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Islam Rising
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver, whose new book shows that there is much more to Islamic activism than guns and bombs

February 17, 1999

weaverbk picture "Slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the years," Mary Anne Weaver writes in A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, "Egypt's Islamist revolution by stealth has burrowed its way into the very heart of the institutions of the Arab world's largest and most important state." Weaver, a veteran foreign correspondent, has been watching Egypt closely for two decades, and in her new book trains her eye on gradual but profound changes in the Middle East, which often go largely unheeded in daily reporting. Consider, for example, that Egypt has a population of more than sixty million -- 95 percent of which lives on 5 percent of the land. Every ten months the country's population grows by a million, and every day some one thousand new residents arrive in the capital, Cairo. For the vast majority of Egyptians such conditions mean that poverty is the rule -- but the Egyptian government seems unprepared and unwilling to cope with its burgeoning population's needs, instead preferring (as does the Western press) to devote its attention to the current war on Islamic militants. As a result, a parallel welfare state has arisen, set up by Islamists, and in gratitude for its services the Egyptian people are increasingly becoming Islamic activists themselves. An Islamic victory in Egypt, Weaver writes, may now be inevitable -- and if it is, the consequences are likely to be much more far-reaching than those of the Iranian revolution of 1979.
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Portrait of the Artist as a Social Satirist (February 1999)
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Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey, traveled around the world in search of answers.

The Animal Point of View (December 1998)
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An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.

See the complete Books & Authors index.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Weaver is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who has also written two recent articles for The Atlantic -- "Blowback" (May, 1996), about the unintended consequences of American and Saudi Arabian funding, and Egyptian support, of Islamic militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan; and "India's Bandit Queen" (November, 1996), about the life of a remarkable Indian rebel fighter. Weaver was a student at the American Univerity of Cairo in the late 1970s, and has reported for British and American publications from some twenty countries abroad. She now divides her time between New York and California.

Weaver recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.

weavepic picture
Mary Anne Weaver   

Egypt isn't necessarily the country that first comes to mind when Americans think of militant Islam. Why did you choose Egypt as the focus of your book, rather than, say, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, or the Sudan?

The short answer is that I know Egypt better, and I've always been fascinated by it. I lived there for three very dynamic and dramatic years, from 1977 to 1979 -- the period of the first Arab-Israeli peace, which, perhaps not fortuitously, coincided with the rise of the Islamist movement in Egypt.

Egypt is also very, very important, as a country and as a bellwether of what might lie ahead: it is the citadel of Islamic learning and thought. Al-Azhar University is the oldest and most prestigious Islamic university in the world. So Egypt has always had this duality -- it's a sophisticated, secular country and, at the same time, it's at the heart of Islamic learning. There's always been a balance in Egypt between these two things, but now the scales seem to be tipping. I wanted to study that as a test case for what might happen elsewhere.

You spent time in Egypt during the late 1970s, and then again in the 1990s. What changes in Egyptian society most struck you when you returned?

One of my most vivid and immediate impressions was of decay. Crumbling buildings, torn-up sidewalks, sewage on the street. But equally profound was the fact that the religious quotient in Egypt had grown in direct proportion to the decay of the infrastructure, the corruption of the government, the lack of services, the ossification of the bureaucracy. Mosques seemed to me to be everywhere. In my book I describe going to the al-Hussein mosque in the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, with a secular, chic Cairene friend. We were both struck by how dramatically the whole neighborhood around the mosque was transformed during Friday prayers.

Egyptians are renowned in the Arab world for their sense of humor, but not much of that comes through in your book. Is that intentional?

Yes it is, and you're right -- a sense of humor has always been almost endemic to Egypt. But now there's been a noticeable decline. It's sad. But the situation has become so heavy, the tension so palpable, that Egyptians no longer joke about it. The mood is rather dour; there simply isn't much irreverence anymore. And this isn't just the case at dinner tables -- it's also happening in the arts, in literature, in cinema. There are far fewer satires and parodies being done now than there were in the 1970s. I thought, at first, that perhaps I was overreacting to this, but a number of Egyptian friends have told me that they've found it unsettling as well. They feel they've lost an intrinsic part of Egyptian life.

