“Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring” (Roberts et al, eds.)

In March, the Oxford University Press released “Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring: Triumphs and Disasters,” edited by Adam Roberts (University of Oxford), Michael J. Willis (University of Oxford), Rory McCarthy (University of Oxford), and Timothy Garton Ash (University of Oxford).  The publisher’s description follows:

Civil resistance, especially in the form of massive peaceful demonstrations, was at the heart of the Arab Spring-the chain of events in the Middle East and North Africa that 9780198749028
erupted in December 2010. It won some notable victories: popular movements helped to bring about the fall of authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Yet these apparent triumphs of non-violent action were followed by disasters–wars in Syria, anarchy in Libya and Yemen, reversion to authoritarian rule in Egypt, and counter-revolution backed by external intervention in Bahrain. Looming over these events was the enduring divide between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam.

Why did so much go wrong? Was the problem the methods, leadership and aims of the popular movements, or the conditions of their societies? In this book, experts on these countries, and on the techniques of civil resistance, set the events in their historical, social and political contexts. They describe how governments and outside powers–including the US and EU–responded, how Arab monarchies in Jordan and Morocco undertook to introduce reforms to avert revolution, and why the Arab Spring failed to spark a Palestinian one. They indicate how and why Tunisia remained, precariously, the country that experienced the most political change for the lowest cost in bloodshed.

This book provides a vivid illustrated account and rigorous scholarly analysis of the course and fate, the strengths and the weaknesses, of the Arab Spring. The authors draw clear and challenging conclusions from these tumultuous events. Above all, they show how civil resistance aiming at regime change is not enough: building the institutions and the trust necessary for reforms to be implemented and democracy to develop is a more difficult but equally crucial task.

Elbendary, “Crowds and Sultans”

In March, Oxford University Press released “Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria,” by Amina Elbendary (American University in Cairo).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the fifteenth century, the Mamluk sultanate that had ruled Egypt and Syria since 1249-50 faced a series of sustained economic and political challenges to its rule,9789774167171 from the effects of recurrent plagues to changes in international trade routes. Both these challenges and the policies and behaviors of rulers and subjects in response to them left profound impressions on Mamluk state and society, precipitating a degree of social mobility and resulting in new forms of cultural expression. These transformations were also reflected in the frequent reports of protests during this period, and led to a greater diffusion of power and the opening up of spaces for political participation by Mamluk subjects and negotiations of power between ruler and ruled.

Rather than tell the story of this tumultuous century solely from the point of view of the Mamluk dynasty, Crowds and Sultans places the protests within the framework of long-term transformations, arguing for a more nuanced and comprehensive narrative of Mamluk state and society in late medieval Egypt and Syria. Reports of urban protest and the ways in which alliances between different groups in Mamluk society were forged allow us glimpses into how some medieval Arab societies negotiated power, showing that rather than stoically endure autocratic governments, populations often resisted and renegotiated their positions in response to threats to their interests.

This rich and thought-provoking study will appeal to specialists in Mamluk history, Islamic studies, and Arab history, as well as to students and scholars of Middle East politics and government and modern history.

Elgousi, “Women’s Rights in Authoritarian Egypt: Negotiating Between Islam and Politics”

In April, I.B. Tauris will release “Women’s Rights in Authoritarian Egypt: Negotiating Between Islam and Politics” by Hiam Salaheldin Elgousi (University of Leeds). The publisher’s description follows:

During the uprisings of late 2010 and 2011 which took place across the Middle East and North Africa, women made up an important part of the crowds protesting. Women’s rights were central to the demands made. However, despite this, in the ensuing social and political struggles, these rights have not progressed much beyond the situation under previous governments. Hiam El-Gousi’s book offers an examination of the status of women under Egypt’s various authoritarian regimes. In exploring the role played by religious scholars in helping to define women’s status in society, she focuses on personal status laws and health rights. In examining the issue of women’s rights El-Gousi begins with an account of feminism in Egypt: the centre of feminist thought in the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Based on extensive research in the country, especially at grassroots level, El-Gousi goes on to analyse the constitutional and legislative rulings which have affected the lives and rights of Egyptian women. This book will become a vital primary resource for those studying feminism in the wider Middle East and North Africa.

“Salafism After the Arab Awakening” (eds. Cavatorta & Merone)

In March, the Oxford University Press will release “Salafism After the Arab Awakening: Contending with People’s Power,” edited by Francesco Cavatorta (Université Laval) and Fabio Merone (Dublin City University).  The publisher’s description follows:

One of the most interesting consequences of the Arab awakening has been the central role of Salafists in a number of countries. In particular, there seems to 9780190274993have been a move away from traditional quietism towards an increasing degree of politicization. The arrival on the political scene of Salafist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as the seemingly growing desire of Salafists in other Arab countries to enter institutional politics through the creation of political parties, highlights quite clearly the debates and divisions on how to react to the awakening within Salafist circles.

This book examines in detail how Salafism, both theologically and politically, is contending with the Arab uprisings across a number of countries. The focus is primarily on what kind of politicization, if any, has taken place and what forms it has adopted. As some of the contributions make clear, politicization does not necessarily diminish the role of jihad or the influence of quietism, revealing tensions and struggles within the complex world of Salafism.

