I attended the talk one evening last June, upstairs in a second-hand bookshop a short walk from my home. The journalist had reported in the past from Iran and Iraq and was now just back from Libya, the outcome of the war there still uncertain. During the discussion which followed a human rights lawyer who also lives in the area asked what we could do. What about an international agency, he then suggested, to supervise all these forthcoming elections in the Arab world.
I doubted then and still doubt his plan would be welcome in countries rightly proud of having just shrugged off their western-backed ‘supervisors’. The Carter Center has been allowed to ‘witness’ the recent Egyptian election and irregularities have certainly been reported: both the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Freedom and Justice Party’ and the Salafist ‘Nour Party’ have been accused of bussing voters to the ballot stations or staging ‘popular committees’ directly outside them.
So maybe he was right after all. But something else about his question nagged at me. What do those of us who are not election monitors or human rights lawyers ‘do’ about the Arab Spring? Keep on tuning in for the headlines? Follow the alternative websites? I’d been lucky enough to visit Egypt earlier in the year. Then I’d come home and written up my piece. So was that it? My own journalistic version of flight-deck photo-opportunities and ‘mission accomplished’?
Not long afterwards I was browsing again through the tangle of notes I’d made during an interview in Cairo, when I came across a name. It had been given to me by the novelist Hani Abdul Mourid as we talked in his flat one evening and I still remembered the question this name had been the answer to. I’d wanted an Egyptian who’d written about what a modernity-compatible form of Islam might look like. The name was Nasr Abu Zayd.
What to do about the Arab Spring? It’s different for each of us, I suppose. For me, in the summer of 2011, it meant belatedly tracking down a copy of Abu Zayd’s autobiography, Voice of an Exile. And a very timely read it was, too, because what he suggests is that there are tyrants in our heads which may prove every bit as difficult to dislodge as the Mubaraks and Assads and the Gaddafis. The nature of these tyrants varies, depending on who or where you are. For most western on-lookers-from-afar the tyrant takes the form of some ready-made ending which we have scripted for the Arab Spring. Islamist insurgency most often: sharia, the veil, church-burning and the rest.
But it isn’t only westerners worrying about this. The recent crackdown by security forces in Cairo is certainly an attempt by the country’s military caste to defend its privileged position. It is also the expression of deep mistrust toward a new democratic order which is likely to be Islamist. Even within the Muslim Brotherhood there are misgivings about this ‘religious trend’. At least four small parties, Egyptian Current the most interesting of them, have spilt from the Brotherhood-approved Freedom and Justice Party, uneasy at the role the Brotherhood will surely play after its presumed triumph in the first elections.
More, then, depends on the overthrow of this tyrant in all our heads than westerners might imagine and Voice of an Exile is a book which tries to explain why.
Something about its author first. Nasr Abu Zayd’s sudden death was an irreparable loss to the country Egypt now is. It raises agonising what-if questions. January 25th 2011 was just the kind of moment he had despaired of ever seeing. ‘Is there hope?’ he wrote in 2004. ‘Is it possible to envision Muslims embracing freedom within a framework of democracy?’ He died in July 2010, months short of the massively affirmative answer to that being broadcast around the world. On a visit to his homeland from Holland, where he had been obliged to live since 1995, he contracted a virus and was buried in the village in the Nile Delta where he was born.
His background was rural poverty. He knew the Qur’an by heart before his eighth birthday: always physically ungainly, his intellectual gifts were early apparent. After his father died he trained as an electrician then found work in a town nearby to support his family. This early experience of taking real-world responsibility for those immediately around him conditioned his later thinking. It was a religion of justice, a religion which defended the poor and the widows and the orphans, as well as a religion of intellectual adventure, that he saw in the original Islam. Socialism was riding high in the Egypt of this time (the 1960s) and he fully acknowledged its influence on his faith as it developed.
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