A Portrait of Egypt
A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam
By Mary Anne Weaver
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
306 pg., US$14, CAN$22.95

America's Middle East linchpin under siege

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 18, 2000

A Portrait of EgyptThe average person likely thinks of Egypt the same way they think of India: a remote, fractious and loud democracy with severe class divisions, always seeming to teeter on the edge of instability. Judging by Marry Anne Weaver's A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, there is some bad news: Egypt is fits that description and more.

As Weaver tells it, she arrived in Egypt in June 1977 as a reporter and graduate student in Arab affairs at the American University in Cairo. There she was present for the birth of the modern Islamic militancy that has gripped Egypt, though not on the same murderous scale as Algeria. Born as a reaction to Western meddling, consumerism and tremendous discontent in the middle class, the growing movement has tremendous implications for the West. Thanks to military and economic aid, Egypt has become America's linchpin in its Middle East dealings, as necessary to its interests as Israel is.

The watershed year for Egypt's militant strain of Islam was 1979, a tumultuous year which saw the deposing of the Shah of Iran and ending a 2 500 year old monarchy, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and the Camp David Accord bringing peace between Egypt and Israel. Those three influences, fueled by socioeconomic forces, make it as diplomat Hussein Amin told Weaver, an Egyptian Islamic state all but inevitable.

Although the book sketches out very well and with a human face the major and minor figures on all sides of the movement, from Hosni Mubarak to Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the various issues which fuel them all, Weaver takes pains early on to point out that A Portrait of Egypt is not an "academic or definitive account" but rather "one woman's journey through the world of militant Islam."

Personal or not, Weaver's journey highlights some worrying facts for Western nations. Long seen as a peacemaker and an agent for democracy, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is painted in A Portrait of Egypt as a distant leader who tacitly approves -- but maintains plausible deniability -- of torture of dissidents in his jails. Weaver also describes how agents of militant Islam have penetrated all avenues of Egyptian life: the diplomatic core, trade unions, academia, the judiciary and even the lower ranks of the military, the force that Mubarak needs to maintain his hold on power.

Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman

The book also sketches the two main protagonists in this battle: Mubarak and Abdel-Rahman, the later best known for his alleged role in planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Proving that any situation can get worse, Weaver states that a 1997 massacre at Luxor -- one which claimed the lives of 62 tourists -- shows that an even more violent strain of militant Islamism is beginning to rear its head, one that Mubarak may be powerless to control. It also showed that the traditional leaders, Mubarak, Abdel-Rahman and his peers, are now marginalized as a new "lethal agenda" makes its presence felt.

Weaver makes it clear that future of Egypt is a dim one and its takeover by militants would make Iran look benign by comparison. Much like the West feared of a domino theory because of Soviet aggression during the Cold War, many think that if Egypt falls and becomes an Islamic nation, the rest of the Arab world will eventually follow. That includes American allies like Saudi Arabia, a nation which itself has contributed men and money to the extremist movements in a bid to defuse similar threats to that nation's monarchy.

A Portrait of Egypt was originally published in November 1998 but its publication in paperback in August includes a new profile on Osama bin Laden, the latest murky figure to enter into the consciousness of Americans. The people behind the movement and its splinter groups may change, but A Portrait of Egypt does a magnificent job of telling an arresting story, one that may ultimately cause the West much grief. As Weaver makes clear, though remote geographically Egypt may be, a fall by this ancient nation will be one felt across the world.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor of Enter Stage Right.

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