Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Islamised from below

Reviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Gama'at Al-Siyasiya Al-Islamiya wa Al-Mugtama' Al-Madani : Dirasa fi Bina' Al- Nufuz Al-Siyasi wa Al-Taghlghul Al-Fikri [Political Islam and Civil Society: A Study in Political and Social Influence and in Intellectual Penetration] Ahmed Hussein Hassan Cairo: Al-Dar Al-Thaqafiya lil-nashr , 2000. pp255
This book is about Islamist groups, civil society and the State, a trilogy which has included the main actors on the Egyptian political scene for the past two decades, during which the rise of Islamism became bound up with the expansion of civil society in the region. Though numerous studies have, of course, previously discussed the rise of Political Islam, this book draws its importance from the fact that it is only the third study -- the first was Imad Siam's study of Muslim Brotherhood activities in village life (1992) and the second Hisham Mubarak's The Fundamentalists are Coming (1994) -- to expose in detail the techniques, mechanisms and strategies adopted by the Islamist groups in their attempts at imposing hegemony over civil society.

Why the emphasis on civil society? One reason is that this has been the arena in which the confrontation between the State and political protest groups of an Islamist bent has been most visible. Another, according to the author, is that it was during the period 1970-1995 that several civil-society structures were overtly politicized, the State and Islamist groups vying for control over them.

The book does not deal with any one Islamist group in particular, but is rather concerned with the general techniques used by such groups in imposing hegemony. The three main groupings discussed are the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) and the Jihad group, the author admitting that these groups do not make up an Islamist monolith, but are rather "entities which differ in their plans of action, methodology, means, links, as well as in their ideological and intellectual frames of reference." Nevertheless, he has chosen to discuss them together as being the best expressions of Political Islam.

"We are facing a socio-political movement with a religious content," he writes. "These groups have worked hard to influence individuals occupying social and political roles, both in their ideology and in their social behaviour, by a process of intervening in their members' private lives, setting dress and speech codes. In this way, these groups have opted to isolate individuals from their social context and to neutralize the impact

this has on them."

The book's first three chapters are devoted to a theoretical exposition of the concept of hegemony in both Western and Arab writing. They also discuss the concept of "civil society," which has developed primarily as a Western concept. The book's important chapters, however, are the third and fourth, the former providing an account of the formation of civil society in Egypt under the monarchy as well as a history of its fortunes since then, first in the period 1952 -- 1970 and then in the period 1970 -- 1981. This third chapter also looks at the impact of economic liberalization and of structural adjustment on civil society, while the fourth looks closely at the Islamist groups and how they have attempted to impose their hegemony.

In this fourth chapter, Hassan examines in detail the way in which the Islamist groups have been able to build their influence within one of civil society's most important structures, the various professional syndicates. This he dates from September 1992, when Islamist candidates running for office in the Bar Association achieved a series of landslide victories against their rivals belonging to different political trends. The loss of the Bar Association -- what the author describes as the "last bastion" of liberalism in Egypt -- to the Islamists meant that "Islamist political hegemony" had now been achieved in five of the biggest and most important professional syndicates in Egypt, namely the doctors', engineers', pharmacists' and dentists' syndicates, as well as in the Bar Association.

Hassan describes the taking over of the professional syndicates as a step "in a wider scheme aiming at the Islamisation of intermediary institutions," what could be dubbed Islamisation from below, as opposed to Islamisation from above. Islamisation, in other words, takes place from the bottom up, taking in "intermediate institutions" of civil society, such as professional associations, as it goes, and it is independent of State policy. By penetrating these institutions and imposing hegemony over them, the Islamist groups could then direct them in such a way as to serve their purpose, which is "the establishment of an Islamic state and society."

Mechanisms of Islamist influence-building differ according to the place of activity, be it in the mosque, the political party, the NGO, professional syndicate or student union. "During the process of influence-building, the Islamist groups use certain tactics, slogans and practices to create a counter-hegemony to that of the State and to create a counter-culture. This is a primary step to the establishment of an Islamic state and society, which is the end goal of all Political-Islam groups," Hassan argues. One of the most important tactics revealed in the study is the continuous attempts on the part of the Islamist groups to penetrate state structures, particularly the military establishment. In documenting this, the author relies on minutes taken at various investigations of Islamist activities, particularly the minutes of interviews with members of the Jihad Group. "The Gama'a's main concern was to take power through a process of penetrating state apparatuses, particularly the apparatuses of social control and coercion," Hassan writes.

One point that might be further emphasized, however, is that the Islamist groups have, for the most part, attempted to replace the State in places where it had already largely absented itself. True, the Islamist groups attempted to build influence and to impose hegemony over certain spaces in civil society, however, it is by no means certain that they would have succeeded in the way that they did had the State not disengaged itself from these areas, particularly in the domain of social services. The State, therefore, has itself been instrumental in building Islamist influence, and this the book does not address. State disengagement meant the severing of communication between it and society, and as a result the Islamist groups moved in to fill the gap. One important point that the author does make, however, is that though the services that the Islamist groups took over were not in themselves inherently political, they became so when they were made into areas of contestation between the Islamist groups on the one hand and the State on the other.

Funding is another mechanism of hegemony. "Ever since the establishment of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, it has sought to diversify the sources of its funding in order to achieve independence and not be at the service of any one master," Hassan writes. Accordingly, during the 1990s the group sought to establish a developing economic base, and along with it a network of services, building on the remittances of its members in the Gulf, but also diversifying away from them. Another important mechanism has been the groups' "remarkable ability to move from the private to the public realm" -- in other words, their ability to put forward ideas and positions which originally belonged to the Gama'a but can be portrayed in such a way as to reflect the concerns of the people as a whole. Hassan cites the question of the implementation of Shari'a law, for example, explaining that the Muslim Brotherhood has managed to impose this question on daily public discourse as an issue of debate.

In general in his assessment of the tactics used by the Brotherhood to gain hegemony over Egyptian civil society Hassan argues that they have opted to gain power through its local exercise in intermediate spaces. "The Muslim Brothers seek gradually to transfer the exercise of power from the State to the institutions of civil society," the author writes, with a view to "reach a formula of powersharing" between civil society and the State. Though Hassan perhaps does not offer sufficient evidence to validate this conclusion, he nevertheless convincingly shows that for many Islamists the right path forward is to work within existing political and social structures in order to generate incremental and larger political change.

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