02/01/2011 03:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Egypt: Giving Context To The Unrest (New York Review)

Zoe Triska, The Huffington Post: With the anti-government protests and the swearing in of a new Cabinet on Monday, all attention is now on Egypt. In order to grasp the roots of the unrest and give it context, we are turning to the archives of the New York Review of Books.

From the article, "Islam and Power Politics", by Shaul Bakhash, July 21, 1988

"The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East" by Johannes J.G. Jansen (Macmillan)

"Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh" by Gilles Kepel, translated by Jon Rothschild (University of California Press)

"The Islamic Struggle in Syria" by Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, foreword and postscript by Hamid Algar (Mizan)

"Interpretations of Islam: Past and Present" by Emmanuel Sivan (Darwin)

"The Political Language of Islam" by Bernard Lewis (University of Chicago Press)

After the arrest and trial of the members of the al-Jihad group who plotted and carried out the assassination of Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981, Egyptian journals became the forum for an informal debate between the men in the dock in a Cairo courtroom and leading members of Egypt's Muslim clergy. The case for the killers was made both in courtroom testimony and in a treatise, "The Neglected Duty," by the Jihad's ideologue, Abd al-Salam Faraj, who was sentenced to death and executed in 1982 along with the four assassins. Among those who argued the unofficial case for the prosecution in the press was Shaykh Ali Jadd al-Haqq, the Mufti, or chief religious dignitary, of Egypt. He issued a twenty-five-page refutation of Faraj's treatise.

The Mufti's text argued with Faraj over the conditions under which the Prophet had declared jihad, or holy war, in seventh-century Arabia. He took issue with Faraj's readings of the rulings of the medieval Islamic jurist Ibn Taymiyya and of the "verse of sword" in the Koran ("Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, seize them, beset them, lie in ambush for them everywhere"). He seized on Faraj's allegation that the Mongols, who established themselves as rulers over the Islamic lands in the thirteenth century, were infidels rather than Muslims. Like Faraj, the Mufti quoted copiously from the Koran and medieval Islamic jurists to support his views.

These arguments, about events and texts many centuries old, obviously addressed contemporary issues. Ibn Taymiyya had described the Mongols as unbelievers. Faraj cited this in order to imply that Sadat was another iniquitous ruler, governing a Mongol-like state where Islamic law no longer prevailed, and thus a fitting target for rebellion, or even holy war. The "neglected duty" that Faraj made the central point of his treatise was the duty to struggle against unbelievers, even if this meant carrying jihad into one's own society. Not surprisingly, the Mufti of Egypt produced his own medieval texts and Koranic quotations to refute Faraj.

The battle over texts between Sadat's assassins and their critics is the subject of Johannes Jansen's book and also the subject of Gilles Kepel's more broadly conceived and incisive study of the Islamic movement in Egypt. Both books illustrate, as Emmanuel Sivan puts it, "the subjective presence of the past in the minds of contemporary Muslims"--an inclination in Egypt, as in other Middle East countries, to invoke the language and symbolism of Islam to address broadly political purposes and to compete for the possession of the Islamic past in order more effectively to set the agenda for the present. (Read the rest of the article.)

From "One Foot on the Moon", by Amos Elon, April 6, 1995

By simply turning a corner in central Cairo, one enters a different world and even a different sphere of time. A short distance behind the glossy steel-glass-and-marble office tower of Al-Ahram, the prestigious semi-official Egyptian daily, another age, another Egypt begins.

In the Al-Ahram building one finds the elaborate gadgetry of a great publishing house and research center with its ultramodern computers and automated printing presses, and with its sophisticated executives, fluent in several languages, who communicate with their secretaries--and perhaps also with the outside world--by closed-circuit television. Luxury cars come and go, and doormen in dark suits behind high glass walls require all visitors to walk through blinking metal detectors, as in an airport.

Barely fifty yards away begins a labyrinth of narrow lanes where millions of Egyptians live in seedy shacks and dark warrens above and below ground, often without water, sewers, or electricity. The vast, teeming slum districts stretch far into the distance. On crumbling walls fundamentalist graffiti proclaim the imminent victory of radical Islam whose advocates consider Hosni Mubarak a second Shah. "For every Shah there is an Ayatollah," "Islam is the solution," "There is no God but God." On the broken pavement someone has just slaughtered a lamb and is cutting up its leg with a large saw. Barefoot kids wade through the dirt piled in the street. Used shoes are laid out for sale in great heaps. Clouds of smoke and dust and the stench of sewer water hang in the thick air between shacks of mud and corrugated iron.