You wrote a couple of years ago for The Atlantic on the phenomenon known to the American intelligence community as "blowback." Can you briefly describe what this is?

Essentially, it means "fallout": the unintended consequences or ramifications of an operation or a policy that, ultimately, goes very wrong and comes back to haunt you one day. Afghanistan, about which I wrote in my article on blowback, was one such American casualty. For over a decade, the CIA underwrote a fratricidal, anti-American alliance of Afghan resistance groups, known as the mujahideen, in order to, in the words of the Reagan Administration, "bleed the Soviets." And, in the process, the CIA helped to train and arm some 25,000 Islamic militants, from over fifty countries around the world, who had streamed into Afghanistan to fight in the jihad. They bonded with one another; they networked and forged ties; and they set up support networks that today reach from Egypt to Algeria, and from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines. Thus, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, in 1989, and the CIA closed down its pipeline to the mujahideen, the agency left behind tens of thousands of well-trained and well-armed Arab, Asian, and Afghan fighters available for new jihads. Some went off to fight in Kashmir or Bosnia; others in Chechnya and, now, in Kosovo. Still other veterans of the jihad have recently been accused of carrying out terrorist acts against the United States on three continents: the bombing of our embassies last summer in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, of two of our military installations in Saudi Arabia, and of the World Trade Center in New York.

From the archives:

Flashback: "Coming to Grips with Jihad" (August 27, 1998)
Three Atlantic articles from the 1990s show that Osama bin Laden represents only the tip of the iceberg.
The networks that were established in Afghanistan are still very much intact. And no one uses these contacts more skillfully than the Saudi multimillionaire Osama bin Laden -- who, of course, is a veteran of the jihad. He has by now emerged as a unique -- if not totally unprecedented -- terrorist impressario. He really has no organization of his own -- there is an umbrella group called al-Qai'da, or "the base," but it is more or less a clearinghouse. It's an organization to which much more established groups -- most importantly, the militant Egyptian groups the Gama'a and al-Jihad -- come for funds, for training, for logistical support.

In your Atlantic article you wrote that e-mail and faxes now drive the jihad. Bin Laden's a good example of this, isn't he?

Absolutely. He's now living in the mountains of Afghanistan, and his real source of communication with the outside world is electronic -- the Internet, cell phones, his own Web site, sophisticated scrambling devices, and so on. And he uses them cleverly: our ill-timed missile strikes on Afghanistan this past August were ostensibly based on intercepts of cell-phone conversations between bin Laden and some of his key aides. My assumption is that the intercepts were probably intentional misinformation that bin Laden fed to us about a meeting that, it turns out, had already occurred, a month earlier, on the other side of Afghanistan. We hit the wrong place, at the wrong time.

What would happen in Egypt -- and in the Middle East generally -- if Egypt were to, as you say in the book, "go Islamic"? How would such a revolution compare with the Iranian revolution of 1979?

Egypt's "going Islamic" would have far more profound and far-reaching consequences -- in the Arab Middle East, of course, but also in the larger Islamist world -- because the Iranian revolution was a Shi'ite revolution. The Shi'ites are a minority sect of Islam -- most Muslims are Sunnis, and Egypt is very representative of Sunni Islam. It is not only representative; it is the fountainhead of Sunni Islamic thought.

Thus, even among scholars who normally shun domino theories of history, there is a growing concern that if Egypt "goes Islamic," so could much of the Arab world. Egypt is the most populous and the most influential Arab state, and since the 1970s the Islamists there -- with growing vigor, in growing numbers, with growing support -- have infiltrated the courts, the universities, the schools, the arts. A number of preeminent Egyptian thinkers and ideologues are quite convinced that an Islamic victory in Egypt is inevitable.

