The recent cause célèbre known as “the Abu Zayd affair”—the philosophy professor pronounced an apostate by a state court—has been described as the epitome of a culture war in today’s Egypt. This struggle over the country’s soul has been going on for over a century, with varying degrees of intensity. Observers have never been, nor are they now, in agreement over the essence and outcome of its earlier phases. And today, as it continues to rage with passion, the range of assessments is as broad as ever. Future historians will be better equipped to appraise the historical significance of the most recent developments. But it is already quite clear that the Abu Zayd affair and several other cases of a similar nature are major milestones in this battle. In the present study I propose to explore these developments as a reflection of cultural tensions in Egypt and place them in a historical context. This may yield a preliminary perspective on the country’s search for orientation as it approaches the end of the twentieth century.
society’s “cultural orientation” is an elusive notion. Ideas aired by the
articulate members of a community, if readily accessible to the observer,
do not necessarily express views of its other segments. Probing the
thinking, sentiments and beliefs of an entire society requires a broad
variety of research methods, taken from a host of scholarly disciplines,
and these are rarely integrated in a single study.It
would thus be somewhat pretentious for a historian to try and capture an
exhaustive picture of a community’s cultural reality, the more so when
that society is as large and diverse as Egypt, still more when the period
in question is one of accelerated change. The present study aims at a more
modest goal. Its chief heroes are the society’s leading exponents of
political and cultural ideas, its main focus the tension between the
different courses they have sought to chart for the country. The impact of
this debate on the largely passive majority of that society thus remains
outside the scope of this exploration.
Scholarship and Apostasy
Abu Zayd, 1992
The story of Abu Zayd has been widely told by others, hence we can make do with a brief account highlighting the points relevant to our discussion. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (born 1943) was assistant professor in the Department of Arabic, Faculty of Letters, at Cairo University. In May 1992 he applied for promotion to the rank of professor, based on an output of three books and many articles dealing mostly with the critique of Islamic texts and modern Islamic discourse. An academic committee examined the file for about seven months and consulted with external experts. In December 1992 it announced its decision to turn down the application. The rejection was championed by one of the committee members, linguistics professor ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin, who argued that Abu Zayd’s works, especially his book, Naqd al-khitab al-dini ( A Critique of Religious Discourse), contained words of blasphemy. Abu Zayd, he charged, ridiculed the Qur’an by casting doubt on such notions as paradise, hell and the day of resurrection, and by treating the Holy Book as if it were simply the composition of a human being. This meant that Abu Zayd was a heretic (mulhid) and an apostate (murtadd). Shahin—who may have been motivated by a personal vendetta against Abu Zayd—did not stop at defeating his academic promotion. He took the matter out of the university. In April 1993, in a Friday sermon at ‘Umar bin al-‘As mosque in Cairo, Shahin publicly pronounced Abu Zayd an apostate. The move was not without certain practical significance: as a murtadd, Abu Zayd could not remain married to his Muslim wife, Ibtihal Yunis, professor of French literature at Cairo University; by a more rigorous interpretation, he could face the death penalty. Shahin’s pronouncement was soon echoed in other mosques, prompting a group of Islamist lawyers to file an appeal to a Family Court in Cairo to separate Abu Zayd from his wife. In January 1994 the court ruled the case inadmissible, since the plaintiff had no personal standing in the matter. At that point the case seemed to have been closed. Abu Zayd himself published a treatise, Al-tafkir fi zaman al-takfir (Thought in an Age of Charges-of-Unbelief), offering a postmortem of his recent experience. Promoted to the rank of professor in May 1995, Abu Zayd optimistically resumed teaching and research in full swing.
Although it was the content of Abu Zayd’s writings, not their quantity, that had hindered his appointment, it is not really necessary to examine them closely. Our concern is not the minute details of the arguments but rather the public furor aroused by the attempt to read religious texts in accordance with a modern scholarly approach. We can make do with noting that Abu Zayd laid out a fresh interpretation of religious texts, presented, as one scholar observed, in a “most respectable—and academically unimpeachable—manner.” But in the battle that followed, his respectful style and meticulous scholarship were immaterial, nor did it really matter that he himself was a believer, who repeatedly reaffirmed his adherence to the faith. What did matter was that Abu Zayd, a product of modern education and rational thought, dared apply the standard academic yardstick to the Holy Scriptures, thereby intruding into a territory others regarded as theirs. Once the issue hit the headlines, the religious circles behind Shahin could not afford to acquiesce in defeat. They pursued the legal case further, and in mid-June 1995—some six weeks after Abu Zayd was awarded his university promotion—they won their victory. Reversing the lower court’s decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that Abu Zayd was indeed a murtadd and should therefore be separated from his wife.
The new ruling stirred a wave of angry protests by Egyptian liberal intellectuals, as well as calls for the execution of Abu Zayd by radical Islamists. Abu Zayd received threats to his life, which in Egypt of the mid-1990s could not be taken lightly. In the summer 1995 he and his wife decided to leave the country. Abu Zayd accepted a job offer at Leiden University, the couple settled in Holland, and from there they appealed the ruling at a higher judicial instance. A year later, in August 1996, the Egyptian Court of Cassations rejected the appeal and confirmed the previous decision of apostasy and separation. This court represented the supreme judicial authority, yet more legal procedures were possible even after its decision. The following month, a Cairo Court of Urgent Cases ordered the suspension of the separation ruling.
The Abu Zayd affair pitted two camps in Egypt—for the time being we may refer to them as “traditional” and “liberal-rationalist”—against each other in an angry encounter. The former camp, including Shahin and his students, viewed the final court’s ruling as a great achievement in their drive to consolidate the role of religion in Egypt. The court’s position, Shahin stated, was “a message to society, that the call of secularists and Marxists is in reality apostasy from Islam…. It means that the era of secularists and Marxists in over in Egypt.” This victory, he asserted, was “only the beginning. We will do this to everyone who thinks they are bigger than Islam.” Secular-minded intellectuals were shocked and alarmed by the legal developments. Political parties, the lawyers’ and journalists’ unions, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and other public and academic bodies held rallies and issued statements expressing their profound dismay with what had happened. Abu Zayd was described as “one of the most important thinkers of enlightenment in Egypt’s history and a distinguished beacon in the annals of Arab culture as a whole.” The Center for Human Rights—Legal Aid issued a statement saying that the court’s ruling “would lead the society far from civilization and return the country to the Dark Ages, where Inquisition Courts inspected the conscience of intellectuals, researchers and innovators, and where the values of prejudice and rigidity prevailed.” A public “Committee for the Support of Abu Zayd” was set up in Egypt; and a woman-lecturer at the University of Zaqaziq announced her readiness to become Abu Zayd’s second wife, which, she said, was a “Jihad for God.” The liberals expressed their outrage with the Islamist lawyers, who sought to sow discord in the community, and with the courts that ruled along such “benighted lines.” They also voiced deep concern regarding the trial’s impact on the fate of freedom in Egypt and on its cultural future. The court’s decision, one of Abu Zayd’s lawyers stated, articulating a gloom shared by many, “extinguished the last hope of living in a society where free speech is guaranteed. The Egyptian people has been sentenced to life in darkness.” There was another striking aspect to the fiery debate. While many of the participants, on both sides, felt that the case represented a major milestone in the country’s historic cultural evolution, the government chose to remain silent. The state authorities voiced no official opinion nor, so it seemed, did they try to influence the judiciary in any manner. Instead, they allowed the court to have its say and the public debate to run its natural course.
We shall return to this affair and its implications, as well as to the government’s silence. At his point, however, it would be more useful to expand the scope of exploration and include precedents from the past, thus placing the story in its appropriate historical perspective.
Muhammad Abu Zayd was an obscure shaykh from Damanhur who had received religious education in local schools and in al-Azhar, then found employment as a mosque preacher in his hometown. He also occupied himself as a popular lecturer on Islamic issues, and apparently published several books on Islamic matters in the 1920s, written strictly in the orthodox tradition. In December 1930 he published a commentary on the Qur’an, that exposed him to the wrath of the religious establishment. The book, entitled Al-hidaya wal-‘irfan fi tafsir al-Qur’an bil-Qur’an (roughly: Guidance and Illumination in Proper Qur’an Interpretation) was suppressed soon after publication and no copies seem to have survived. But a detailed discussion of its text by a contemporary scholar, who had access to it, casts much light on the author’s approach and the reasons for the uproar it engendered. Abu Zayd employed rationalist criteria in interpreting the miracles described in the Qur’an, rejecting any explanation that was incompatible with human reason. To quote an example, he dismissed the notion of the Prophet’s heavenly journey via Jerusalem, claiming that the Qur’anic rendition actually refers to his Hijra from Mecca to Madina; “the more remote mosque” (al-masjid al-aqsa) thus had nothing to do with Jerusalem, but was in fact the mosque in Madina.
Shortly after the book appeared, Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri noticed certain young shaykhs from his institution distributing it among the students. He asked to examine the text, was shocked by its contents and immediately took steps to have it suppressed. The shaykhs who had distributed it were reassigned to positions as far away as Asyut, and the police confiscated every copy of the book. A committee of five senior al-Azhar ‘Ulama’ assessed the book and submitted a lengthy, 75-page report, which was also published in al-Azhar’s journal. It discussed many of Abu Zayd’s misconceptions (dalalat) and falsities (abatil), the kind of which, it stated, “could not have issued from a mind with [even] a tiny spark of light in it.” Such a distortion (tahrif) of the Qur’anic account proved that the author was misguided (ha’ir) and a liar (affak); still worse, his work was nothing short of heresy (ilhad fil-din) and an assault (huruj) on Islam. The committee did not seek to punish Abu Zayd for his “heresy”, stating that “the likes of him are commissioned [for judgement] before their God.” But an injunction was issued forbidding him to preach in mosques and to hold religious meetings.
This did not end Muhammad Abu Zayd’s ordeal. Another champion of orthodoxy, Muhammad Rashid Rida, who was disappointed with the “mild” Azhar report, launched a public offensive against him. Rida, the eloquent spokesman of the Salafiyya, devoted four angry essays in his journal al-Manar (between June and October 1931) to refuting Abu Zayd’s commentary and accusing him of apostasy. To increase the public effect of his assault, he also sent his articles to the popular daily al-Ahram. What Abu Zayd was after, Rida disclosed, was merely political gain: as a supporter of the Wafd he sought to de-legitimize the government, then headed by Isma‘il Sidqi. To that end, he published a work abounding in unbelief (kufr) and heresy (ilhad)—the worst deviating exegeses ever written on the Qur’an. Whoever expressed such views, Rida charged, should be declared an apostate. He should not be allowed to remain married to his Muslim wife, to bequeath his property to Muslims or to inherit from them. Nor was the attack on Abu Zayd just verbal. A group of orthodox shaykhs in Damanhur resounded the message of his apostasy, and took him to local court, which ruled that he should be separated from his wife. Abu Zayd then carried his case to a Cairo Court of Appeals, which decided in his favor. After that no more was heard of Muhammad Abu Zayd. He and his story sank into oblivion.
From the perspective of the 1990s, with a second Abu Zayd affair on record, the amazingly similar earlier story of a man by the same name is intriguing and perhaps symbolic. To the contemporaries of Muhammad Abu Zayd, however, his story was of little import. At least part of the explanation for this was the occurrence of two comparable affairs around the same time that were far more prominent and had more profound implications. A glance at these two famous cases—related to ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq and Taha Husayn—is instructive for the present discussion. Since they have been dealt with extensively in the literature it is possible, again, to do with but a brief reference to their main relevant aspects.
