Forget the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, suggests this book, appears almost a sideshow compared to the protracted, bitter intra-Egyptian struggle between secular, pro-Western modernists and fundamentalist Muslims who are battling them to create a state governed by the Shariah (Islamic law). Weaver, who has covered the country for the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, vividly portrays the land where over one out of every three Arabs lives as increasingly out of control, beset by very rapid demographic growth, poverty and unemployment, and a monstrously large, hidebound, and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy. Into this societal breach have stepped a number of fundamentalist, fervently antimodernist Islamic leaders whom Weaver profiles, such as Dr. Abdel-Sabour Shahin, a Shariah scholar. He denounces a colleague who interprets the law significantly more liberally as an apostate, and coolly proclaims to the author, "The prescribed penalty for apostasy is execution.". As the November 1997 Luxor massacre revealed, these men and their disciples are willing to use terror against civilians in their efforts to overthrow the 17-year, largely complacent regime of Hosni Mubarak, which ineffectively alternates between appeasing the fundamentalists and brutally cracking down on them. To little avail: fundamentalist Muslims continue to gain influence among university students, the army, the judiciary, the diplomatic corps—and, above all, myriads of poor Egyptians, in part because they have "built a social and welfare system rivaling that of the state." Weaver, who clearly knows Egypt well and apparently is semi-fluent in Arabic (she converses directly with certain figures, though she arrives with a translator for others), has an engaging and sometimes colorful style. She relies almost exclusively on her own interviews and perceptions, unfortunately not integrating other scholarly, journalistic, and fictional accounts of Egypt. Her prognosis is essentially gloomy: the increasingly violent Kulturkampf between secular modernists and fundamentalist Muslims likely will continue, with the latter appearing well on their way to gaining the upper hand.
Read full book review >