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Book Review

Uneven, Troubled Trip to a Land in Conflict

A PORTRAIT OF EGYPT: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam by Mary Anne Weaver;Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 280 pages


"A Portrait of Egypt" is not really a portrait of Egypt, which, some would argue, is the Arab world's most complex, cosmopolitan nation. Nor does the author really guide us through the world of militant Islam, for Mary Anne Weaver's subjects are too narrowly chosen (she speaks, for instance, to few people in Upper Egypt, the nation's poorest and most fundamentalist region).

For the most part, she focuses on militant Islamic leaders, a few intellectuals, and the views of seemingly countless unnamed diplomats. This makes it hard for Weaver to prove her main thesis, which is that Egypt is headed for a vicious civil war and, eventually, a theocratic dictatorship. It's not that Weaver is necessarily wrong, just that she never convinces us that she is necessarily right.

Weaver first arrived in Egypt as a cub reporter and graduate student in 1977, and since then she has obviously gained access to key players in Egyptian life: Among her interviewees are President Hosni Mubarak, novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, whom some have accused of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Weaver has a deep appreciation for Egypt's 5,000-year-old culture, and especially for Cairo, an "infuriating, ramshackle, remarkable" city that awed Caesar and Napoleon.

Economically, Egypt is a terrifyingly polarized country. In 1976, 321 families had incomes of more than $1.5 million a year, while 4.5 million families earned less than $180. Since then the situation has, if anything, worsened. Weaver views the growth of fundamentalist Islam as an expression of class warfare, a battle as much "between the country's haves and its have-nots . . . as it was between political or religious creeds."

But Weaver never convincingly explains why Egypt's wretched of the earth have turned to religious fundamentalism as their preferred, indeed apparently only, solution. Her analysis also seems riddled with contradictions. She notes that Islamic terrorists--that is, gunmen and guerrillas--are "high achievers . . . at the . . . most demanding and most prestigious faculties,"--hardly the proverbial "have-nots."

She also does not adequately explain how fundamentalists gained control of such relatively privileged institutions as the trade unions, judiciary and universities.

Weaver does make clear, however, the bitter irony at the heart of the fundamentalist movement. It was, to an astonishing extent, created by those who became its fiercest foes: President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by the very Islamists he had encouraged as a bulwark against the left; the Israelis, who supported the Islamists as a counterpoint to the PLO; and most of all the United States which, by funding and arming the Islamists during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, created a "hydra-headed monster" of terrorist groups.

This is not an optimistic book. According to Weaver, there are few, if any, civil institutions in Egypt that can counter religious fundamentalism. A state of "intellectual siege" exists, in which everything from ballet to Brecht has been banned. And the U.S.' great ally, Mubarak, comes across as a veritable Marie Antoinette: arrogant, obtuse, contemptuous.

Unfortunately, Weaver's narrative is extraordinarily, indeed insultingly, repetitious. And her book sometimes reads more like a treatise for U.S. policymakers than the work of a curious journalist.

One day in Cairo, for instance, Weaver has the good fortune to meet a "buxom woman who had tattoos on her fingers and her nose, and whose head was covered by a scarf." [p.146] She is Gamila, a local prostitute and devout Muslim, who donates 20 percent of her earnings to a fundamentalist mosque. What a fascinating vortex of contradictions! Naturally, this reader was eager to hear more not just about, but from, Gamila. How does she see the world? How does she reconcile her religion and her profession? How do her neighbors view her?

Alas, Gamila remains a cipher: Weaver simply introduces her and, with nary a quote nor a question, moves on. Too soon, the author returns to her dreary unnamed officials.

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