In the spring of 1992, Cairo University’s administration declined to elevate Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd from assistant to full professor in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature after a member of the promotions committee of the Faculty of Arts reported that he is an unbeliever. Abu Zayd’s fate is a barometer registering the radical Islamist movement’s increasing ability to impose its values in arenas that have hitherto, in principle if not fully in practice, been governed by secular norms. Several secular intellectuals, greatly alarmed by the further constriction of their social space, contributed to the April 1993 issue of al-Qahira, which was largely devoted to this affair. Ghali Shukri, a leftist literary critic, has transformed al-Qahira into a serious journal of ideas since becoming editor-in-chief in mid-1992. Al-Qahira characterized the university report as intellectual terrorism, and several essays, while carefully acknowledging the differences, compared Abu Zayd with Salman Rushdie.
Al-Qahira is published by the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), a government body. Unlike other elements of the state cultural apparatus, such as the administration of Cairo University, that lean toward or are intimidated by the Islamists, the GEBO has decided to contest the Islamist interpretation of Islam.
It has issued a series of cheap reprints, entitled al-Muwajaha (Confrontation), of the classic works of modernist Islam. At 25 piasters each, the small-format booklets have been bought up by an eager public as soon as they appear, and are difficult to find in the market. Each bears the logo al-tanwir (enlightenment). Collectively they argue that science, technology, education and employment of women, representative government and other values and practices of post-enlightenment Europe (some of which came to late medieval Europe from the Islamic world) can and must be synthesized with the moral content of Islam. The series features the canonical figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Rifa‘a Rafi‘i al-Tahtawi, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Qasim Amin, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq and Taha Husayn.
A blurb on the back of each volume solicits intellectuals to join the government campaign against radical Islam: “The conspiracy of extremism and terror in Egypt has reached unprecedented proportions in the last year…. Egypt is now experiencing a human, cultural and civilizational tragedy and an economic and political catastrophe. Therefore, it has become necessary for Egyptian intellectuals and the institutions of civil society to rise and confront extremism and terror, to surround and contain them in preparation for their complete uprooting.’
Many of Egypt’s secularist nationalists and leftists have answered this call and find themselves uncomfortably allied with the regime and adopting its discourse against “religious extremists” and “terrorists.” This is the orientation of the National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu‘), and it is expressed in a book by the party’s general secretary, Rif‘at al-Sa‘id, Misr: muslimun wa aqbat (Egypt: Muslims and Copts) (1993) consisting largely of his articles in the party’s weekly, al-Ahali, during 1991-1992. Al-Sa‘id has relentlessly defended the rights of the Coptic minority and attacked the Islamists for threatening national unity. After Islamists declared that a Muslim may kill him with impunity, the government supplied al-Sa‘id with a pistol and round-the-clock bodyguards. On May 3, after Islamists attempted to assassinate Safwat al-Sharif, al-Sa‘id appeared on Egyptian television for the first time ever. Insisting that “terrorism begins with thought,” he criticized the government’s failure to educate the public in the values of tolerance and coexistence.
Despite such efforts to distinguish the Tagammu‘ from the government, some elements of the left, though opposed to radical Islamist violence, find this degree of association with the regime intolerable and believe it will prevent them from developing an independent alternative. These forces, if they are organized at all, are found in tiny illegal parties or institutions like the Arab Research Center and the Center for Trade Union Services in Helwan, which has the largest concentration of industrial workers in Egypt.
The Arab Research Center sponsors development studies and encourages theoretical thinking in the Marxian tradition. Its left-nationalist agenda is reflected in the proceedings of a symposium on Antonio Gramsci cosponsored with the Arab Organization for Sociology — Qadaya al-mujtama‘ al-madani fi daw’ utruhat Gramshi (Issues of Civil Society in Light of Gramsci’s Theses) (1992) — and the papers of the memorial symposium in honor of Ahmad Sadiq Sa‘d, a communist intellectual who applied the notion of the Asiatic mode of production to writing Egyptian history, and explored the progressive content of popular culture — Ishkaliyyat al-takwin al-ijtima‘i wa al-fikriyyat al-sha‘biyya fi misr: buhuth wa munaqashat al-nadwa al-muhda ila Ahmad Sadiq Sa‘d (Problematics of the Social Formation and Popular Thought in Egypt) (Nicosia: Dar Ibal, 1992). The Arab Research Center encourages the Center for Trade Union Services and devotes special attention to the working class and other subaltern strata in Egypt. Included under this rubric is an Arabic translation of my work with Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile, and a yet unpublished study of the 1991 trade union elections.
On May Day, the Center for Trade Union Services released Khamis wa al-Baqari yastahaqqan i‘adat al-muhakama (Khamis and al-Baqari Deserve a Retrial) (1993) by Taha Sa’d ‘Uthman, a veteran Marxist union organizer and center associate. “Uthman demonstrates that the two trade union labor leaders who led a strike and demonstration in the textile mill town of Kafr al-Dawwar in August 1952 were unjustly executed by the Free Officers who had just overthrown the monarchy. The demand to retry them, which gained popularity during an upsurge of workers’ collective action in the late 1980s, could provide the basis for a revised conception of the relations between labor and capital in the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It denies the legitimacy of Nasser’s corporatist absorption of the trade union movement and promotes the emergence of an independent working class pole in Egyptian politics. While they do not represent a radical innovation in critical thinking, these projects maintain continuity with a political tradition and a social base, limited though it may be. And they have attracted some younger intellectuals and trade union activists.
The Egyptian left therefore proposes two contradictory strategies and evaluations of the current situation. The dominant current sees the Islamist movement as the greatest danger and is prepared to ally with the regime to stave it off. The US government shares this view. This perspective is ultimately linked to the assumption that some form of capitalist development can succeed in Egypt. The other perspective, embraced by a small minority inclined to pre-Gorbachev conceptions of socialism and Arab nationalism, regards the Egyptian government as the greatest obstacle to the economic wellbeing and freedom of the population. This is also the view of the radical Islamists. Large numbers of Egyptians share the low regard for the government and the pessimism about the potential for capitalist development on which this perspective is based. Today, the majority of those support the Islamist movement.