Shaykh ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq, a Shar‘i judge from Mansura, published his tract Al-islam wa-usul al-hukm (Islam and the Foundations of Government) in 1925. The immediate political context to its appearance was the public debate on the issue of the Caliphate, which had recently been abolished, and the aspirations of Egypt’s King Fu’ad in that regard. This, however, is of no concern to us here. ‘Abd al-Raziq approached the issue of government in Islam from a basically secular perspective, arguing that it was actually a political entity with no religious sanction. The guardians of traditional values were outraged, and he was brought before a Grand Council of ‘Ulama’. ‘Abd al-Raziq insisted on his right to his views under the constitution, but to no avail: he was dismissed from his post as a judge, lost the title ‘alim and was prohibited from serving in any religious position. The case stirred an outcry, with liberal thinkers passionately supporting ‘Abd al-Raziq in the name of civil rights enshrined in the constitution. It also sparked a political crisis that brought down the cabinet, which, in turn, further enhanced public involvement in the matter. The furor gradually subsided, and was consigned to historiography.
Taha Husayn, a graduate of al-Azhar and professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, was involved in a similar scandal the following year. In his book Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry), Husayn employed modern norms of literary criticism in analyzing ancient poetic pieces. In this there was an implicit call for a modern reappraisal of time-honored Qur’an and Sunna interpretation. Alarmed and enraged, the ‘Ulama’ denounced him as a heretic and demanded his expulsion from the university. Husayn was taken to court for insulting the religion of the state, and although acquitted he had to leave the country for a while. He then published a revised edition of the book, leaving out the more provocative sections (the main message, however, remained). This affair, too, had a political side that is beyond our concern here, which led to Husayn’s discharge from the university five years later on the pretext of having published the book.
The three cases presented above, though distinct from each other in some important ways, had a significant common facet: they all served to highlight the historic struggle over Egypt’s cultural identity. Essentially, it was a battle between two world-views: a conservative view, that rested on religious belief, subscribed to traditional values and abhorred innovations; and a liberal-modernist view, which regarded intellectual openness as the only route leading to a proper place in the modern world. Within each of these two currents were, obviously, many sub-currents that advocated a variety of cultural recipes.
Historic Challenge to Traditional Values
By the time of the ‘Abd al-Raziq, Husayn and Muhammad Abu Zayd scandals, the religious authorities were on the defensive and retreating. To their dismay, the uncontrolled printing of books and newspapers prospered; and alien ideas were not only discussed, but also informed social and political norms. With the Ottoman collapse, Egypt’s political leadership and a considerable segment of its intellectual elite opted for a different course in response to the call of modernity. The struggle for independence, the building of new state institutions, defining communal identity—all were issues that could be tackled, so it seemed, with the exciting formula of liberal nationalism. Novel concepts, detached from old conventions, came to inspire the approach to such matters as the structure and prerogatives of the state, mechanisms for the transfer of power, party politics, social status and mobility, the nature of public discourse, and indeed most aspects of public life. Modern-thinking intellectuals, their ranks expanding, were encouraged by the political leaders’ acceptance of the new ethos and felt reassured about their new orientation. It also seemed that the public, or at least its politically aware sector, was prepared to give this new course a chance. The open debate in post-World War I Egypt, conducted in books and journals and reflected in literature and art, revolved largely around modern ideas and options (to the extent that Egypt, along with Lebanon, blazed the trail for other Arabic-speaking societies). Advocates of the old order were overwhelmed. With al-Azhar reluctant to enter the press arena until 1931 (the year of its first periodical publication), the most effective defenders of tradition remained Rashid Rida and his colleagues at al-Manar. It was they who conducted the most vociferous campaign against the “innovators,” including the three writers discussed above. Their voice, however, was all but lost in the grand chorus of the time.
The writings of these three men marked a new sort of threat, graver than hitherto. They employed their modern tools to invade an area that so far had been left untouched: the discussion and interpretation of holy texts. By meddling with, and mishandling the community’s most sacred assets, they infringed upon the ‘Ulama’s last bastion, thus violating the latter’s uncontested authority in their own domain. If the previous challenges to tradition were aggravating and condemnable, this new affront was unbearable. That the three were al-Azhar graduates (‘Abd al-Raziq and Abu Zayd were also religious-establishment functionaries) made their attack all the more painful. This dangerous assault had to be confronted head-on. It called for the use of the ultimate weapon at the ‘Ulama’’s disposal: labeling whoever expounds such ideas as mulhid and murtadd, a measure tantamount to excommunication. Accusations of apostasy and the use of these damning titles appeared in all three cases. They would reappear decades later, in the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.
The encounters of 1925, 1926 and 1931 were tests of strength between the two camps. Their results drew the lines of battle between them. Hitherto the liberals had been making impressive strides forward, while the traditionalists had been engaged in what seemed to be a rearguard battle of a retreating power. It was thus only logical to expect the liberal thinkers to advance their ideas one step further, on the very same trail they had followed until then. But the ferocious reaction of the conservatives to this attempt, and their success in stemming the tide, marked the limits of the liberal momentum. They underscored the nature of the course Egypt had chosen to pursue in its new era: modernization alongside—not in lieu of—the old value system. Important ingredients of the old order had been left in place, and continued to shape the country’s cultural identity. In this respect Egypt differed markedly from post-Ottoman Turkey. While the latter, under Atatürk, opted for an explicitly secular path, deliberately breaking with its Islamic past, Egypt stopped short of making a comparable move. The roots of this far-reaching variance go back to the distinct historical development of the two societies in the nineteenth century (and before)—an exciting comparison to engage in but one which is beyond the scope of this study. In following the course that they did, Egyptian leaders of the twentieth century were not making a new choice. Rather, they were pursuing a strategy devised, as already noted, by their nineteenth-century predecessors: bypassing, not attacking, the traditional belief-system as well as its recognized defenders. The result of this historic choice was the persistence of tension between the two trends examined here. The ‘Ulama’ retained considerable social influence, and in times of danger could use it to fend off the danger. The effect of this duality would be felt throughout the twentieth century.
Plight and Shattered Dreams
The Cumulative Effect of Disillusionment
Egyptian society underwent significant transformation during the 60 years that elapsed between the first Abu Zayd affair and the second. The social, political and economic landscape changed considerably, as did the society’s responses to the various challenges it faced. Over the years, Egyptians heard their leaders preach a variety of ideologies in which the role of faith and tradition differed but, on the whole, was rather limited.
As the twentieth century neared its close, Egypt had to contend with the shattered remains of several great promises from earlier decades. The first was national liberalism, an appealing notion propagated in the 1920s that had already lost much of its lure by the mid-1930s. The national-liberal formula failed to address such major problems as socioeconomic imbalances, chronic political instability and, above all, foreign domination. The failure gave rise to other ideological solutions and spurred a reawakening of public religious sentiments. These were in part channeled to non-formal, popular organizations—most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood—that offered their own set of total answers to harsh realities. But before too long, a very different form of messianic promise loomed bright and exciting, as Nasserism burst onto the center-stage of Egyptian politics. Nasser rekindled hope and pride. He presented a grand ideal of sociopolitical order, communal identity and international stature that promised a future far better and greater than the past. In this essentially secular vision, the traditional spiritual leadership became irrelevant. To ensure this irrelevancy, and appropriate whatever popular authority the ‘Ulama’ still possessed, Nasser abolished the religious court system in 1955 and ordered a reform in al-Azhar in 1961 that effectively subordinated the old institution to the state. “The shaykhs,” one scholar noted, had “become completely isolated from the modernizing segment of society and their traditional views [were] almost totally rejected…. Even their interpretations of Islam [had] been rejected in favor of those offered by secular theorists.”
The potency of the Nasserite dream and the popular aspirations it generated were far more impressive than those aroused by liberal-nationalism. From the perspective of Nasser’s heyday, in the late-1950s, Egypt’s shift from traditionalism to secularism appeared to be an irreversible historic process. The country seemed to be moving along a clear and linear course, begun back in the nineteenth century, in which the setbacks of the 1930s and 1940s now appeared as no more than ephemeral intervals. Outside observers subscribed to this view. The process of abandoning the Shari‘a and borrowing foreign codes—Albert Hourani assessed in 1961—was moving ahead “with astonishing speed,” and was now “almost complete.” Manfred Halpern, in a highly acclaimed study, similarly spoke of “the triumph of secular leadership” and the “shattering of the glass” of the old order. “A system connecting man, God and society is falling apart,” he observed, and those parts of the traditional system that still existed had “lost their essential links, and thus their relevance and effectiveness.”
But then again came a turn of the tide, several years later, as the Nasserist dream itself was in tatters. By the time Nasser left the stage in 1970, the country was in deep crisis—its army beaten, its economy in trouble, its regional standing at a low ebb, its soil still under enemy occupation. To add insult to injury, foreign presence, now in the form of an army of Soviet experts, technicians and military men had returned to the country. As Nasserism collapsed it left in its wake a community of disillusioned believers groping for a compass.
Another layer was added to this burden of unfulfilled hopes during Anwar al-Sadat’s presidency. Sadat, though a man of impressive creativity and vision, did not offer a new creed to replace that of his predecessor. Instead, he authored a set of hope-inspiring policies and ideas (some would say, illusions): war—with the thrill of “The Crossing”—and peace, economic openness and political liberalization, Egyptianness (to replace pan-Arabism) and international reorientation. These succeeded each other with dazzling speed, as if to compensate for their short-lived aura. But each of these policies came with a price tag, and the costs accumulated: social dislocation and alienation of the educated elite, increased economic disparities, embarrassing regional and global partnerships, the loss of international allies. While the promised rewards were slow to materialize, the price was immediately and plainly evident. There was another important aspect to Sadat’s policy. More orthodox than Nasser and politically suspicious of the Nasserite left, Sadat gave prominence to religion in the patchy scheme he sketched for his country. He made extensive use of the religious establishment to legitimize his policies; allowed the constitution to be modified so as to define the Shari‘a “the major source” of legislation; and reversed the trend of de-legitimizing popular Islamic organizations, permitting them to regain political influence instead. This last move proved fateful. By leaving serious problems unresolved, forging an eclectic ethos, and at the same time permitting the reemergence of the religious alternative, Sadat facilitated the revival of the struggle between the two historic trends. He effectively created the conditions that invited the new exponents of the religious option to challenge his own leadership. Some of them preached revolutionary ideas and violent means to attain the goal of a Shari‘a state. When the government firmly confronted them, this was taken as additional proof of its animosity toward popular religious sentiment, and no effort to refute this image was of any avail. Sadat fell victim to the jinni he had released from the bottle, but he was not the only one to pay the price. As he departed from the scene, he left an Egyptian society exhausted from the intense experience of his tenure and the violence that ended it, with its elite as disoriented as ever. Egypt now was “a jaded country that [had] known many false starts and faded dawns,” in the words of one observer.
Mubarak: The Pragmatic Vision
By the time Husni Mubarak came to power in 1981, Egypt was a very different country from that of the 1920s. The community was much bigger now: with 44 million in 1981 its population was more than three times its size in the mid-1920s. It was also more urbanized: Greater Cairo, with some 8% of the population in 1930, had become home to every fourth Egyptian half a century later. In addition, the society was more educated: general illiteracy, as high as 92% in 1917 and 82% two decades later, had dropped to around 50% by the time Mubarak became president and continued to decline subsequently. This, of course, meant not only that a bigger part of the society could read, but also that the absolute number of people with education—and hence with a potential for active public involvement—was immeasurably greater. Another significant difference between the two periods was in access to the media. The Egyptian written media were remarkably variegated both in the 1920s and in the 1990s; but toward the end of the century those exposed to them were much more numerous. More important, the broadcast media, nonexistent in the 1920s, had spread almost universally in Egypt, with the effect that even those who did not feel involved were at least kept informed. One result of these changes was that public debates now involved many more participants. Another was that the public arena had become more diffuse and multi-polar than during the first third of the century. This last development was apparent not only in the liberal-secularist wing of the public arena, but also amongst its religious rivals, who espoused various Islamic solutions to the society’s ills. Alongside the established ‘Ulama’, backed by a few orthodox publicists, there was now a whole array of politicized popular movements and assertive organizations advocating diverse Islamist strategies. This proliferation of trends, along with the growth of involved constituencies, produced highly motivated and widely supported combatants at the frontline of the cultural battle.