If, for example, Hosni Mubarak -- who has named no successor -- were to die tomorrow, there's no logical person to assume the helm of the Egyptian state. And whoever succeeds Mubarak will have to have the active support of not only the army but also the growing number of Egyptians who have embraced the Islamists' call for the implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah.

One generally hears only about men's involvement in Islamic activism. What role are women playing these days?

You're right, of course -- the Islamist world is dominated by men, at least on the surface, but there are a huge number of very prominent, very forceful women behind these men. And many are now playing a more-major role, in a very public way, than they ever have before. I mention in the book one military court case in Cairo, a year or so ago, in which, for the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, women were tried for involvement in "terrorist activities" -- for sharing messages between leaders in prison and their followers outside, for giving sanctuary to militants on the run, for transporting weapons under their chadors.

In Egypt, women have the potential to play a significant role, particularly in the towns and villages of Upper Egypt. A woman would not be as easily stopped at a checkpoint, and wouldn't be body-searched the way a man would. When you consider the fact that there are over 20,000 Islamists in prison, you've got to assume that the movement on the outside has become quite skeletal. To a large extent, it's the wives and daughters and mothers of imprisoned men who are now beginning to exert themselves more actively.

A point you make repeatedly in this book is that while the Egyptian government is focusing its attention on the minority of Islamists who commit terrorist acts, a far greater number of Islamists are slowly but steadily taking control of Egypt's social institutions -- schools, universities, the media, courtrooms, hospitals and clinics, trade unions. They are even represented in the military. This is a phenomenon that isn't limited to Egypt -- Hamas is doing the same thing in the Palestinian territories, for example. What exactly is going on?

In many respects, the Islamists are reacting to and taking advantage of the inefficiency and the sheer ineptitude of the Egyptian government. From my own experience, having visited a number of their institutions, I can tell you that they are far better equipped, the staff is far more professional, the equipment is much more modern, than things you'll find in the typically run-down government facilities. A perfect example of how the Islamists have responded to social needs with far greater alacrity than the regime was the earthquake in Cairo in 1992. The government was totally paralyzed. Mubarak was traveling abroad, and for two days the government did absolutely nothing, nothing at all. Within hours, though, the Islamists were on the streets -- with tents, with blankets, with food, with alternative housing. The same thing happened in 1994, in Durunka, when flash-floods carried flaming fuel from an army depot through the streets. Once again, the government was simply incapable of coping, and the Islamists filled the void. It's this kind of ineptitude that is fueling the Islamist flame, not the guns and bombs of the more-militant groups.

As you say, the Islamists' rising profile is happening not just in Egypt. It's happening throughout the Arab Middle East -- in Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These governments have closed the political system to such an extent that the secular forces -- the "enemies," if you will, of the 1970s, like the Marxists and the socialists -- have been totally marginalized, and the only ideology that people can gravitate around has been that of political Islam. The Islamists have provided the only viable alternative to these governments.

So this is what you're talking about in the book when you describe the Islamist movement in Egypt as a secular phenomenon, in a sense?

Yes, in that the agenda of the leaders of the movement is as political as it is religious. Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman -- the blind Egyptian cleric most well-known in this country for his conviction for conspiracy in connection with his alleged role in the World Trade Center bombing -- is political. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Mousa Abu Marzook, both of Hamas, are politicians. So is Osama bin Laden. This stems, of course, from the fact that Islam is the world's only major religion that can truly be defined as political. It covers all aspects of life. There's no separation of religion and state.

Egyptians are definitely more religious these days, but, at the same time, this religiosity is being complemented by a very ambitious social and economic program of the Islamists. Here's an example of the blending of the religious and the secular: a number of my former professors from the American University of Cairo were Marxists twenty years ago -- fairly adamant, fairly doctrinaire Marxists. They are now equally adamant, equally doctrinaire Islamists. Why? When you look at Islam and at Marxism, there are a lot of common denominators: both are egalitarian, both embrace radical social and economic reform, both demand a total appropriation of the public space, and they share a dogmatic, ideological view of the world. Both provide a totality.

