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Too Many Secrets

Whether the “they” refers to the government specifically or to Islamists in general is as unclear in the context of the interview as it is in the context of the intellectual politics the state is trying so desperately to control. Declaration to the People, the book Muhammad ‘Ali Mahgub was publicizing the week Mustafa ‘Awni and his colleagues opened fire in Zeinhom, is only one of the literary projects the public sector has undertaken to wean Egyptians of intellectual dependence on freelance Islamist writers. The government and the ruling party have for more than a decade provided the marketplace with Islamic literature such as the NDP's weekly tabloid al-Liwa’ al-Islami (The Islamic Standard), al-Muslim al-Saghir (The Little Muslim), the children's monthly from the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and others.[42] Both these public sector productions emphasize the application of Islamic principles to daily life, and in an interesting reversal of standing broadcast policy—in which female television characters and newscasters are prohibited from covering their hair—such periodicals universally show women as muhaggabat in drawings and photographs. Each tries to outbid its private sector competitors with conservative cultural credentials while featuring the president and members of the religious establishment in the place of the private sector's glowing profiles of martyred Muslim Brotherhood leaders Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Throughout the mid-1980s, the circulation figures for private sector religious periodicals in Egypt were fifty times those of public sector production, but their numbers remained relatively stable while the circulation of public sector religious titles increased by more than 300 percent. This has been part of a concentrated effort to adopt the language and tactics of the Islamist movement so as better to compete with them on their own ground.

But this policy, although well-coordinated through the NDP and across several ministries, is not monolithic. In a very different tactical move, the public sector General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO) began in 1993 a new series of reprints of classic Islamic modernist texts, called the Muwajaha (Confrontation) series. Each book bore on its back the strongly-worded declaration that

The conspiracy of extremism and terror in Egypt has reached unprecedented proportions in the last year.…Egypt is now experiencing a human, cultural and civilizational tragedy and an economic and political catastrophe. Therefore, it has become necessary for Egyptian intellectuals and the institutions of civil society to rise and confront extremism and terror, to surround and contain them in preparation for their complete uprooting.[43]

The series contains classic works by Egyptian authors Taha Hussein, Qasim Amin, Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, and more recent intellectuals, all of whom have explored the meaning of Islam in the modern age. Soon after its first appearance the series was denounced by officials at al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions for reissuing volumes by Muslim scholars like ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq, who proposed in 1925 that Egypt should become a secular state like Turkey. When first published, the book was condemned by al-Azhar, and ‘Abd al-Raziq was denounced as unfit to hold public position.[44] Ironically, at the same time that the minister of religious endowments was plugging Declaration to the People during the summer 1993 Religious Awareness Caravan, Dr. ‘Abd al-Subur Marzuq, the general superintendent of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, told a Caravan audience of Alexandria University students in mid-July that the “Confrontation” series was merely “the latest campaign of communism and secularism in their war against Islam and its enlightened thought.…This collection contains ludicrous and perverted books, and it [isn't] necessary to start printing them again, or having the state budget pay for them.” [45] At that very same meeting, the minister announced that Dr. Marzuq and the mufti had been named to a three- man commission responsible for planning the process of development and composition for new religious studies books for public schools.[46] The third member of the commission was to be Shaykh Muhammad al- Ghazali.

Shaykh al-Ghazali—a popular conservative ‘alim and teacher who had written a weekly column for the Muslim Brotherhood's weekly outlet al-Sha‘b in the late 1980s, and gained international stature as a teacher and media personality in Algeria—was in the news for other reasons in the summer of 1993. In June he had been called as a witness for the defense at the trial of writer Farag Foda's assassins (several of whom were themselves Islamist lawyers). He testified that Muslims who object to the application of Islamic law are apostates, and that the killers of apostates are merely carrying out the punishment set in place by the shari‘a itself, which the Constitution purportedly takes as the main source of legislation.[47] Despite the rapprochement between the government and the Muslim Brothers, the embarrassed Shaykh of al-Azhar and the minister of religious endowments were forced to repeat publicly that only the ruler and his law enforcement officials could take upon themselves the responsibility to investigate and declare apostasy or to carry out the death sentence.[48] “Playing around in the political sphere is far from the holiness of religion,” Mahgub told audiences during the days immediately before and after the Zeinhom attack; no one except the ruler is entitled to administer divine ordinances or to claim that homicide is religiously permissible. Nothing, he said, can excuse people setting themselves up as legislators and judges and executioners.[49] In July the state called ‘Atiyya Saqr, the head of the fatwa committee at al-Azhar, to testify at the Foda assassination trial in response to al-Ghazali and to the similar testimony of another expert witness, Dr. Mahmud Mazru‘a. But once the prosecution had rested its case, one of the defense attorneys dared the court to criminalize the defendants' own legal justification for killing apostates, lest it be forced to try the prominent scholars al-Ghazali and Mazru‘a as well. When the prosecutor entered into evidence volumes from the “Confrontation” book series, one of the defendants asked his lawyer to call witnesses to respond to them, as well as to enter into evidence volumes of Islamic jurisprudence.