Mubarak inherited a relatively open political system, in which forces with conflicting outlooks enjoyed freedom of expression, and to a certain degree organizational freedom as well. These included the formerly discredited and now-tolerated trend of religious activism, whose role in shaping the public agenda was on the ascendancy. The more extreme and less tolerated wing of that trend was also becoming more assertive, a process that culminated in the assassination of Sadat. Political violence would become a permanent feature of Egyptian public life, wasting precious national resources and forcing the government to rearrange its priorities. In the background were more problems: material plight, social and inter-communal tensions, and a widespread lingering sense of frustration with Egypt’s marginal place in the modern world—that elusive motivation in the behavior of communities that is palpably so potent yet impossible to gauge. These troubles were bequeathed to Mubarak who had no clear program for addressing them, but only a vague set of ideas, some experimental, others quite controversial. Mubarak’s own public image at the time of his accession, following a few short years of exposure in a civilian post, was of a gifted but unpretentious administrator rather than a visionary leader. But the absence of a comprehensive ideology, or ideologue, was not regarded as a disadvantage at first. On the contrary, following many years of overly politicized public life, Egypt seemed to be yearning for some respite and welcomed the new president’s low-key style.
In a country with such an old and revered legacy of centralized government, the policies and style of the ruler bear special importance. They are scrutinized closely by the people who, in turn, are influenced by his behavior. Highly sensitive to this truth, Mubarak did not purport to reshape the country’s values through a revolutionary process, nor foster undue optimism where circumstances did not warrant it. A pragmatic and straightforward man, he made it a point right from the start to discuss the difficult reality candidly. He preached sweat and patience. “If I were to listen to some nervous people,” he told an interviewer early on in his presidency, “Egypt would go to hell. They say: ‘change, change!’ and then what? You run and run and then the troubles begin.” Instead he sought long-term treatment for the national problems, rejecting demands, domestic and international, for drastic measures. With this sensible approach Mubarak’s government registered significant achievements. The domestic front, which on the eve of his tenure had reached boiling point, was cooled down and recovered a measure of stability. Multi-party politics, previously a shaky experiment, was consolidated and expanded, new opposition parties were licensed and freedom of expression was increased. The government charted a systematic plan to tackle the economic malaise, which it applied in the 1980s, to be followed by more ambitious structural reform in the 1990s. The infrastructure of public services, responsible for the quality of daily life, was rehabilitated and improved considerably, as any visitor to the country could sense. On the foreign front, too, Mubarak’s compromising approach helped in bailing Egypt out of a difficult corner in the regional and global arenas and moving it to a more comfortable middle position. All of these accomplishments were not lost on the Egyptians, and it was clear that they were thankful to their president for them.
But—and this was a major distinction between Husni Mubarak and his two predecessors—Mubarak was careful not to talk of a “great promise”, or present his government’s achievements as part of a master-plan leading to Egyptian glory. Such a strategy would scarcely be consonant with his personal style. Where Sadat, somewhat wishfully, promised upcoming economic prosperity and an imminent “reaping [of] the fruits of the past period of suffering,” Mubarak spoke soberly of the hardships lying ahead, despite the experts’ responsible planning. “I am not Samson,” he stated. “We do our best. As long as we are on the right track and working…that is the maximum we can do.” As part of his down-to-earth economic outlook, he urged the people to eat less meat and make do with vegetables “as they do in Japan,” and scolded them for eating tomatoes and cucumbers out of the summer season “like aristocrats.” In the same vein, where Sadat boasted of having introduced “true democracy,” and festively announced that Egypt had “gone over and above 90—and even 99—percent in democracy,” Mubarak chose to speak simply of “providing dosages of democracy in proportion to our ability to absorb them. We are forging ahead,” he stated, “but we need time for our democracy to develop fully.” Similarly, in foreign policy Mubarak avoided dramatic initiatives that would fire the imagination of the public at home and spawn great hopes. Unlike Nasser and Sadat, he adhered instead to a temperate dialogue with Egypt’s interlocutors. In all of these areas he represented a model of a circumspect planner and pragmatic politician rather than a visionary. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel itself is long and crooked, was his message. The train, however, must move ahead while the driver does his best.
Can a country with problems as formidable as Egypt’s be led without a promise for a foreseeable future better than the present? That Mubarak has been in power longer than any Egyptian ruler in the twentieth century, and that he has such an impressive record of achievement, would seem to answer the question in the affirmative. Yet, if the absence of a dramatic vision has not jeopardized Mubarak’s leadership, it has been largely responsible for perpetuating the malaise felt by so many Egyptians. It has made the distress of the economically deprived, those badly in need of a visible light at the end of the tunnel, all the more difficult to bear. And it has allowed the irritating discontent with Egypt’s realities felt by many others to linger on: discontent with the gap between today’s disheartening spectacle and yesterday’s magnificence—whose remains, Pharaonic or medieval-Islamic, are to be seen all over; and with the dissonance between where Egypt is and where it aspires to be among the modern nations. “At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment,” Fouad Ajami has noted. “The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its achievements. For all the graces of this land and for all the long struggle of its modernizers, the gap between Egypt’s sense of itself and its performance is impossible to ignore.” Mubarak’s attainments have been duly acknowledged. But the sense of disenchantment has sent many Egyptians to look for an uplifting vision elsewhere.
Back to the Fray
Relying on the traditional belief-system as a remedy for society’s modern ills was never completely abandoned, as we have seen. Even in the heyday of national-liberalism and Nasserism, it remained within the range of available options, advocated by a core of faithful adherents who would not trade it for any substitute. This circle of disciples expanded in times of disillusionment with the alternative ways. In the late 1970s, as President Sadat loosened the state’s grip on the religious trend, the Islamists thrived rapidly in many forms, commonly (and somewhat whimsically) classified by their modus operandi as “radical” or “moderate”. Though self-styled as al-ra’is al-mu’min (“the believing president”), Sadat failed to ward off the assaults of his religious foes. His failure to formulate a clear and inspiring plan for the country resulted in a growing number of people falling back on the traditional option, as an alternative—not a complement—to the inconsistent path he delineated. Paying the ultimate price for his policies, Sadat left his successor a tangled arena, with the impatient advocates of a Shari‘a state as the regime’s arch-rivals, and clearly on the ascent. Mubarak’s strategy of calling for realism and patience ensured that the tension would not be quickly relieved.
To most observers of the Egyptian scene, a major item on the country’s public agenda during the last quarter of the twentieth century—some would argue, the major item—has been the state’s contention with the phenomenon known as the Islamist or fundamentalist challenge. Viewed against the backdrop of historic developments, this struggle may be more broadly considered as yet another round of the public battle over cultural orientation. In this recent, passionate phase, the tradition-oriented forces no longer seem to be on the retreat as they had appeared four or five decades ago. Rather, they are waging an audacious offensive against the state—which meets them with its own practical vision and with the awesome might of its repressive machinery; and against the secularized segments of society—which adhere to a somewhat lackluster rationalistic ideological alternative that is nonviolent by definition. The state of the battlefield is far from clear: both sides claim to be on the defensive and readily produce evidence to substantiate the claim. The traditionalists maintain they are fighting to fend off the decades-old secular onslaught that has already invaded much of their precious territory. Liberal-secularists, for their part, combat to check the alarming spread of ideas they view as a menace to modern order and progress, the “campaign to stifle freedom of thought and expression in the country.”
Most dramatic of the many faces of this encounter has been the violent dimension. Beyond the spectacular assassination of a president, it has involved Egypt’s basically nonviolent society in a cycle of ferocious outbursts and brutal countermeasures. Bloody confrontations have taken place since the late 1970s, in recurrent waves that have gradually become costlier and more widespread. The wave that peaked from 1992–95 resulted in more than 1,000 dead and an even higher number of wounded, including Islamist radicals, members of the security forces, civilians and tourists. The devastation of property and loss of resources were likewise awesome. Among the victims were writer and journalist Faraj Fuda, an intrepid critic of religious extremism, who was assassinated in June 1992, and the liberal author and Nobel Prize laureate Najib Mahfuz, who was assaulted and injured in October 1994. There were also attempts on the lives of President Mubarak and several ministers and ex-ministers. The Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd affair, too, had its brutal aspect, as radical groups announced their intention to “execute” him for his apostasy.
But the violent expression of the phenomenon, however dramatic, may not be its most important facet. Perhaps more significant in the long run is the political aspect, which has far-reaching ramifications for the cultural scene. In a political arena more active than ever, exponents of tradition—institutionalized ‘Ulama’, Muslim Brotherhood activists, Islamist thinkers, and other publicists with similar proclivities—lock horns with modern-secularists, statesmen and intellectuals, who reject conservative religiosity as the sole cultural basis for Egypt. Beyond the ideological debate it is a battle for positions of power. It takes different forms and is held on different fronts: a contest for party and parliamentary representation, a quest for control of civil society bodies (conspicuously the leading professional syndicates), a race for providing social and cultural services to the public to win popularity, and a propaganda war over popular legitimacy. The arenas of contest are equally diverse: the People’s Assembly (Egypt’s parliament), academic fora, printed and broadcast media, books and pamphlets, street posters and graffiti, and—since the early 1990s—the courts. The struggle has an impact on every sphere of public life, from dress codes to Muslim-Coptic relations, from freedom of art to choosing Egypt’s foreign allies. No class of society, no group or organization can escape its influence in one way or another.
The remainder of this paper will focus on what appear to be some of the major characteristics of this struggle in its current phase.
The Growing Assertiveness of the Religious Establishment
Like Shar‘i law itself, Egypt’s official religious institutions were not dislodged in the process of modernization. Rather, they were paralleled by new systems, as we have seen. The ‘Ulama’ were weakened economically and politically, but not expunged as a spiritual authority. Those in government did not seek to contest this authority, both out of veneration for tradition and because the political crippling of the ‘Ulama’ rendered such a clash unnecessary. They therefore tried only to ensure that this authority did not stand in their way. Such a strategy was advocated from the early nineteenth century on to the mid-twentieth. The “Free Officers”, however, brought with them a different approach. In this profoundly traditional society, their seizure of power by force created a problem of public legitimacy. To address it, they “nationalized” the functions of the religious leadership by imposing their control on its members and institutions, subjugating al-Azhar to their domination. They then utilized the subjacent religious establishment to consolidate their public standing by eliciting its backing for their policies. During Nasser’s period and most of that of Sadat, the relationship between state and ‘Ulama’ was clear and simple: the government exploited the ‘Ulama’ as a legitimizing ornament while allowing them little autonomy in areas with social or political implications. Consequently, the latter, and al-Azhar institution in particular, underwent a phase of retrogression in their public standing. Here and there they showed signs of assertiveness; noticeable instances were al-Azhar’s move to prohibit the publication of Najib Mahfuz’s novel Awlad haritna (Children of our Neighborhood) in 1959, and a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1965, prohibiting marriage between Muslim women and communists. On the whole, however, this was an era of docility for the religious establishment.