Your portrait of Hosni Mubarak and his government is not at all flattering -- they both come across as out of touch with Egyptian reality, and bunglingly incompetent in their oppressive and defensive attempts to cope with Islamic activism. Why isn't Mubarak's regime -- which has the strong backing of the United States -- more savvy and capable?

You've got to remember a couple of things here. Mubarak is the third generation of leaders brought to power by Gamal Abdel-Nasser's 1952 revolution. He lacks the charisma of Nasser, he lacks the vision of Sadat. He's almost emblematic of a revolution that has run out of ideas, of energy, of momentum. He basically still seems to be a stand-in president, after eighteen years in power -- a caretaker buying time. Nasser and Sadat both seized power; Mubarak simply inherited it.

Part of Mubarak's weakness and ineptitude, paradoxically, stems from the fact that he does have the strong backing of the United States. He doesn't have to be savvy, he doesn't have to be capable -- Washington will support him regardless of who he is, or of what he has or hasn't done. American support of his regime -- asking no questions, requesting no improvements in the human-rights and political arenas -- is not unlike its support of the Shah of Iran. Mubarak doesn't really have to prove himself. Washington will support him on geopolitical grounds, regardless.

This book makes a very convincing argument that Egypt is a crucial flash point in the Islamic world. What other countries are similarly important to watch?

I think two of the more obvious ones are Algeria and Turkey. But perhaps less obvious, and to me much more interesting, are Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and especially Saudi Arabia. These are all places that have very significant, very active, and growing Islamist movements and populations. Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority -- like Jordan until King Hussein's death -- are led by men in varying stages of failing health. If King Hussein and Yassir Arafat and King Fahd were all to die this year, orderly and lasting successions would not necessarily be guaranteed. Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, would have trouble coping with the various strains of the Islamist movement within the royal family, even though he has shown himself to be far more amenable to Islamist concerns than King Fahd and some of his brothers have. In Jordan, the new King Abdullah, ruling over a nation that is at least 60 percent Palestinian, is going to have to take Palestinian concerns into account -- and he is not the towering figure that his father was. He has less experience, no training in diplomacy, and he lacks the bedrock of support that Hussein always had. And the Islamists among the Palestinians in Jordan are part and parcel of the Islamists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Both King Hussein and Arafat are men who grew through history, who were able to accommodate themselves to every machination in a very uncertain, volatile region. They both managed to accommodate militant Islam, and their successors are going to have to make even greater accommodations, because they lack stature and history.

You've spent a lot of time talking to people who are labeled "terrorists" in the American and Egyptian press. What were these people like in person?

Always gracious, always accommodating to me. They have their own stories and their own points of view, which they are eager to project. Sometimes I agreed with them; sometimes not. But one of the things that has always been curious to me is that most of these men -- and women, to a lesser extent -- are not as adamantly doctrinaire as they are often made out to be. They will argue; they will debate and cajole. They are not absolutists in a theocratic sense. And one thing I think we all need to remember is that one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. How many "terrorists" of the past -- Israel's Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, the Palestinian's Yassir Arafat, South Africa's Nelson Mandela -- have now been frequent visitors to the White House?

Why should people read this book?

I think it's unique, in a number of ways. It's the first time that the Islamist movement in Egypt has actually been examined in a nonacademic way, on the ground, over a period of nearly ten years. It's the first time that the Islamists themselves have been able to tell their own story, in their own voices, through their own eyes. I've tried not to impose myself upon the book. Obviously I'm there, but I've tried only to be there in a secondary way, because I really wanted to allow the Egyptians to speak for themselves. And I hope the book accomplishes that.

I remember a young man whom I met at a military trial in Egypt in 1993 -- a defendant, sixteen years old, accused of having shot at (and missed, I might add) a German tour bus in Upper Egypt. When I asked him what had happened, he said, "Don't ask me what I did. Ask me why I did it." That's one thing that I hope my book does. I wanted to ask -- and answer -- that question.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.