“Egypt’s Revolutions” (eds. Rougier and Lacroix)

In November, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movements,” edited by Bernand Rougier (Director, Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales) and Stephane Lacroix (Sciences Po). The publisher’s description follows:

Where is Egypt headed? Did the people ‘bring down the government,’ as the thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square claimed in January 2011? What has taken place since the fall of the Mubarak regime the following month? Why was political Islam, although it triumphed in the first free elections ever held in Egypt, overwhelmingly rejected during massive demonstrations in June 2013? Is authoritarian rule making a final comeback since the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Field Marshall al-Sisi’s rise to the presidency, and the arrest of revolutionary activists? Has the country become the first front in a regional counter-revolution backed by the Gulf monarchies? Can jihadist violence, which is more active than ever, contaminate the entire Islamist spectrum, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood’s militant base, which is pondering what action to take while its leadership rots in prison? This volume is the first to describe the ongoing dynamics in the country since the outbreak of revolution. Written by Egyptian, American, and French specialists who have experienced Egypt’s turmoil first hand, it sheds light on a demographic, political and cultural giant whose upheavals and crises have sent ripples throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Rugh, “Christians in Egypt”

In November, Palgrave-MacMillan will release “Christians in Egypt: Strategies and Survival,” by Andrea B. Rugh (Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.).  The publisher’s description follows:

Christians in the Middle East have come under increasing pressure in recent years with the rise of radical Islam. Nowhere is this truer than in Egypt, where the large Coptic Christian community has traditionally played an important role in the country’s history and politics. This book examines Christian responses to sectarian pressures in two contexts: nationally as Church leaders deal with Egyptian presidents and locally as a community of poor Christians cope in a mostly-Muslim quarter of Cairo. This intensive study, based on the author’s five years of research in Bulaq, looks at existential questions surrounding the role of religion in poor communities. The book concludes with a review of strategies Egyptian Christians have used to improve their minority status, showing that although expressed differently, both Church leaders and members of the Bulaq community ultimately have worked toward similar goals. The study suggests that under the al-Sisi Government, Christians may be emerging into a more active period after a relative quiescence before the events of the 2011 Uprising.

Brinton, “Preaching Islamic Renewal”

In October, the University of California Press will release “Preaching Islamic Renewal: Religious Authority and Media in Contemporary Egypt,” by Jacquelene Brinton (University of Kansas). The publisher’s description follows:

Preaching Islamic Renewal examines the life and work of Muhammad Mitwalli Sha‘rawi, one of Egypt’s most beloved and successful Islamic  preachers. His wildly popular TV program aired every Friday for years until his death in 1998. At the height of his career, it was estimated that up to 30 million people tuned in to his show each week. Yet despite his pervasive and continued influence in Egypt and the wider Muslim world, Sha‘rawi was for a long time neglected by academics. While much of the academic literature that focuses on Islam in modern Egypt repeats the claim that traditionally trained Muslim scholars suffered the loss of religious authority, Sha‘rawi is instead an example of a well-trained Sunni scholar who became a national media sensation. As an advisor to the rulers of Egypt as well as the first Arab television preacher, he was one of the most important and controversial religious figures in late-twentieth-century Egypt. Thanks to the repurposing of his videos on television and on the Internet, Sha‘rawi’s performances are still regularly viewed. Jacquelene Brinton uses Sha‘rawi and his work as a lens to explore how traditional Muslim authorities have used various media to put forth a unique vision of how Islam can be renewed and revived in the contemporary world. Through his weekly television appearances he popularized long held theological and ethical beliefs and became a scholar-celebrity who impacted social and political life in Egypt.

Tadros, “Islamist vs. Islamist”

Western observers often group all Islamist parties together. But the groups often compete with one another there are subtle differences among them; it’s important to keep those differences in mind in analyzing Islamist politics. We’re a little late getting to this, but it December, the Hudson Institute published a monograph by Samuel Tadros, Islamist vs. Islamist:The Theologico-Political Questions, that analyzes the situation in Egypt. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This monograph is the second part of a two-year study on Egyptian Islamism funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation. The study is divided into two parts. The first maps the various currents, groups, and individuals that form the complex Egyptian Islamist scene. The second examines the internal dynamics of Islamism in terms of the interrelationship between its various constituent currents and their disagreements on key theological political questions. The study aims to fill two significant gaps in our knowledge of the Egyptian Islamist scene.

Egypt’s President Visits Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve

On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.

That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.

You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:

The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.

“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.

“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.

The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?

President Sisi’s Speech

Abdel_Fattah_el-SisiThe Internet is buzzing with news of a speech last week by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (left) on the need for a “religious revolution” in Islam. Speaking at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the most important center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world, Sisi admonished the assembled scholars to revisit Islamic law, or fiqh, in order to calm the fears of the non-Muslim world. According to a translation at Raymond Ibrahim’s site, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics.  We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before.  It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.  It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars – though not all – have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqh rules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqh to modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.

Still, Sisi’s remarks do suggest he means a rethinking of Islamic law to adapt to contemporary pluralism. This is definitely worth watching.

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