipping point for Mubarak, Weaver argues, was the November 1997 massacre at Luxor. In that attack, gunmen killed 62 foreign tourists in a 45-minute hail of AK-47 fire and met no resistance from police. The Luxor massacre crippled the Egyptian economy by all but eliminating its primary source of revenue -- tourism -- and suggested that Mubarak was not in control of the country. Thus it is that Egypt finds itself on the verge of following in Iran's footsteps.

Weaver's book is assiduously reported and written in an engaging, memoir-like style that puts a human face on people often characterized as fanatics. It includes interviews with all the main Egyptian players, among them Mubarak and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamic factions Gama'a and al-Jihad and the mentor of the World Trade Center bombers. There are moments, however, in Weaver's vignette-driven format when she comes across a bit like an older, somewhat naive Nancy Drew. She writes a few too many times of being "struck" by this or that epiphany while walking down the steps from some interview. Overall, though, "A Portrait of Egypt" is a finely realized book: an image of a nation from an angle we don't often see it from, and one that cannot be ignored.


Theodore Spencer

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