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Book review: Memoirs of a Young Brothers Activist

Abdel-Monem Abu El-Fotouh recites the story of Muslim Brotherhood activities in universities in the 1970s and early 1980s

Nael M. Shama , Monday 17 Jan 2011

Abdel-Monem Abu El-Fotouh: shahid 'ala tarikh al-haraka al-islamiya fi misr, 1970-1984 (Abdel-Monem Abu El-Fotouh: A Witness on the History of the Islamic Movement in Egypt, 1970-1984), Hossam Tamam, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2010. pp.142

On a cold day in February 1977, Egyptians heard the embarrassment of their president on air.  Anwar Sadat was meeting with members of the Egyptian universities' students unions and listening to their questions and opinions, when a furious medical student babbled about the "unclear ideology" of the state, and its crackdown on distinguished Islamic scholars. The student was testing the president's patience and Sadat became furious; "You have to learn how to speak politely to your president," he retorted.  

The rebellious student was Abdel-Monem Abu El-Fotouh, who was then a leader of the nascent, but growing Islamic movement at Cairo university, and who is today a leading figure of Egypt's most organised opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In a book recently published by Dar Al-Shorouk, he told parts of his story to Hossam Tamam, a specialist in Islamic movements in Egypt.  

The book offers insights into the genesis of the Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) that emerged and mushroomed on university campuses in the 1970s, taking advantage of Sadat's undeclared plan to use Islamist activism as a bulwark against the then very critical and vociferous leftist and Nasserist opposition. Al-Jama'a initially took on a social character - offering services, organising trips and lectures  – but the allure of politics quickly led to a momentous change of direction.   

Scholars of Egyptian politics believe that the nature of the authoritarian state in the reigns of Egypt's three post-revolution presidents – Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak – has not changed much over the course of some sixty years. Policy-wise, it is assumed that the period from the 1950s until now comprises one uninterrupted line, defined by uncompromising authoritarianism. And that is certainly true in many aspects. But out of his experience as an activist, Abu El-Fotouh contends that the freedom of expression and activity under Sadat far outweighs that enjoyed in the times of his predecessor and successor.  

By using Islamists to counterbalance leftists and nationalists, Sadat was playing with fire. In a few years, the powerful and insatiable genie was out of the bottle. The majority of these students joined the MB in the late 1970s and early 1980s, collaborating with the historical leaders of the MB who had just been released after decades in Nasser's jails. In addition, a small faction of hardliners sprang out of this large and heterogeneous Islamic movement, forming the Jihad group, which assassinated Sadat at a military parade in 1981.   

Quite daringly, Abu El-Fotouh draws a picture of the then young members of Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiya, himself included. In his account, they were naïve, did not mingle with their female colleagues, were antithetic to all forms of arts, condoned the use of violence against the state to produce change, and their perceptions about Islam were limited in scope and superficial in nature. But like most student organisations, these young activists were bold, energetic and full of enthusiasm for their cause and in street politics these traits count.    

Just reading the title, one question that would probably come to readers' mind is: Why did Abu El-Fotouh's testimony stop short of recalling the events that took place after 1984? The time framework from 1984 until now comprises a very rich period in the history of Islamic movements in Egypt and their relationship with the state. After discarding violence and opting for political participation, the MB took part in various elections, eyeing membership of parliament, municipal councils and professional guilds. Under Mubarak, the cat and mouse game with the regime intensified, culminating in the awkward "banned-but-tolerated" status, which from the point of view of the regime means that officially the MB would remain banned, but limited freedom of activity would be allowed, depending on the circumstances.   

With any memoirs, the reader can hardly resist the tempting notion that 'something' is missing from its pages. There is a subtle assumption that some events or thoughts have been deliberately hidden from the reader. The feeling is magnified by reading Abu El-Fotouh's short testimony. Indeed, over the book's 142 pages, Abu El-Fotouh limits himself to general overviews of events; details are constantly missing.  Unsurprisingly, as a leader of an unlawful organisation, which has been deemed a 'threat' by authorities for many decades, he must be accustomed to the culture of underground organisations, where secrecy is the dominant rule. In addition, Abu El-Fotouh's words indicate that he is a cautious man, reluctant to anger or provoke any of his comrades. Often throughout the book, events are recalled, but names of protagonists are omitted.

On the organisation of the book, the narrative often goes around in circles; it deals with a theme, and then moves to another, then back to the first theme, with a lot of redundancy and clumsiness along the way.

Despite these shortcomings, the book remains an important resource that can help in the pursuit towards a better understanding of the genesis of Islamic groups in Egypt.   


Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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