I have just finished reading Gilles Kepel’s The Prophet and Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt, a book highly recommended by a French expert on jihad, who unfortunately blogs only in French. I however recommend you read his articles if you are French-speaking. Reading this book now is quite interesting, as Mohamed Mursi is facing unprecedented opposition (14 million demonstrators througout the country – beware, figures by the Egyptian military…) since the beginning of his mandate.
The book was written in 1983, a couple of years after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an Egyptian jihadist – on the 6th of October, during the parade commemorating the October war. It is short (300 pages) yet, it is a very good synthesis of Muslim extremist movements in Egypt.
Those who seek a book about the perceptions of Human Rights by Muslim extremists in Egypt will be disappointed. To them, I recommend Amnesty International’ s monitoring of this country. The book aims at describing the different tendencies of Muslim extremism, their roots and the reasons for their success, their organization and their relationship to the regime.
In a first part, Gilles Kepel introduces the Muslim Brotherhood and the influence of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones: a book that is a corner stone of this movement, who has had a mixed relationship with the regime (according to the decade, its members were either tolerated or hunted).
Kepel then writes a chapter about Shukri Mustafa, a former agricultural engineer who thought the best way to change the society (considered as jahiliyya: pre-islamic, thus barbaric) and the regime was for a few people to cut off from the society and develop as an alleged actual Muslim society, which will progressively grow in strength and number and overcome the jahiliyya.
Opposed to this movement are the reformists, or as Kepel call them, the legalits, who want to change the society from within, thanks to reforms. To some extent, they could be compared to cheikh Kichk, a world-famous imam, who thought that the main efforts had to focus on reforming the clergy so it become more independent from the Regime. This tendency contrasts with the jama’at islamiyya, Muslim extrmist student asssociations who took over campuses by offering Egyptian students solutions to daily issues (overproximity between boys and girls, full auditoriums…), at the expense of freedom of thought and expression (persecution of couples, banning of music on campuses…).
Last but not least, Gilles Kepel’s book tackles the jihad, adopted by the most extreme groups, that seek to overthrow the regime and the society by fighting it.
For each of these forms of activism the author will detail its relationship with the Egyptian regime (ranging from the tolerance to the open war, through manipulation) and with other movements (from co-operation to hatred). With a careful analysis of their speech, Kepel exposes why these groups managed to gain such influence (lack of responsible citizenship, weaknesses of public policies…). The reader will also gain greater understanding of some concepts that are just touched on by the media (e.g. : how many of our fellow citizen know that the jihad involves as much prayer and meditation than actual fighting?).
It is however legitimate to wonder if a book written 30 years ago is still relevant, once the political situation in Egypt has undergone so major evolutions. I am indeed a bit disappointed by the newly written foreword (2011). It is in my opinion too short and I would have liked the author to add a chapter about the position of these movements on a political stage that has just broaden.
Yet I think the book gives us a good matrix to understand these movements… and that unless a new regime – in which every Egyptian can trust – emerges, they are likely to remain popular.