The rise of non-institutionalized Islamic movements in the later years of Sadat’s tenure produced a change in this relationship. Under the new circumstances, the regime needed the ‘Ulama’’s backing not just as an ornament but, more practically now, as a weapon in the battle against the radicals. Establishment ‘Ulama’, too, felt threatened by the competing propagators of Islam who openly defied their authority. The militant challenge to both brought state and ‘Ulama’ closer together with a common interest. New tasks were assigned to the religious establishment: to counter the message of the extremists with a moderate message of their own; to de-legitimize the militants in the public’s eye; and to sanction measures endorsed by the state in its conflict with the radicals, including harsh suppression. Other developments required the endorsement of the ‘Ulama’, on issues over which the government faced domestic criticism, such as making peace with Israel. Much of this change took place during Mubarak’s presidency. With a general strategy that inspired little public enthusiasm, the government needed the effective tool of an authoritative religious cadre better equipped than itself to contend with the appeal of the radicals. Following Sadat’s assassination, leading religious scholars were called upon to conduct televised dialogues with spokesmen of radical Islamic groups, and to propound a moderate Islamic message in markedly expanded religious programs on the broadcast media. They were also expected—and often obliged—to provide Shar‘i license to government actions. Thus, for example, both Shaykh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti responded to Mubarak’s request and issued fatwas affirming that family planning was compatible with Islamic values—a matter of utmost importance to Mubarak. Such government reliance on the ‘Ulama’ was bound to lead, in turn, to the latter’s greater public prominence and, consequently, to their assertiveness. To be sure, assertiveness did not necessarily imply organizational and political autonomy: the formal status of the religious establishment in the state remained basically unchanged. But in the open debate on the society’s cultural future, its voice was now heard louder and clearer.
One area in which institutionalized ‘Ulama’ expanded their activity was censorship of publications and artwork. In 1990, al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council found a book by ‘Ala’ Hamid, Masafa fi ‘aql rajul (A Tract in a Man’s Mind) to contain heretical ideas. The book was banned and Hamid was prosecuted for blasphemy and sentenced to eight years in prison. The following year, during the annual book fair, the ‘Ulama’ banned several books by Muhammad Sa‘id al-‘Ashmawi, Chief Justice of the High Court of Appeals and a courageous protagonist of liberal values. It took the intercession of President Mubarak himself to restore them to the vendors. Increasingly the atmosphere was becoming more comfortable for interventions by al-Azhar. An incident in late 1993 highlighted the turning of the tide in favor of the religious establishment. During a session of the People’s Assembly, an Islamist member criticized Minister of Culture Faruq Husni for allowing the reproduction, in a recent ministry publication, of Gustave Klimt’s painting of a naked Adam and Eve. Dismissing the charge, Husni defended the artistic value of the piece; but in the same breath he explicitly acknowledged the right of al-Azhar, as the guardian of moral values, to review (and ban) ministry publications. Before long, this statement by a government minister was given judicial sanction. On 10 February 1994, the State Council (majlis al-dawla)—the body overseeing the constitutionality of laws and their consonance with the Shari‘a—recognized al-Azhar’s exclusive authority to review and censor all written, audio or audiovisual works published in the country and dealing with Islamic subjects. What the category of “Islamic subjects” comprised was for al-Azhar to decide. This was, no doubt, a decision of major import that signified a far-reaching concession by the state to the religious establishment. The government granted the ‘Ulama’ an authority they had long been demanding but had hitherto failed to obtain.
Al-Azhar was quick to capitalize on its new privilege. Within a couple of weeks after the Council’s ruling, it issued a ban on the dissemination of books by Justice ‘Ashmawi (whom an al-Azhar spokesman labeled “another Salman Rushdie”). A spate of book suppressions followed. By the summer of 1997, the number of titles recommended by the religious authorities for purging had reportedly reached 196. One prominent case was that of Sayyid al-Qimani, a liberal author and vocal secularist, whose book Rabb al-Zaman (God of [Our] Time) was marked for banning by the ‘Ulama’, who also sued him for his views. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy (majma‘ al-buhuth al-islamiyya) became a screen for everything published. It now had the authority to examine manuscripts (as well as movie and TV scripts) and recommend their publication, or suppression—decisions of the latter type were implemented by the Artistic Production Censorship Police. This mighty prerogative, and the prominence given the ‘Ulama’ in the media, lent them considerable power to hinder the circulation of ideas with which they disagreed. The government, for its part, obliged and cooperated. In one distinct case, Minister of Higher Education Mufid Shihab ordered that the French scholar Maxime Rodinson’s book Muhammad be removed from the curriculum of the American University in Cairo. Available in Egypt since its publication in the late 1960s, the book was now found to be “blasphemous” and insulting to Islam. That the state recognized this prerogative further encouraged the ‘Ulama’ to air their views with growing boldness in the cultural debate. In an interview in the popular weekly al-Musawwar, when asked about the 196 books rejected by al-Azhar, the Research Academy’s secretary dismissed the question: “So what if it were 196,000—they do not follow our Islamic path…. We protect the earth from their contamination and the state from their terror.”
Combative censorship was one sign of the ‘Ulama’’s emboldened stature. Another was their growing rigidity in the public debate with the critics of tradition. The diversion of part of the cultural struggle to the courts, where religious reasoning was often admissible, gave the recognized spiritual leaders a potent leverage. They willingly offered their opinion to judges who chose to rule in the spirit of the Shari‘a. This kind of opinion carried considerably more moral weight than any other kind of professional assessment the court may have elicited from secular experts; it had, one seasoned lawyer has observed, “a de facto legislation power.” Non-establishment Islamist thinkers also influenced the courts by publicly discussing issues that were sub judice. Not at all times did the judiciary accept the conservative opinion. When the veteran Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, testifying in the trial of Faraj Fuda’s assassins, suggested that Fuda had been a murtadd and hence should have been killed, he was overruled by the court. But even when the court rejected traditionalist legal opinions, this did not diminish their public impact. Aired with much authority, these views had the dangerous potential of inspiring the radical Islamist groups and providing justification for their violent actions. Again the Fuda case is an illustrative example. A group of prominent al-Azhar ‘Ulama’, who in early 1992 organized in order “to repel secularist attacks on Islam,” issued a statement depicting Fuda as “secularist to the bone,” a man who had “devoted all his efforts and his life to obstructing the application of the Shari‘a.” The message and its style were familiar; they actually echoed a statement by none other than Shaykh al-Azhar, Jadd al-Haqq, who in a public letter in 1988 denounced secularist writers as enemies of Islam in the service of foreign interests and labeled them unbelievers. The ‘Ulama’’s announcement of 1992, however, had a more lethal result. Fuda was murdered five days after its publication, and his killers testified that they had taken their cue from the authoritative exponents of Islamic values: “Yes, we killed him” al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya reportedly stated, “al-Azhar issued the sentence and we carried out the execution.”
By the second half of the 1990s, institutionalized ‘Ulama’ had become involved in the hazardous practice of takfir and irtidad—declaring a person an apostate and exposing him to the applicable punishment. Such accusations, formerly voiced primarily by radical Islamic groups, have more recently been pronounced by individual religious thinkers such as Ghazali, as we have seen. The number of those resorting to such measures was steadily growing, and the court decision in the Abu Zayd case, in 1995 and 1996, further encouraged the phenomenon. Takfir became a subject of public debate, and while this did not make the idea any more popular it became a frequently-used weapon in the arsenal available to the traditionalists. In May 1997 it was again employed, this time against Cairo University philosophy professor Hasan Hanafi. The attack was launched by the Front of al-Azhar ‘Ulama’ (jabhat ‘ulama’ al-azhar), a non-official grouping of some 2,000 institution members, including several of its most eminent scholars. Front secretary Dr. Yahya Isma‘il Hablush condemned Hanafi for things he had written a decade earlier, which Hablush described as “a destructive assault” on Islam. Such words, he charged, exposed the author as an atheist, so “the entire community should mobilize against him.” Hablush appealed to the university to dismiss Hanafi and urged the judiciary to bring him to trial. Again, a public clamor followed, with Hablush censured not only by liberal writers but also by other al-Azhar members, including Shaykh Muhammad al-Sayyid Tantawi, Shaykh al-Azhar. Such condemnation of the takfir practice notwithstanding, its recurrent use, especially by senior ‘Ulama’, had the cumulative effect of amplifying the Islamist assault on secularism. “When this ‘front’ issues a fatwa of takfir against a person, it does not seek to persuade the government or the judiciary,” Nasr Abu Zayd suggested from his place of exile following the attack on Hanafi. “Rather, it tries to convince the street. Moreover, the call is necessarily directed to those capable of killing.” Hence, the authorities were unable, in effect, to defend free thought from the charge of takfir. In the late 1990s, at least some members of the religious establishment felt that the country’s cultural divergence warranted the use of this extreme device.
The assertive role of the ‘Ulama’ has had profound repercussions. Instead of serving as a force of moderation, their activities have actually exacerbated the tension between the secularist and traditionalist trends. Unable, or unwilling, to shoulder the task of confronting the radicals with an intelligible formula of modernized Islam, ‘Ulama’ have adhered to standard conservative interpretations of the faith. Having to compete with the radicals for Islamic leadership, they have tended to display a rigid stance by employing tough measures such as book banning and takfir. Whether intentionally or not, they have equated secularism with unbelief, and have labeled both as apostasy. Their rigidity has provoked criticism from some of their more temperate colleagues, who have resented this offensive style; but the latter have been only partly successful in silencing their more contentious peers. For, as the spokesmen of hard-line religiosity know all too well, the main battlefield is the street—where a simplistic, black-and-white approach purportedly based on ancestral tradition is the most comprehensible and hence most effective. This, in turn, has inevitably led to growing antagonism among secularists, increasing mutual intolerance and undermining the quest for a consensual formula of cultural orientation.
The Problematic Counter-Attack of Liberal Secularists
“Liberal” is an intricate term. People with a very broad range of beliefs lay claim to “liberalism,” and few profess to be otherwise. A liberal world-view is normally associated with flexibility of thought, advocacy of human freedom and openness to innovation. It is also consonant with a secular view, which accords to human reason a central role in managing worldly affairs, and seeks novel solutions to modern needs. To be sure, this does not preclude personal religious belief; there is no necessary contradiction between religious faith and a liberal-secular approach to daily realities. Both “liberal” and “secular” are, of course, relative terms, and their applicability is determined by degree. Consequently, the distinction between those to whom these adjectives may aptly be ascribed and others is frequently blurred.
Nor is the case any less intricate in the Egyptian context. Here, too, “liberal” is a title readily assumed by people representing different perspectives; and “secular”, as we have seen, is often confused with unbelief. In the present discussion, “secular” denotes those who aspire to a sociopolitical and cultural order based on human reason and freedom of thought, but without turning their backs on their religion, at least as a component of their culture. Those who regard the old spiritual-religious heritage as entirely irrelevant are few in Egypt. Most secularists do think of Islam, the faith and the tradition, as an important pillar of their society’s belief-system and moral code. They believe, however, that this heritage should play only a limited role in guiding the individual and society in the modern world, alongside other cultural products of human ingenuity. Those who air such views regard themselves as continuing the line of modern thinkers begun in the nineteenth century, most eminently Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, Taha Husayn, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and, more recently, Najib Mahfuz and Faraj Fuda. These were creative writers who contributed to their society’s enlightenment—tanwir – the corridor leading to the grand hall of modernity.
