Throughout his long rule, Egypt’s president, Husni Mubarak, has paid lip-service to ‘traditional Islam’ and to ‘freedom of expression’, while in practice repressing Islamic activists. Even the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, who cannot possibly be accused of being Islamic revolutionaries, are banned as a political party. This balancing act, though too transparent to deceive anyone, has provided Egyptian secularists and establishment ulama with a convenient excuse to cooperate for 20 years with a regime which they know to be repressive and corrupt, and a willing tool of US interests in the Middle East.
Thus such disparate groups as self-styled ‘liberal’ or ‘socialist intellectuals’ and the ulama of al-Azhar have cohabited comfortably in unwavering support of Mubarak, who first came to power on October 13, 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and who still rules under the state of emergency declared then. Mubarak’s balancing act, no doubt reinforced by his power to reward or punish, has kept the support up. That was the situation until the unexpected successes of Ikhwan candidates in the recent parliamentary elections, and the equally unexpected failure of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to do well, panicked the government and upset the intellectual groups.
The Ikhwan emerged as the largest single party in parliament, capturing seats despite the detention of many of its activists and the harassment of some of its candidates before polling took place. One of the Ikhwan’s new members of parliament immediately took Farouk Husny, the minister of culture, to task for authorising the publication of three unIslamic plays by his ministry’s publishing agency. The minister banned the books and dismissed one of the editors considered responsible for their publication, although only last year he had awarded one of the novels a literary prize and pledged to uphold ‘freedom of expression’.
Secular intellectuals, including writers and editors throughout the country, were furious, feeling let down by a government they had supported as a national ally against Islamic activism. Several of the editors and writers at the ministry of culture’s publishing agency launched a public campaign to call for the minister’s resignation. For a change, it was the secular establishment, rather than Islamic activists or the Ikhwan, that was on the warpath. As one newspaper put it, “this time it is the intellectuals who are the rebels.”
But banning the novels was not the only reason for disgust among the country’s secular elite, as the government began to make other concessions to the conservative religious establishment (as opposed to radical Islamic groups). The minister of interior announced that it was reintroducing a law — overturned only last year, to the delight of women’s rights activists — which requires wives to get their husbands’ approval before obtaining a passport. Moreover, the country’s public prosecutor took the rare step of appealing against a suspended sentence imposed upon the obscure author of an atheist work. This author, Salaheddin Mohsen, has now been jailed for three years for “blasphemy against Islam”.
This gesture towards ‘conservative Muslims’, which was supported by al-Azhar’s leaders, came at a time when Islamic groups throughout the Muslim world were basking in the reflected glory of Hizbullah’s triumph over Israel in southern Lebanon, and of the Palestinian intifada. Both events also put Arab dictators on the defensive, and might also have benefited the Ikhwan during the elections. The gesture also coincided with furious denials in the government-controlled media that Mubarak was exerting pressure on Yasser Arafat to submit to US president Bill Clinton’s efforts to secure the Palestinian sellout to Israel before leaving office.
If Mubarak had thought it opportune to make the gesture in the light of these developments, the fury of the intellectuals over the banning of the three books quickly persuaded him that it was time to redress the balance. To do so, he chose two public occasions: the celebrations at the Egyptian police academy at the end of January and the opening of Cairo’s annual book festival.
During his speech to the police academy, Mubarak launched a strong attack on “Islamic terrorists”, remembering at the same time to praise the police for defeating them. But he warned that there were still some targets the “terrorists” could attack, and urged the police to be ready to defend the country’s banks. The interior minister, Habib al-Adilly, also warned that Islamic terrorists could resume their activities inside the country. Both men stressed that the terrorists are alive and kicking abroad — particularly in Central Asia and Afghanistan — and remain a threat to stability worldwide.
At the Cairo book festival, Mubarak sought to defend his culture minister, explaining that the minister represents all the people of the country, not just one section. But he assured all intellectuals that the government was fully committed to the ‘principle’ of free expression. He also added that the culture minister did not ban the publication of any books by any publishers; he merely prevented their publication by the ministry: works could be issued freely by other publishers.
Intellectuals listening to this speech were reportedly reassured that their president had not become an ‘usuli’ (fundamentalist) after all.