Suddenly the case seemed to be less about a criminal prosecution than it was about the right to interpret and apply the principles of divine law in a society whose leaders proclaim that “our constitution is Islam.” [50] The defense claimed that the trial was about the cultural effects of Foda's anti-Islamist writings, which represented “atheism's struggle to obliterate the knowledge of religion and to guide our children with principles that leave them with no connection to us.” [51] That this is essentially the same charge Dr. Marzuq leveled at the General Egyptian Book Organization reveals the difficulty of disentangling the twisted strands of state cultural policy.

Similar ambiguities and contradictions are easy to find. In 1994, after allowing the Nasserist magazine Ruz al-Yusuf to publish excerpts from works censored by al-Azhar, President Mubarak announced at the annual Cairo Book Fair that he was releasing some controversial works that had been seized at the fair the previous year. “I am convinced,” said Ruz al-Yusuf's editor, “that this government's trend is secular.” [52] But at its party convention two years previously the ruling NDP had reinforced its stand that Egypt is an Islamic state committed to the norms of Islam, and underlining support for comprehensive religious education in the schools.[53] Cultural policy is oddly split, along with the conscience of the nation. The same government that declares Islam the religion of the state produces public sector beer and wine (but then bans their sale in several southern provinces to quiet Islamist opposition). Like Saudi Arabia and Iran (and, for that matter, China), Egypt has recently moved to ban satellite dishes “to preserve and protect the values, morals and traditions of society,” and in early July 1995 a court sentenced a movie theater owner to a short prison sentence for displaying a 1973 movie poster showing a woman's cleavage (this suit as well was brought by Yusuf al-Badri, among others). No one seems to be able accurately to identify, characterize, or predict the direction government policy will take with respect to the Islamization of public life.

What is clear is that civil society is increasingly a self-consciously Islamic space. In September 1992 the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate—essentially a public sector union of legal professionals—was taken over by Islamist candidates in the elections for its executive committee. This followed Muslim Brotherhood victories in the board elections of the Cairo University Faculty Club (1990) and the Pharmacists (1990), Physicians (1988), and Engineers (1987) Syndicates.[54] Thousands of these professionals, along with accountants, teachers, social workers, students, and others, volunteer their time providing social, educational, and health services for the poor through private voluntary organizations operating in centers associated with private mosques. Increasingly common during the 1980s, this has been a response both to the impotence of the government to provide the volume and quality of services required by the country's growing population, and to a sense that the fortunate in the Muslim community should devote time and their income to alleviating the misery of the poor, the sick, and the needy.

The same increasingly applies to the business community as well. In 1989 Muslim Brotherhood candidates won several seats on the board of the Commerce Graduate's Association, and Islamic banks and investment companies have become part of the financial scene. Despite new regulations on such companies in the late 1980s, and the prosecution and subsequent collapse of some of them for fraudulent practices (e.g., the enormous Rayan company, which owned everything from financial services companies to restaurants and parking lots), networks of Islamist businesses are spreading with the aid of heavy capital investment from Egyptian professionals working abroad, as well as direct investment by foreign individuals, corporations, and governments. Safir Publishing Company, for example, recently began issuing a discount card good at participating businesses such as gift stores, doctor's offices, and others, testimony to the strength of private business networks.

