- Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt by Abdullah Al-Arian
In Answering the Call, Abdullah al-Arian examines a crucial period in the development of Islamic activism in Egypt, namely the period of Anwar al-Sadat’s presidency (1970–81). At first glance, one might think that this era, when Islamists appear on the public stage, has already been abundantly covered in a wide range of books and articles. Yet, al-Arian manages to present a surprisingly fresh perspective, one which does not try to explain the rise of militant Islamist groups, but rather concerns itself with “mainstream” Islamic activism. Its focus is on the Islamist student movement, examining how and why its leaders were drawn to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Arian argues that this young generation of students, enthralled by the ideas of Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, gave the group a new lease of life, while the organization’s hierarchy surrounding former supreme guide ‘Umar al-Tilmisani provided a mobilizing structure.
Much detailed research went into tracing the development of Islamic student activism. The first three chapters review the ups and, for the most part, downs of Islamist movements until 1967. Although these introductory chapters are a little lengthy, they are also helpful to those who are not familiar with the history of cooperation, competition and conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state. The core of the book begins with the discussion of Shabab al-Islam (Youth of Islam), a forerunner among Islamist student movements. All the signs of the later antagonism towards socialist groups, but also its opposition to the Egyptian regime are to be seen first in the activities of this group. Al-Arian gives an attentive account of growing Islamic tendencies within the student body. The book presents an insightful discussion of regime co-optation and, moreover, the rivalry amid Islamist streams, which included groups such as al-Gam‘iyya al-Diniyya (the Religious Association), Salafi trends and, finally, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group). Particular attention is awarded to al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, not only because it became the most successful student protest organization in the 1970s, but also because most of its top members ultimately joined the Muslim Brotherhood. In order to explain this development, the author worked through a bulk of biographical material, but also interviewed leaders of this movement, among them ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futuh, Ibrahim al-Za‘farani, and ‘Isam al-‘Uryan. These notable figures talk about their own role models and ideological influences, but also their motivation for constructing an organizational base in order to engage in protest activities against Sadat’s regime.
Al-Arian makes the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood also benefited from the momentum of the student movement. After years of persecution under the Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser regime, the hierarchical structure had been seriously damaged. As the Brotherhood’s leader of the time, ‘Umar al-Tilmisani was entrusted with rebuilding hierarchical networks, while also managing the different intra-organizational factions and negotiating the fragile relationship with the Sadat regime. The input of the student movement was therefore crucial for the revival, both on an organizational and ideational level, as it brought renewed motivation for Islamic activism under its banner. The Brotherhood’s flagship magazine, al-Da‘wa (The Call), reflects this impact on activities and debates. It also shows that the “new” Muslim Brotherhood had regained the capacity and confidence to challenge Sadat’s regime, both on domestic as well as on foreign policy fronts. The epilogue, which could perhaps have been better integrated into the main body of the book, gives a taste of how these conjoining streams pushed the organization forward into a new era.
The strengths of this book, which lie in the detailed and sympathetic retelling of history, are concurrently its greatest weaknesses. While al-Arian manages to present a comprehensive story of Islamic activism in Egypt, one which is accessible to a wide [End Page 140] range of readers, his account remains mostly...