In present-day Egypt, this trend comprises mostly authors, journalists, academics and artists, who actively participate in the public debate. The recent religious-traditionalist offensive aroused their anxiety and prompted a liberal counteroffensive aimed at stemming what they regard as a regressive tide. New liberal forums and institutions have been set up, among them the Egyptian Society for Human Rights (al-munazzama al-misriyya li-huquq al-insan), founded in 1985 at the initiative of a group of intellectuals, among them Faraj Fuda; the Egyptian Enlightenment Society (al-jam‘iyya al-misriyya lil-tanwir), in whose foundation in 1987 Fuda also took part; the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies (markaz ibn khaldun lil-dirasat al-inma’iyya), founded the following year by the energetic sociology professor Sa‘d al-Din Ibrahim and several colleagues; the Egyptian Committee for the Defense of National Unity (al-lajna al-misriyya lil-difa‘ ‘an al-wahda al-wataniyya), founded in 1990; the Modern Call Society (jam‘iyyat al-nida’ al-jadid), set up in 1992, with economics professor Sa‘id al-Najjar as president; and the Center for Human Rights— Legal Aid (markaz al-musa‘ada al-qanuniyya li-huquq al-insan), founded in 1994 by Hisham Mubarak. These and other liberal NGOs issue publications and declarations, organize symposia and file legal suits, and their members participate vigorously in the verbal exchanges with the traditionalists. It has been a persistent, robust activity. The more sophisticated and daring—Faraj Fuda, Nasr Abu Zayd and Sayyid al-Qimani are obvious examples—have also ventured into reinterpretation of Islamic tradition, rejecting its conservative reading and offering a fresh one instead. Such creative intellectuals, Qimani has observed, have displayed unprecedented courage, for their work has been “written under the threat of excommunication and takfir, which shows that they approach their task with supreme sacrifice.” 
There is no need here to delve into the details of the liberal arguments. Very generally, they see in the Islamist drive and its underlying dogmatic approach an obscurantist menace to Egypt’s culture, dissociating society from the rest of the world, from universal humanist values and from modernity. In a sense, they have an easier task today than did their nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century forebears: they need to break no new ground, and can rely on a solid constituency of followers who are accustomed to thinking in like terms, a constituency that has evolved over the years thanks to education and the modern media. In another sense, however, the liberals are at a disadvantage compared to earlier generations, as they suffer from some serious handicaps in their battle against the countercurrent. One such liability, already noted and worth reiterating, is the historical backdrop of repeated liberal failures against which they preach their case. The fact that past alternatives to tradition—especially national liberalism in the 1920s and Nasserism in the 1950s—had kindled so much hope, which had been so abysmally frustrated, considerably weakens the appeal of the liberal message. These earlier failures also serve as effective ammunition in the hands of the traditionalists who seek to fend off the secularist danger.
There are other drawbacks. The message of the liberals is not always clear-cut, nor is it easy to grasp. As against the straightforward call for obedience to a religious authority, and the might of simplistic religious slogans, the liberal call is complex and requires sophistication. Its complexity derives from this trend’s historic choice not to sever itself entirely from tradition but rather to adjust it to the needs of the time. The result is a premise based on a problematic hybrid of faith and reason. It takes some intellectual maneuvering to see that secularism is not quite the same as irreligion—that one may approach worldly matters in a rationalist way without abandoning one’s piety and faith in God—and to realize that such secularism does not deny the essence of Islam. Take, for instance, the statement by the liberal thinker and important poet ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti al-Hijazi, who has suggested that a Muslim may defend his secularist world-view “not merely by its indispensability for progress, democracy, freedom of thought and reason, and the assimilation of the culture of the age, but also by its compatibility with the essence of Islam, which glorifies human life, rejects priesthood, encourages ijtihad and makes the public interest the guiding principle of investigation and choice.” A reasonable argument, no doubt, but hardly simple. Grasping it would require multi-layered thinking. Even some of its vocabulary is, as Bernard Lewis has observed, “recognizably alien. An Arabic loanword like dimuqratiyya lacks the resonance of shari‘a.” Such and similar arguments may carry weight with the more cultivated segment of society; but they are difficult, and often less than intelligible for the less educated. To the latter, the uncomplicated ideas of the traditionalists readily make more sense. Moreover, liberals themselves sometimes find it difficult to define the nature of the relationship between the principles of modernity and tradition. One indicator of this difficulty, Nasr Abu Zayd has suggested, is the duality (izdiwajiyya) between the liberals’ thought on the one hand and their daily conduct on the other—for example, in matters concerning the family, or the status of women. The uncertainty of the liberal message is accentuated by the contrasting simplicity of the conservative call, “Islam is the Solution!”—al-islam huwa al-hal—the solution to all the frustrations borne by the misdeeds of a modernizing leadership.
Yet another disadvantage to the liberal effort is a communication handicap. The main vehicles for disseminating their views are print media—periodical publications and books—and to a lesser extent the broadcast media, along with various art forms, primarily movies. Egypt’s print industry has been a field of unmatched productivity during the last quarter of the century, as well as a battlefield for encounters between different orientations. The traditionalists, like the liberals, issue an impressive range of publications (especially striking if we recall their leaders’ objection to printing until the twentieth century), and articulate their views in the non-religious press as well, although not in movies. Printed matter, however, is accessible only to those who can read (roughly half of the population, and most recently a bit more) and to those who care, or can afford to buy copies (a considerably smaller proportion). Movies, too, are confined to certain social strata, especially the urban middle class. In the broadcast media, it is debatable which of the two trends, liberal or traditionalist, exercises a greater measure of influence. Liberal writers have repeatedly complained that the conservatives have a double advantage here: direct—in the easy access offered to their spokesmen in interviews, talk shows and broadcast sermons; and indirect—in that the government succumbs to their pressures and adapts media programming to their demands, primarily by censoring “immoral” shows. More significant, the traditionalists reach large constituencies via the mosque pulpits, still a major channel of communication in Egypt. The popular impact of various media is, of course, a matter for another study. Yet, one has the strong impression that on this front, too, the liberals are still fighting an uphill battle, not least because of the undeniable utility of old modes of communication. One need only recall the effective use ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin made of the pulpit to proclaim Abu Zayd’s apostasy, to appreciate the might of this traditional medium.
Until his death in June 1992, Faraj Fuda was a leading spokesman of the liberal cause—clear, consistent, intrepid. Without being too shallow, his call was markedly accessible to the educated public, not a common trait in liberal articulations. Fuda was also intensively involved in public activity, political and otherwise, and in that too he was outstanding among his colleagues. It was probably no accident, and certainly symbolic, that radicals singled him out as a target. Other figures, such as Abu Zayd (whose scholarship was depicted as “virtually impenetrable”) and Justice ‘Ashmawi, have had their adherents, but their popular impact has been very limited. Fuda has yet to be replaced by a comparably gifted liberal, who could transmit a popularized version of the complicated liberal philosophy to counter the simplistic formula of “Islam is the Solution!”
Courtrooms as a Battleground
Perhaps more surprisingly, the secularists have been successfully challenged and demoralized by their traditionalist rivals in what could have been expected to be their own home ground—the ostensibly secular judicial system. The second Abu Zayd affair was characteristic of the recent phase of the cultural struggle in that it was played out in the courts. The regular resort to the judiciary to fight secularist thought is a novelty. Religious activists have experimented with it, and once proven useful they have continued to exploit this option with ever-growing alacrity.
Prior to the 1990s, there were only a few precedents in which the courts were approached to such ends. The case of Muhammad Abu Zayd in 1931 was one of them, and over the years there were a handful of others. Courtrooms were not seen as a natural arena for this contention, still less so after the incorporation of Shar‘i courts in the civil judicial system, in the mid-1950s. With this last measure, the judiciary in its entirety came under the control of a regime subscribing to a secular philosophy. Yet, religious law was not completely abandoned, and in certain areas, notably personal status matters, it remained in effect. The Egyptian legal system thus continued to feature a double-legged structure, at once civil and religious. It comprised a large corpus of man-made laws, and at the same time was acknowledged as emanating from the Shari‘a—whose principles should serve as “a major source of legislation” (from 1980 “the major source”). Laying out this postulate, the constitution did not specify which Shari‘a “principles” should underlie the law and in what way, leaving the matter somewhat obscure. To the judges this meant that the field was left open for interpretation and that they could resort to the Holy Law (according to the Hanafi school, prevalent in Egypt) for legal solutions. The potential difficulty ingrained in this obscurity remained theoretical for a long time: while parliamentarians and politicians had debated the issue, it had not given ground to open conflict until the 1990s. But in the last decade of the century, the traditionalists—struggling to recapture domains invaded by their cultural rivals—discovered the legal loophole.
“Members of the Islamic groups and terrorists have turned to the judiciary as a kind of terrorism against thinkers,” Justice ‘Ashmawi has charged. The government has been more successful in checking them as a security threat than in confronting them on the ideological plain, he noted; and “since they have not been eliminated as an ideological force, they have availed themselves of other avenues, including the courts.” This assessment by an angry critic of the Islamists is only partly accurate. Those who have turned to the legal option did not come from the hitherto-violent wing of the religious sector. Rather, they comprised a group of highly educated conservative activists, headed by a few Islamist lawyers. They seem to have adopted this new course after other channels—party politics, control of professional unions, media campaigns to advance traditional values—had not produced adequate results. “What other choice do we have?” Dr. Muhammad Sumayda ‘Abd al-Sumud, the lawyer who filed the suit against Nasr Abu Zayd, told an interviewer who asked him why he had sued Abu Zayd rather than debated him publicly. “How can we debate him? He and his followers have a dominant voice, and they control multiple press organs.”
The conservatives projected their battle against Abu Zayd and others as a clear-cut war between Islamic tradition and Westernizing modernity. Most prominent among them was Shaykh Yusuf al-Badri, a middle-aged lawyer from Cairo and a former member of the People’s Assembly. In the mid-1990s he earned a reputation for his recurrent initiatives to take thinkers, publishers and artists to court for expressing “anti-Islamic” views. Badri and his colleagues assessed that the duality in Egyptian law was sufficiently promising, if utilized intelligently and if a large enough number of litigations were made. They presumably expected that there would be judges whose faith and personal proclivities would lead them to give significant weight to Shar‘i considerations. After all, judges were a part of Egyptian society and could not have been completely isolated from the changes in the cultural atmosphere.
The principle on which these suits were based was known as hisba, a time-honored practice whose rationale was the need to command good and condemn evil. It permitted any Muslim male to sue any other Muslim for behaving in an un-Islamic way. A believer could thus defend not only his own rights in court but also God’s. The advantage of this principle for those seeking redress for “anti-religious” conduct was obvious: Unlike civil law, hisba absolved the plaintiff from the need to prove a personal grievance. The status of this principle in contemporary Egypt has been a matter of contention, as a result of the dual nature of the country’s law. While many believed that hisba had lost its validity, in the mid-1950s if not earlier, others argued that it had never been annulled, nor should it be, and quoted instances of rulings based on this principle in the second half of the twentieth century.
Hisba, as the basis to the suit against Nasr Abu Zayd, proved to be a powerful device. In early 1996 Yusuf al-Badri announced that he was preparing similar charges against no less than “42 or 43” writers and artists, among them Najib Mahfuz. Badri supported the cases he presented with centuries-old Islamic legal precedents, a field in which he had special expertise that gave him an edge over his opponents. One such suit was filed against a movie producer, Yusuf Shahin, for ideas expressed in his 1994 movie al-Muhajir (“The Emigrant”). Set in Pharaonic times, the story featured Joseph (a prophet in Islamic tradition) calling for normalization of relations with Israel, and depicted one of the Muslim heroes as a eunuch. Badri took Shahin to court for offending Islamic feelings. In December 1994, the court accepted Badri’s claim and banned the showing and export of al-Muhajir. A court of appeals annulled this decision in March 1995, stating that Badri had insufficient grievance in the matter (to wit, hisba was ruled inapplicable). This last decision, however, was overruled by a higher court in June 1996. Another such suit against the owner of a movie theater in 1995 ended in his being sentenced to three months in prison with hard labor for displaying a poster showing a movie hero and heroine locked in a kiss. When the popular liberal weekly Ruz al-Yusuf mocked Badri for the last and similar suits and published the “offensive” picture, Badri and his colleagues sued the journal. A Cairo court sentenced the journal’s editor to two years imprisonment, but, again, the court of appeals overruled the decision. Further sarcastic accounts in Ruz al-Yusuf prompted more litigation by Badri’s group; in mid-1997 the paper’s editor was reportedly facing no less than 30 such suits. In the same vein, Badri’s activists in January 1996 took the popular actress Yusra to trial for indecent exposure in a poster promoting her movie Tuyur al-Zalam (Birds of Darkness). They also sued for a ban on the movie, which was a satire on Islamist lawyers.