Such formal networks are matched by an extraordinarily extensive system of informal economic networks and associations as well. Despite the fact that many educated people crave secure guaranteed jobs in the public sector, the wait for such employment is long and the pay low, so the majority of Cairenes who work in the public sector, as well as those who do not, have second and third jobs to make ends meet. Untaxed and unrecorded economic transactions from informal activities probably account for between a third and a half of the country's reported GNP, and the vast majority of remittances from abroad are through illegal channels. Diane Singerman suggests that there might be developing, in addition to the parallel economy, a “parallel polis” (a term coined by Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel) similar to that in 1980s Eastern Europe, an economic basis for an alternative to the state system of production, distribution, and political mobilization. With a stagnant formal economy, widespread corruption, and a sense of the ineffectiveness of repressive violence, elites in Egypt might well be losing faith in the legitimacy of the government and looking for other ways out of the political and economic crisis.[55] Even in lower-middle-class working neighborhoods, ordinary people who do not see themselves as belonging to an “Islamic movement” still believe in many of the elements of the Islamist platform, such as ending corruption and applying Islamic law. Political organizations or movements promising such changes have a potential for wide popular political support, as well as an immense potential economic base.

Perceiving the power of this alternative, the government has recently broadened its anti-Islamist political and police actions to include the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with tens of thousands of members and perhaps a million supporters, which has for almost a generation enjoyed relatively little attention from security forces. Although it is an illegal organization, it has not been targeted like Jihad or al-Gama‘a al- islamiyya, which make strategic use of violence, or even some human rights and women's associations, which have seen their assets liquidated under the laws regulating private voluntary organizations.[56] Instead, it has fielded candidates for the People's Assembly through legal political parties; published and distributed books, magazines, and newspapers through the monopoly public sector distribution companies; set up youth, educational, social service, and medical service programs; and in general forged a rapprochement with the government and a symbiotic relationship with many sectors of civil society since the 1970s.

But in January 1995, and increasingly after the 26 June assassination attempt on President Mubarak in Addis Ababa, the Ministry of the Interior turned its attention anew to the Muslim Brotherhood. On 17 July it arrested seventeen Brotherhood leaders in sixteen different provinces, seizing computers, books, documents, and videotapes purportedly showing the organization in contact with the Sudanese National Islamic Front, which Egypt publicly implicated in the assassination try. Dozens of other Brotherhood members had been detained without charges since the beginning of the year, and the July arrestees included four former members of Parliament, the head of the information department at al- Azhar, teachers, bankers, civil servants, and local officials. Eight more were taken into custody the following week, and a few days after that another two hundred Brotherhood members were arrested in security sweeps of Alexandria and Minufiyya, most of them at what the government claimed were Brotherhood military training camps. The Brotherhood itself reported that they were in fact summer youth camps established by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The young men were arrested after having been observed practicing kung fu and karate, which has often been interpreted as terrorist training and resulted in arrests elsewhere in the country.[57]

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood accused the NDP of using the Addis Ababa incident as an excuse for a crackdown in preparation for discrediting the organization before the scheduled People's Assembly elections in November. The prediction was apparently accurate, as arrests continued through the fall, including not only Islamists but leftist and other intellectuals as well. Journalists, including the editors of the liberal opposition daily al-Wafd, and the Brotherhood/Labor Party's al- Sha‘b, have been alternately harassed, arrested, detained, and beaten. Three days before the 29 November voting, between one hundred forty (the government figure) and six hundred (the Brotherhood figure) Brotherhood members were arrested, and shortly before that, fifty-four were convicted in court and sentenced to prison for holding secret meetings and preparing antigovernment leaflets. The elections themselves, criticized by both local and foreign organizations for ballot-box stuffing and physical intimidation of voters, resulted in an overwhelming NDP victory. Some intellectuals are comparing recent waves of arrests and political repression with the paranoid atmosphere of the months leading up to Sadat's assassination in 1981.

At the same time that confidence in the government erodes, the Islamist opposition is seen as ever more ubiquitous and effective. “I don't trust the government,” Layla al-Shamsi's husband told me in 1993,

they keep too many secrets. And the only thing I read in the government papers, the only thing they're completely honest about, is the sports. For anything else, you've got to look at the opposition papers, which are really quite good, and about seventy-five percent true. Like the incident over on Salah Salem [street, referring to the Zeinhom incident]; do you remember that? They shot an officer, the fanatics did, because of the move of the terrorist trials from civil to military courts. That's what they told the officer before killing him. But did that appear in the government papers? Of course not. They hid the reason for the killing. The fanatics know more about the government and what it does than any of the rest of us; they pay attention. Like with [recently dismissed Defense Minister] Abu Ghazala: when photographs were produced in court showing him, I don't know, kissing the foot of some belly dancer. Where did they get those photos? Like I say, [the fanatics] know about everything that goes on.[58]

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