Much of the top floor of the Al-Ahram tower is taken up by an executive dining room. Top editors, columnists, politicians, and well-known Egyptian intellectuals gather there for lunch. Since the days of Nasser and Sadat, dozens of writers and other intellectuals (including some who oppose the government) have had their offices in the building, even when the Al-Ahram would never print their articles (they were nicknamed "intellectuals on the shelf"). Through the large picture windows there is a fascinating view of Cairo, old and new. In the far distance, the pyramids float on pink-gray clouds of air pollution. Nearer, the city's latest skyscrapers soar against the background of the slums. In the harsh light everything is bleak and gray and there is hardly a tree or anything green in sight.

I sat up there by the window talking with one of Al-Ahram's leading columnists. He was furious that beer and other alcoholic drinks were now banned from the newspaper's dining room as a concession to the Islamicists. He held forth darkly on the rise of the "new barbarism," and on Egypt's seemingly insoluble economic problems, a result partly of the population explosion and partly of corruption in high places. Then he said that, at the same time, Egypt had the best writers in the Middle East and some of the world's finest astronomers, physicists, and cardiologists. He gesticulated dramatically. Pointing to the slums and to a complicated-looking electronic device on a neighboring roof, he said: "Here we are! One foot on the moon! The other stuck in the sewer!" (Read the rest of the article.)

From "At Pharaoh's Court", by Amos Elon, June 26, 1997

"Egypt's Road to Jerusalem: A Diplomat's Story of the Struggle for Peace in the Middle East"
by Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Random House)

October 25, 1977, was a routine day in the life of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a fifty-five-year-old professor at Cairo University. He had spent the morning at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Then he went to the offices of Al Ahram, the semi-official newspaper and printing plant, to read the proofs of Al siyasah al-dawliyah, a quarterly on international affairs of which he was the editor. Later, he went to the airport to meet his wife, who was returning from a trip to Italy. As he entered the terminal, a breathless journalist from Al Ahram ran up to him. "The Presidency of the republic has been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been? A thousand congratulations, Doctor, on the ministry!"

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was baffled. Egypt is known as a "pharaonic democracy"--nobody had bothered to consult him on this appointment, which he had never sought. Nor would it have made a difference if he had. His wife, Leia, came through customs. As soon as she saw his face she asked what was wrong. He replied that he was threatened with a calamity that would turn her life and his upside down.

He had never held public office before. His first reaction was that it was not in his interest to assume one now. He felt no hesitation. His life as a prominent scholar, fairly well known in Egypt and abroad, was pleasant enough. He had made a name for himself for his pan-Arabism and his pan-Africanism--fashionable ideologies at the time, especially among Francophile intellectuals--and as a severe critic of Israel, which he saw as dominated by the "colonialism" of "white settler" mentality. His harsh views on Israel implied that an Egyptian reconciliation with Israel was possible only if Israel were to become assimilated politically and culturally within a united Arab federation. As an isolated "Jewish Hong Kong" facing the "Arab" land mass, it was, he believed, doomed. (Read the rest of the article.)

From "Witch Hunt in Egypt", by Max Rodenbeck, November 16, 2000

"In a nuclear age, a space age, an age of expanding minds, they still rule us with the law of the Bedouins' god and the Koran ...Shit!"

--Haidar Haidar, A Banquet for Seaweed

Arabic is a uniquely concise language, so much so that it regularly dispenses with the verb "to be." There is no need to say "The sky is blue." It's quite enough to say "The sky blue" and your meaning is clear. This is not just a bit of linguistic arcana. If it weren't for this grammatical convention, the recent stormy controversy over a book banning in Egypt may never have taken place. The center of the controversy is a single blank typespace on the back page of the April 28 issue of a Cairo tabloid called al-Shaab. The name means "The People," al-Shaab being the biweekly newspaper of Egypt's Socialist Labor Party, a noisy but feeble opposition grouping that has drifted with prevailing fashions from vague leftism toward a particularly shrill, xenophobic brand of Islamism. The blank space is to be found in an article that purports to be a review of Syrian writer Haidar Haidar's novel A Banquet for Seaweed.

What should have filled the space are the three little dots you see between the words "Koran" and "shit" in the passage quoted above. The passage is drawn from a conversation between two characters in Haidar's book--a pair of jaded Iraqi communists living an unhappy provincial exile in 1970s Algeria. The word "shit" was meant to characterize the tendency of revolutionary Arab regimes to use cheap populism to legitimize their rule. In its review, however, al-Shaab made it appear that what the novelist had actually written was "The Koran is shit." (Read the rest of the article.)

Read more at the New York Review of Books.