Two other issues involving the Islamist lawyers—who came to be known in Cairo as “the hisba group” or “the shaykhs of takfir”—were more significant, in that they dealt with deep-rooted and broadly revered popular customs. The first related to the wearing by women of niqab (face veil) and hijab (head cover). In May 1994, Minister of Education Husayn Kamil Baha al-Din issued a directive forbidding young schoolgirls from wearing the niqab in school unless they produced written permission from their parents. The decision, the minister explained, was meant to prevent Islamist teachers from expanding their influence by forcing girls to wear the traditional dress. As could be expected, the move was met with the outrage of the religious circles and a heated public debate ensued. It was widely agreed that both the niqab and the hijab represented the conservative and chaste dress code. But was wearing them, strictly speaking, a religious duty? Islamist lawyers quickly moved to contest Baha al-Din’s decision in court, arguing that it was issued in defiance “of the heavenly order and Islamic law.” In August 1994 the court ruled the minister’s decree invalid. A month later, a higher court reversed the decision and supported the minister, affirming that wearing the hijab was not an Islamic duty. Finally, a May 1996 ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court upheld this last view. The court stated that the niqab, too, was not an Islamic dress, thereby sanctioning the minister’s authority to bar it on university campuses.
The other issue touched a still-more sensitive nerve: the question of khitan, or female circumcision. The matter exploded in the summer of 1994, following a biting and graphically harsh CNN report on the realities of this custom in contemporary Egypt. The report opened a file that had hardly ever been considered in public. An old and apparently very common practice, khitan was widely associated with the proper conduct of a God-fearing community and the appropriate role of women in it. Many modern-thinking people, however, did not share this view, and a highly charged controversy erupted over whether or not khitan represented a religious duty. President Mubarak set up a committee of experts to consider the issue and, on the basis of its recommendations, Minister of Health Dr. Isma‘il Salam in July 1996 announced that female circumcision would henceforth be permitted only in recognized hospitals. The decision thus rendered illegal the popular performance of khitan by persons without formal medical training. Badri’s group of lawyers took the matter to court. In June 1997 the court ruled against the minister, on the procedural grounds that he had overstepped his authority by issuing a decree that was tantamount to legislation. Badri now promised to sue the minister of education, with a demand for removing those parts of the curriculum that discussed the damage caused by khitan. The minister of health, for his part, appealed the ruling against him at the Supreme Constitutional Court, which in December 1997 overruled the previous decision and reinstated the ban on khitan.
These activities by a small number of firebrand traditionalists seem to have had a considerable public impact. Some of their initiatives were resounding successes—notably, the cases of Abu Zayd, the movie al-Muhajir, and the suit against the theater-owner who had displayed “immoral” posters. Some of the rulings in the different instances of the legal procedure could also have been considered triumphs. While the group was small, certain factors magnified its impact. Most important was the uneasy coexistence of civil and religious components in the same legal system, that gray area which made the courts such a convenient arena for the conservatives. This, combined with the erudition of some of the lawyers and the presence of traditionally oriented judges, could be utilized to yield results unattainable otherwise. Once brought to the fore, this ambiguity in the legal system proved to be a serious flaw in the country’s law. It was reflected in the inconsistency that typified the handling by judges of cases initiated by Badri and his colleagues, as if different magistrates were trying according to different legal systems. Court rulings were frequently overruled, often for reasons related to the inadmissibility of hisba or other Shar‘i principles. More significant, courts repeatedly resorted to technical argumentation rather than confront the case directly, thus signaling the extreme uneasiness of the system.
Egyptian observers have tended to dismiss the conservative activists as a marginal group, a nuisance at worst. The final ruling in the Abu Zayd case had “no special impact on the social, political, intellectual and legal life of Egypt,” noted Dr. Muhammad Salim al-‘Awa, an eminent thinker. “Egypt’s social reality is marked by unmatched tolerance, and the few who raise such issues periodically would find nobody in the community to support or follow them.” The judge who rejected the Badri group suit against Ruz al-Yusuf in June 1997 similarly described the plaintiffs as “a handful of psychologically deranged people…. The government ought to place them in mental institutions.” Yet, “few” and “deranged” as they may have been, their message did not pass unnoticed. Focusing on the loophole in the legal system, their legal initiative underscored the basic cultural dilemma resulting from the effort to adopt modern institutions alongside the old. That the disruptive potential of such a challenge was increasingly threatening could be seen in the government’s response. Perturbed by the damage to the reputation of the legal system, and by the uncontrolled power of a small group to inflict it, the regime in January 1996 imposed its control over hisba, as we shall see later on.
Some time thereafter, this last measure by the authorities, and a series of Islamist legal defeats created the impression that the conservative legal offensive was subsiding. By 1997 there were observers who reckoned that the impact of these circles in the legal arena was “slow[ly] rolling back.” Others rejoiced when, in a curious turn of events, Badri found fault in a new book published by none other than ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin, the professor who had labeled Abu Zayd an apostate. Badri accused Shahin himself of blasphemy and implied that he might sue him if Shahin did not repent. “The shayks of takfir are falling into the pit they dug for those who opposed them in thought,” Ruz al-Yusuf jubilantly announced. Was the trend really reversing? At the time of this writing it would be somewhat premature to offer an assessment on that score. We may note, however, that even if the tendency to exploit Egypt’s legal ambiguities recedes, the sensitive nerve already exposed will probably continue to hurt, without resolving the broader cultural quandary reflected in the country’s judicial dissonance.
The Government’s Calculated Indecision
Overfive millenia of highly centralized government have instituted standards of authoritative rule in Egypt. Today, too, power is wielded by a few, despite extensive political freedom; and the popular acceptance of a mighty state as a natural order is still an essential ingredient of government legitimacy. This popular outlook has been supplemented, in the twentieth century, by other legitimizing factors: the constitution, which backed the government’s status with modern political principles, the highly popular ideological attributes of the Free Officers’ revolution, party pluralism and freedom of expression that lent them further domestic respectability. Beyond these factors, and the common acceptance of centralized rule, the present regime has also depended on the loyalty of the armed forces that brought it to power in the first place. The vast majority of Egyptians view the regime as legitimate and expect it to advance the country’s interests and lead it to a better future.
As we have seen, Egyptian governments in modern times sought to develop the country without directly confronting its old spiritual institutions. Cultural transformation was expected to develop as a natural corollary of the rejuvenation of other systems. Thus, while serving as the architect of modernization, the state did not necessarily act as a conscious agent of secularization. Rulers did not usually interfere in the public encounters over cultural issues, unless these encounters infringed upon their own wielding of power. There was no apparent government involvement in the Muhammad Abu Zayd case of 1930–31. The government did interfere in the scandals triggered by the writings of ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq and Taha Husayn, but only because its own interests were effected: in the former case, ‘Abd al-Raziq had criticized the “criminal” and “tyrannical” rule of Islamic monarchs, thereby enraging King Fu’ad and provoking his retaliation; in Taha Husayn’s case, his affiliation with the Wafd led his political rival, Prime Minister Isma‘il Sidqi, to exploit Husayn’s book as an excuse to have him purged.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the government seems to be adhering to the same guidelines in the handling of similar affairs. In the Nasr Abu Zayd affair of the mid-1990s, it stayed out of the fray. State-owned newspapers and journals did participate in the public debate and expressed a variety of views on the matter (among them religious organs, which launched acerbic attacks on Abu Zayd), but these could not be seen as reflecting an official position. Nor, as far as is known, did the government intercede with the courts regarding his legal procedure. In the other recent cases considered above, the authorities’ policy of non-interference was equally clear. Thus the government permitted the Ministry of Culture to subject itself to al-Azhar supervision over its publications, and it kept silent throughout the excited controversy over religious censorship on art and literature. It allowed the minister of education to face his conservative critics in court over the wearing of hijab and niqab in state institutions, and even to lose in certain stages of the process. Similarly, it allowed the sensitive issue of khitan to be settled in a battle between another minister and his opponents in the same arena.
Such governmental behavior has created an impression of disinterest in the course and consequences of the cultural struggle. This impression is not altogether false, but it does call for some qualification. The government’s apparent indifference to the struggle has had its limits: it has been circumscribed by overlying considerations of state security and stability. As with any government anywhere, the Egyptian regime’s foremost commitment is to its own endurance—not an easy task in this big community with its multiple problems. This principle takes precedence over any ideological commitment, liberal or otherwise. A typical instance of the government’s acting upon this kind of consideration was offered in its handling of the October 1992 earthquake, a disaster that caused many casualties and devastated extensive property. Voluntary religious organizations, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, proved more effective than state agencies in extending aid to the victims. The Brotherhood sheltered those who had lost their homes in large halls decorated with banners asserting “Islam is the Solution!” Realizing that the religious groups were scoring popularity points at its own expense, the alarmed government hurriedly decreed it illegal to receive help except through official channels. It also prescribed heavy penalties on offenders. The government’s public image thus took precedence over consideration of public welfare. This kind of motivation was similarly apparent in the state handling of hisba. In view of Nasr Abu Zayd’s trial and the proliferation of hisba suits, in January 1996 the government moved to “modernize” this device by issuing a law disallowing the filing of such suits except through the public prosecutor. Hisba remained a recognized principle, but its application was henceforth to be regulated by the state. Rather than resort to the potentially controversial measure of eliminating hisba altogether, the government found a way to reassert its authority while retaining the problematic principle. The bottom-line message was clear. The regime would not tolerate people or groups wielding power uncontrolled by itself. But in caring for its own stability it should not be expected to devise fundamental solutions for the deep-rooted dilemmas of cultural orientation.
Nor have such restrictive moves by the state been limited to the religious trend. The government has purported to share the liberal-secularist outlook to a certain extent. But the regime’s interests have not been identical with those of the liberals. Its advocacy of democratization and civil liberties has likewise been subordinate to the overriding principle of stability. Hence, when newspapers, enjoying a basically unmolested freedom under Mubarak, resorted to exceedingly aggressive criticism of certain cabinet members, the regime moved to redraw the lines. A legal amendment in May 1995 seriously circumscribed the press, thereby reversing previous liberal achievements. A forceful encounter with the journalists ensued, lasting for more than a year, at the end of which the press found itself more limited than before. This, and similar instances of disagreement between the state and the non-religious opposition, disconcerted the liberals, who tended to look upon the government as their partner in the fateful battle against obscurantism. Liberal writers repeatedly voiced their dismay at this “ingratitude” on the regime’s part toward its “natural allies”. “Many of us,” stated Professor Sa‘d al-Din Ibrahim, “fail to comprehend why President Mubarak’s regime would unjustifiably and unnecessarily alienate Egypt’s journalists and intellectuals so recklessly when for the previous four years they had stood with him against terrorism.” Ibrahim should not have been surprised. The government’s priorities were neither secretive nor unclear.
But there is more to the government’s stance in the cultural struggle than just guarding against infringements upon its own standing. Far from being oblivious to its public image, the authorities’ approach to the struggle is typically utilitarian. Its tolerance of the non-religious opposition, the captious press and the sometimes-embarrassing rulings of the judiciary, on the one hand, and of the religious trend, on the other, are carefully calculated measures designed to consolidate the regime’s popularity. This is particularly evident in its attentiveness to popular religious sentiment. In the wake of religious revival, so it seems, the present regime is in need of the legitimizing support of religion more than its forerunners. This need has roots that go back to the abolition of the Caliphate in the 1920s and the subsequent fall of the monarchy in 1952, the more-or-less accepted successor to the previous Islamic government. Nasser, who championed a comprehensive alternative belief-system, nonetheless chose to subordinate the religious institutions to his regime so as to bolster its authority within a society that still largely subscribed to the old creed. Sadat after him relied still more on religion as a source of legitimacy. Mubarak, conscious of the dim lure of his down-to-earth pragmatism and recognizing the potency of tradition, has been keen on securing the backing of the religious establishment. Mubarak has tended to make it a point, when dealing with controversial issues, to receive ‘Ulama’ affirmation of his policies. Thus, for example, he invited and received fatwas supporting his campaign to encourage family planning. Family planning was high on Mubarak’s list of priorities, and when addressing this issue on innumerable occasions he presented persuasive rational arguments to his audiences. Yet he knew that his message would be wanting in authority without an Islamic sanction. Similarly, when the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in September 1994, was condemned by conservatives, Mubarak solicited the support of the Grand Mufti, Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Tantawi. The Mufti offered a half-hearted endorsement; and Mubarak found it expedient to add his own reassurance, announcing that “the ICPD will not change our religious values [and]…time-honored traditions.” Egypt, he assured his popular constituency, “will not accept any recommendations that would contradict its religion.”
The regime’s readiness to accept al-Azhar’s authority in literary and artistic matters should also be seen in this context. So should the ample access to the broadcast media the state offers to prominent religious figures, which lends the state a measure of religious authenticity and, equally important, helps in isolating the radicals. Whether or not this policy actually increases the government’s public legitimacy is a question more easily posed than answered with any certainty. It is clear, however, that the regime’s desire to have religious backing exacts the price of limiting its own freedom of action. This limit was clearly highlighted during the juridical discussion of female circumcision. The attorney representing the minister of health asked the judge to reject the Islamist Yusuf al-Badri’s hisba suit, since according to the January 1996 hisba law Badri, as a private individual, had no right to submit such a suit. The judge, however, ruled that Badri did enjoy such a right as a Muslim, regardless of the law, thereby focusing the spotlight exactly on the regime’s painful dilemma.
The government is willing to pay a comparable price for its commitment to the values advocated by the liberal-secularists. The measured freedom of action and expression and an autonomous judiciary have the obvious advantage of a control mechanism at home and an improved image abroad (which, in turn, entails strategic and economic benefits). In return the government has to contend with criticism, often harsh, and with court rulings that are sometimes uncomfortable (the premature dissolving of the People’s Assembly twice during Mubarak’s first decade in office was an unmistakable illustration of the irritating cost). This is seen as an affordable price, however, which does not jeopardize the government’s dominance. The regime’s main concern in its handling of both the liberal and traditionalist trends is to ensure that the immediate political benefits outweigh the cost. Other aspects of their activities, and the tension between them, are of secondary import.
The ingrained tension between two trends continues to dominate Egypt’s search for cultural orientation at the end of the twentieth century just as at its beginning. It may not be the most important item on the country’s agenda—indeed, sizeable segments of its society are preoccupied with more immediate mundane concerns. Still, cultural issues continue to dominate much of the public debate and, furthermore, to influence in many subtle ways even the non-participants. The trials and errors of a whole century have not brought a solution to the dilemmas any closer; if anything, they seem to have confused matters. At times the gulf separating the two contending camps appears even wider than before. At other times it is less so. At all times the issue is alive and contentious.
As so often, it is the more assertive spokesmen of the extreme wings on both sides who draw the lines of the battle. Uncompromising Islamist activists such as Shahin and Badri, daring secularists such as Fuda, Abu Zayd and Qimani, capture the center-stage. They are the ones who produce the climactic events, thus sometimes creating an over-dramatized picture of the conflict. Alongside these thunderous clashes, a continuous exchange is taking place between spokesmen for the two camps, who represent a wide range of sub-trends. Their voices may be moderate, and they presumably seek to reach a compromise and show that disagreements may not be as sharp as they seem. But their conciliatory message is all too often drowned out by the more combative pronouncements of the struggle.
As we have seen, at the root of this tension lies the country’s historic choice to preserve its spiritual heritage while undergoing modernization based on the import of ideas from another world with another heritage. Egypt has thus opted for an equivocal cultural formula, a blueprint for the perpetuation of cultural and political tension. The basic quandary engrained in this formula remains unresolved. At the close of the twentieth century, most of those who address the issue, while weighing the options, still stop short of adopting an unequivocal line that would settle the dilemma. They do not give up religion as a paramount cultural code for the community, but try instead to reconcile it with other, basically secular values. Thus, the courts that considered the issues of niqab, hijab and khitan focused on the question of whether or not these were “Islamic” customs, and ruled accordingly; the Islamic nature of these habits was the yardstick for their relevance to contemporary Egypt. The same approach was displayed by the state, the trail-blazer of modernization, when handling the hisba issue: rather than invalidate hisba as a principle of law—a measure for which a strong legal case could have been made—the government chose to recognize its validity. The product of this endeavor to reconcile the traditional and the modern is a perplexing mix. It may be less confusing for those possessing Abu Zayd’s sophistication. But Abu Zayd is hardly representative.
The government’s role in the struggle for the country’s soul is thus limited, by its own choice. Secular at heart, the regime’s policies are consonant with liberal tenets. But it refrains from carrying the banner of secularist ideology, or any other ideological banner for that matter. Its role in this struggle is one of containment, not leadership. Seeking a balance, it tries to block sharp turns in any direction, be they toward greater conservatism or greater liberalism. It allows the debate to proceed, and would conceivably let the cultural chips fall where they may, so long as this does not interfere with its own hold on power.
Where is this struggle leading? The range of possible options is broad. A likely scenario is one of more-of-the-same. Egyptian society is big and diverse enough, its tradition of social tolerance strong enough, to allow for different orientations to coexist and even clash, without necessarily tipping the scale decisively in favor of any one of them, for a long time to come.
Cf. Shimon Shamir, “Historical traditions and modernity in the belief-system of the Egyptian mainstream,” in S. N. Eisenstadt (ed.), Patterns of Modernity, Vol. 2: Beyond the West (London: Frances Pinter, 1987), pp. 119ff.
Among the studies on the Abu Zayd affair are: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Al-tafkir fi zaman al-takfir (Cairo: Sina lil-Nashr, 1995); idem (ed.), Al-qawl al-mufid fi qadiyyat Abu Zayd (Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli, 1995); Navid Kermani, “Die affäre Abû Zayd, eine kritik am religiösen diskurs und ihre folgen,” Orient, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1994), pp. 25–49; Mona Abaza, “Civil society and Islam in Egypt: the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Journal of Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1995), pp. 29–42; Baudouin Dupret and Bajazet, “L’Affaire Abû Zayd, universitaire poursuivi pour apostasie,” Monde arabe, Maghreb Machrek, No. 151 (January–March 1996), pp. 18–31; “The case of Abu Zaid,” Index on Censorship, Vol. 25, No. 4 (1996), pp. 30–39; Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), pp. 212–21; George N. Sfeir, “Basic Freedoms in a fractured legal culture: Egypt and the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer 1998), pp. 402–14. I am grateful to Professor Gudrun Krämer for drawing my attention to some of these sources.
Abu Zayd had previously criticized the “Islamic investments companies,” which had been set up several years earlier to compete with the banks and had collapsed amidst a public scandal in 1988. Shahin was reportedly involved in the matter as advisor to the companies, and may have felt personally assaulted by Abu Zayd’s criticism. See “The case of Abu Zayd,” Index on Censorship, pp. 36–37; Ajami, The Dream Palace, pp. 213–14.
Ajami, ibid., p. 216. See also Abaza, pp. 30–36; Sfeir, pp. 410–13.
E.g., al-Musawwar, 25 June; Ruz al-Yusuf, 19, 26 June 1995; al-Akhbar, al-Ahram, 19 June 1995; Abu Zayd’s interview with Mahmud al-Wardani in al-Hayat, 16 September 1996.
See the explanation by a former deputy president of the Court of Cassations concerning the legal measures still possible at that point, in al-Wasat, 12 August 1996.
Al-Liwa al-Islami, 22 June 1995; Washington Times, 28 June 1995. Similarly al-Musawwar 23 June 1995.
Sayyid Mahmud al-Qimani in Ruz al-Yusuf, 26 June 1995.
Civil Society, September 1996.
Ruz al-Yusuf, 19 June 1995.
Quoted in al-Kifah al-‘Arabi, 12 August 1996.
The only scholarly references to it known to the present writer are Arthur Jeffery’s article, “The suppressed Qur’an commentary of Muhammad Abu Zaid,” Der Islam, XX (1932), pp. 301–8, and a brief reference in H.A.R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1947), p. 54. Egyptian historians, on the whole, have overlooked the case. Recently there appeared some reference to this affair in the Egyptian press; see e.g. Ruz al-Yusuf, 26 June 1995.
Two books published in the 1920s carried the name Muhammad Abu Zayd as their author: Al-zawaj wal-talaq al-madani fil-Islam (Cairo: Matba‘t al-Taqaddum, 1346/1927); and Mukhtasar min zad al-mu‘ad (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Istiqama, n.d.). See also al-Muqtataf, LVII (December 1920), p. 512, for another reference to a book by an author of the same name.
Jeffrey, pp. 302–7.
Ibid., p. 306.
Majallat Nur al-Islam, II (1350/1931), pp. 163–205, 249–81.
Ibid., pp. 163, 280.
Ibid., pp. 280–81.
Al-Manar, June 1931, pp. 673–97; July 1931, 753–70; October 1931, pp. 33–48.
Ibid., June 1931, pp. 674–76.
Ibid., June 1931, p. 697; July 1931, p. 768.
Jeffrey, p. 302. See also Ruz al-Yusuf, 26 June 1995, p. 42, where the story is told in brief (but apparently with some confusion in dates).
Charles C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (New York: Russel & Russel, 1933), pp. 259–68; Ahmad Baha al-Din, Ayyam laha ta’rikh (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1954), pp. 213–40; Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (London: R.I.I.A., 1962), pp. 184–92; Muhammad ‘Imara, Al-islam wa-usul al-hukm li-‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (Beirut: al-Muassasa al-‘Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, 1972; Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), pp. 62–68; Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski, Egypt, Islam and the Arabs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 60ff; Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism, a Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 128–69; Ghali Shukri, Al-nahda wal-suqut fil-fikr al-misri al-hadith (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Amma lil-Kitab, 1992), pp. 235–47.
Adams, pp. 254–59; Shukri, pp. 247–58; Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1961), pp. 130–31, 153–55, 165–67; Charles Smith, Islam and the Search for Social Order in Egypt (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), pp. 92–95.
Daniel Crecelius, “The course of secularization in modern Egypt,” in John L. Esposito (ed.), Islam and development: Religion and Sociopolitical Change (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1980), pp. 54–63.
Husayn al-Marsafi Risalat al-kalim al-thaman (Cairo, 1981), pp. 30–32. For the popular effect of ‘Ulama’ injunctions against the press, see e.g. al-Manar, Vol. 1 (1897–98), p. 660; al-‘Irfan, 12 January 1910, p. 28.
‘Abd al-Latif Hamza, Adab al-maqala al-sahafiyya fi misr, Vol. IV (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1959), pp. 111–22; Sulayman Salih, Al-Shaykh ‘Ali Yusuf wa-jaridat al-mu’ayyad (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Amma lil-Kitab, 1990), pp. 45–59. Yusuf’s trial took place in 1904.
For al-Manar’s criticism of ‘Abd al-Raziq, see issue of June 1925, pp. 100–5. For the attack on Taha Husayn see issue of December 1926, pp. 678–87. See also notes 19–21 above.
See Nadav Safran, “The abolition of the shar‘i courts in Egypt,” Muslim World, 48 (1958), pp. 20–28; Daniel Crecelius, “Al-Azhar in the revolution,” Middle East Journal, 20 (1966), pp. 31–49.
Daniel Crecelius, “Nonideological responses of the Egyptian Ulama to modernization,” in Nikki R. Keddie, Scholars, Saints and Sufis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 208.
Hourani, p. 350.
Manfred Halpern, The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 25ff, 129ff.
Fouad Ajami, “The sorrows of Egypt,” Foreign Affairs, 74, 5 (September/October 1995), p. 82.
Egypt’s population in the 1927 census was ca. 14.1 million; Charles Issawi, Egypt, an Economic and Social Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 44. By January 1982 it had reached 44 million; al-Ahram, 24 January 1982. By the mid-1990s the population had crossed the 60-million mark, reaching 61.5 million in the 1996 census; al-Ahram, 3 June 1997.
For the 1930 figure see Charles Issawi, An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), tables on pp. 94, 101. By 1986, according to the census of that year, Greater Cairo’s population (including that of Giza), had reached ca. 13.5 million out of a population of ca. 50.5 million; al-Ahram, 19 April 1987; al-Jumhuriyya (Cairo), 20 April 1987.
For the 1917 data see Egyptian Government, Ministry of Finance, The Census of Egypt, Taken in 1917 (Cairo, 190?), Vol. 2, p. 565. For the 1937 data see Issawi, Egypt at Mid-Century, an Economic Survey (London, 1954), p. 64. In 1975 Egypt’s adult illiteracy was assessed at 56%; see Issawi, An Economic History, p. 230. According to the 1986 census, illiteracy had by then dropped to 49.6%, and the 1996 census registered a further decline to 38.6%; see al-Ahram, 3 June 1997.
Mubarak’s interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, 22 January 1983.
E.g., Radio Cairo, 13 November—FBIS, Daily Report (Middle East and Africa), 13 November 1980; Radio Cairo, 29 January 1981—FBIS, Daily Report, 3 February 1981; Radio Cairo, 9 March 1981—FBIS, Daily Report, 10 March 1981; Radio Cairo, 9 May 1981—FBIS, Daily Report, 12 May 1981.
Mubarak’s interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, 23 January 1983.
Mubarak’s address to National Democratic Party youth, text in al-Ahram, 20 July 1983.
Mubarak’s May Day address, Radio Cairo, 1 May 1989—FBIS, Daily Report, 3 May 1989.
Sadat’s speech to National Democratic Party leaders, Radio Cairo, 19 February 1981—FBIS, Daily Report, 24 February 1981.
Radio Cairo, 12 February 1987—BBC, Summary of World Broadcasting (Middle East and Africa), 14 February 1987; Jerusalem Post, 13 February 1987.
Ajami, The Dream Palace, p. 221.
Amira Howeidy in al-Ahram Weekly, 21–28 January 1999.
Civil Society, September 1996, p. 11; May 1997, p. 6.
Al-Ahram, 26 June 1965; Ruz al-Yusuf’ 26 June 1995. A similar move taken by al-Azhar in 1981—the banning of Luis ‘Awad, Muqaddima fi fiqh al-lugha al-‘arabiyya—could also be regarded as belonging to the same phase; see Ghali Shukri, Al-muthaqqafun wal-sulta fi misr (Cairo: Dar Akhbar al-Yawm, 1990), pp. 337–38, 356–57.
For a discussion of these developments, see Crecelius, “Al-Azhar in the revolution,” pp. 31–49; idem,“The course of secularization,” pp. 63–70.
Jerusalem Post (quoting Ahmad Shawqi), 17 December 1986; Uktubar, 14 August 1988; al-Akhbar, 15 November 1988; al-Ahram, 8 June 1989; al-Masa, 6 June 1990.
Al-Munazzama al-misriyya li-huquq al-insan, Hurriyyat al-ra’y wal-‘aqida; quyud wa-ishkaliyyat. Vol. 2: Riqabat al-Azhar ‘ala al-musannafat al-sam‘iyya wal-sam‘iyya al-basariyya (Cairo, 1994), esp. pp. 137ff; Le Monde, 30 December 1991. The sentence, however, was not confirmed by the prime minister and was not carried out.
Middle East International, 21 January 1994; New York Times, 3 February 1994; Index on Censorship, No. 1–2 (1994), pp. 124–25.
Index on Censorship, ibid. See also Steven Barraclough, “Al-Azhar: between the government and the Islamists,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2 (spring 1998), pp. 242ff.
Al-Jumhuriyya (Cairo), 1 March 1994; al-Majalla, 13–19 March 1994.
Al-Hayat, 20 August 1997; interview with Qimani in al-Musawwar, 29 August 1997; Cairo Times, 17 September 1997.
Interviews with Shaykh Sami al-Sha‘rawi and Shaykh ‘Abd al Mu‘izz al-Jazar in al-Musawwar, 29 August 1997; Cairo Times, 17 September 1997.
Al-Ahram, al-Akhbar, 14 May 1998. A similar scandal occurred several months later, when a professor in the same institution was instructed by the university administration to remove Muhammad Shukri’s novel, Al-khubz al-hafi, from her course syllabus, as it allegedly contained offensive “sexually explicit passages.” See al-Wafd, 7, 11, 14 January 1999; al-Ahram Weekly, 28 January—3 February 1999.
Sha‘rawi’s interview in al-Musawwar, 29 August 1997.
Lawyer Ahmad Sayf al-Islam, interviewed in Middle East Report, November–December 1995, p. 27.
‘Ashmawi’s interview, Ruz al-Yusuf, 19 June 1995, where he complains of such outside interference in the court’s work during the Abu Zayd case.
For Ghazali’s testimony see al-Nur, 30 June 1993. For the court’s decision and arguments, al-Ahram, 23 January 1994. Ghazali’s testimony prompted a passionate public response; see Meir Hatina, Liberal Discourse and Islamism in Post-Revolutionary Egypt – Faraj ‘Ali Fuda, unpublished PhD. Dissertation, Tel Aviv University, 1997, pp. 109–10.
Al-Nur, 3 June 1992. For the formation of this group, which called itself nadwat al-‘ulama’ (‘Ulama’ council, or club), and their statements against the secularists, see al-Haqiqa (Cairo), 21 March 1992; al-Nur, 1 April 1992; Hurriyyati (Cairo), 12 April 1992. See also Hatina, pp. 107–9.
Al-Ahram, 16 February 1988.
Quoted in Index on Censorship, No. 1–2, 1994, p. 125.
Ruz al-Yusuf, 12 May 1997; al-Wasat, 12, 19 May 1997; al-Majalla, 18–24 May 1997; al-Mushahid al-Siyasi, 18–24 May 1997. See also Civil Society, May 1997. The affair was a part of a long conflict between the Front and Tantawi, which led to the dismantling of the Front in Summer 1998. See al-Musawwar, 12 June 1998; al-Da‘wa, August–September 1998; al-Wasat, 7 September 1998.
Abu Zayd’s interview in al-Mushahid al-Siyasi, 18–24 May 1997.
For a discussion of these two notions, see below.
Hatina, pp. 101–2; Fauzi M. Najjar, “The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 18, 2 (Spring 1996), pp. 11–17; al-Ahali, 4 April 1990.
Qimani’s interview in al-Musawwar, 29 August 1997.
Al-Ahram, 26 July 1989.
Bernard Lewis, The Future of the Middle East (London: Phoenix, 1997), p. 8.
Abu Zayd’s interview in al-Wasat, 15 June 1998.
Ajami, The Dream Palace, p. 213.
See al-Wasat, 12 August 1996, p. 16—a reference to two cases from the 1930s and 1940s, in which the courts considered ridda cases and ordered the separation between husband and wife.
‘Ashmawi’s interview in Ruz al-Yusuf, 19 June 1995.
Al-Liwa’ al-Islami, 22 June 1995. Asked whether political objectives had played a role in his initiative, Abu Sumud replied: “I swear to God Almighty, there is no political motivation behind this call. I am not a party member, nor do I belong to any political trend. I am telling you that the purpose is defending the faith of this society from the anarchy of the insolent and apostates.” See similarly al-Wasat, 12 August 1996.
‘Ashamwi’s interview in Ruz al-Yusuf, 19 June 1995. Cf. Also Middle East International, 11 July 1997, where the political agenda of judges is considered.
E.g., ‘Ashmawi in Ruz al-Yusuf, 19 June 1995; al-Sayyid Yasin in al-Ahram, 29 June 1995; Najib Mahfuz, quoted in al-Musawwar, 26 January 1996. For a discussion of hisba and its broader implications in Egyptian law, see Sfeir, pp. 404ff; also Civil Society, March 1996, pp. 18–21.
E.g., al-Liwa’ al-Islami, 22 June 1995; Yusuf Badri’s interview in al-Musawwar, 26 January 1996. See also the interview with lawyer Ahmad Sayf al-Islam in Middle East Report, November–December 1995, pp. 25–27.
Badri’s interview in al-Musawwar, 26 January 1996. See also the report on Badri in al-Wasat, 14 July 1997.
Shahin’s interview in Der Spiegel, quoted by Ha’aretz, 28 March 1995; Agence France Presse, 29 March 1995—FBIS, Daily Report, 30 March 1995; al-Nur, 12 June 1996.
Agence France Presse, 1 July 1995—FBIS, Daily Report, 7 July 1995; Ruz al-Yusuf, 10 July 1995; ‘Aqidati, 14 July 1995.
Ruz al-Yusuf 10 July 1995; Middle East International, 2 February 1996; al-Wasat, 14 July 1997.
Middle East International, 2 February 1996.
Baha al-Din’s interview, al-Ahram Weekly, 4–10 August 1994.
Agence France Press, 23, 29 August 1995—FBIS, Daily Report, 24, 29 August 1994; Middle East News Agency, 23 August, 15 September 1994—FBIS, Daily Report, 24 August, 16 September 1994; al-Watan al-‘Arabi, 7 May 1996; al-Nur, 12 June 1996.
See Civil Society, October 1994, p. 3.
Al-Ahram, 25 June 1997, Ha’aretz, 25 June, 28 July 1997; al-Nur, 23 July 1997.
Middle East International, 16 January 1998.
Quoted in al-Wasat, 12 August 1996.
Al-Wasat, 14 July 1997.
Middle East International, 16 January 1998.
Ruz al-Yusuf, 4, 11 January 1999. See also Amira Huwaydi in al-Ahram Weekly, 21–28 January 1999.
Radio Cairo, 18, 24 October 1992—FBIS, Daily Report, 19, 27 October 1992; Middle East International, 23 October 1992. See further in Middle East Contemporary Survey (MECS), Vol. 16 (1992), pp. 373–74.
Al- Akhbar, al-Ahram, al-Wafd, 30 January 1996; al-Musawwar, 2 February 1996; al-`Alam, Civil Society, March 1996.
For details, see MECS, Vol. 19 (1995), pp. 257–59.
Civil Society, July 1995, p. 4.
See above, p. 22.
 MENA, 6 August 1994—FBIS, Daily Report, 8 August 1994; Radio Cairo, 14 August 1994—FBIS, Daily Report, 15 August 1994. For the contention over the ICPD see MECS, Vol. 18 (1994), pp. 271–73; Barraclough, pp. 244–45.
 For an assessment that the government does not manage to gain more legitimacy by such tactics, while increasing the credibility of the Islamist discourse, see Mustapha Kamil al-Sayyid, “A civil society in Egypt?” in Augustus Richard Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 1995), Vol. 1, p. 292.
Middle East International, 11 July 1997.
 Cf. Sayyid, pp. 280–89.
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