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In Other Words

Dr. Heshmat Goes to Cairo

Mudhakarat Na’ib min Misr (Memoirs of a Representative from Egypt, two volumes) By Muhammad Gamal Heshmat Al-Mansoura: Dar el-Wafaa, 2005 and 2006 (in Arabic) Political Islam is currently enjoying a season of victory. Last winter, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in that country’s parliament, while Hamas, its stormy Palestinian offshoot, actually ...

Mudhakarat Na’ib min Misr
(Memoirs of a Representative
from Egypt, two volumes)
By Muhammad Gamal Heshmat
Al-Mansoura: Dar el-Wafaa, 2005 and 2006 (in Arabic)

Political Islam is currently enjoying a season of victory. Last winter, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in that country’s parliament, while Hamas, its stormy Palestinian offshoot, actually took power in the occupied territories. Both of these electoral triumphs have generated intense hand- wringing — in Washington and throughout the Middle East — over the possibility that democratization in that region could bring unwelcome results.

But it’s also possible that political Islam’s recent successes are not popular endorsements of fundamentalism. After all, the Brothers constantly announce their commitment to democracy, and the Egyptian scholar Saad Eddin Ibrahim has even argued that the group is more an Islamic version of Europe’s Christian Democrats than an auxiliary of al Qaeda. Some accuse the Brothers of only pretending to be democrats, but the scholar Mona el-Ghobashy has sensibly called for us to abandon such sterile "are they or aren’t they" exercises in favor of observing what the movement actually does.

Gamal Heshmat, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, provides us an opportunity to do just that with his new memoir, titled Memoirs of a Representative from Egypt. Heshmat, who served in parliament from 2000 to 2003, is the stuff of which political crushes are made. Young and charismatic, he is a refreshing contrast to the jowly apparatchiks who inhabit Egypt’s ossified political structures. Baheyya, a famous Egyptian blogger, has called him an "indefatigable striver" who could win national office, if only Egypt were a real democracy. And though his memoir probably won’t circulate widely — it was published in al-Mansoura, a small town 70 miles north of Cairo — it seems written with an audience of millions in mind; "Representative from Egypt" conveys a grander ambition than, say, "Representative from Damanhour," Heshmat’s hometown. To Americans, this title (and the subtitle of volume two: "The Honor of Representing the People and the Greatness of that Experience") might sound like a bad campaign ad, but it is the kind of thing that could resonate with Egyptians who have come to believe that they are inconsequential in the calculus of those who rule over them.

So, what does a representative from Egypt — and from the Muslim Brotherhood — do? Egypt’s parliamentarians are a much-maligned species, known mainly for clapping during big speeches, and snoozing otherwise. But Heshmat did neither. In fact, he had barely settled into his office when events conspired to make him "the most famous representative in Egypt." Heshmat’s rise to national prominence started with a phone call from a friend who was outraged by three steamy novels printed by the Ministry of Culture. After consulting several Islamic jurists, Heshmat concluded that the use of public funds to publish such "obscenities" was "a violation by the government and its ministers of the Constitution and the law which they swore to respect." Heshmat lodged a complaint with the culture minister, who, fearing demonstrations, recalled the books and fired the bureaucrat who approved them.

But if the government folded — the minister even sent Heshmat a thank-you note — Egypt’s liberal literati refused to go so quietly. Heshmat writes that they reacted "as if the Apocalypse had come," attacking him and the Brotherhood as philistines who would plunge Egypt into darkness. It’s disappointing when Heshmat dismisses his critics as just dissipated folk who "look at women and sex merely as matters of artistic expression, without regard to […] the values and traditions of the Egyptian people."

This episode might suggest that those who see the Brotherhood as a menace to civilization have it right, but there’s nothing uniquely benighted about Heshmat’s crusade. The incident calls to mind less the Taliban than the furors in the United States over public funding for the arts. And though Heshmat’s zeal for censorship is unsettling, it’s worth noting that Heshmat wasn’t arguing that the books themselves were illegal, only that the government shouldn’t subsidize them. More alarming would have been if Heshmat had tried to ban a privately printed book, but that is not what he did. (Although it’s not clear whether that is because he distinguished between public and private or simply reckoned that he could more easily influence the former.) Still, embedded even in this unacceptable act of suppression was a canny critique of how dictatorships control information; interviewed on Al Jazeera, Heshmat noted that copies of the Egyptian constitution were sold by the government printing house for 30 times the cost of the offending novels. "In whose interest is it," he asked, "that something every citizen should memorize sells for 15 pounds [$3], while a book that is sexually explicit and morally ruinous sells for 50 piasters [10 cents]?"

There’s no doubting Heshmat’s commitment to legislating the Koran, but at times he seems as much driven by a yearning to smite the powerful as he is by a desire to implement sharia. A chapter in volume two, "The Dismissal of Seven Officials," displays some of Heshmat’s most prized scalps, among them a lazy supervisor of the regional education department, the corrupt director of the local power utility, and a government contractor who embezzled money meant for a water works project. Heshmat’s glee seems a little misplaced, as if the firing of the bureaucrats, and not the resolution of the problems they caused, is what matters. But in authoritarian Egypt, the excision of anyone powerful is rare — even more so when it comes not from a Byzantine purge, but from outside pressure. If we can remove these gentlemen, Heshmat seems to say, think of whom else we can remove.

Eventually, though, it is Heshmat who is removed. Two years before the end of his tenure, the courts nullified the election that brought him to parliament, ruling that some votes that had been meant for one of his opponents had gone to another (never mind that Heshmat had trounced both of them). A new election was held — and rigged so Heshmat would lose. Then, in a special bit of vindictiveness, the regime jailed him for four months (being a member of the Brotherhood is technically illegal). Unbowed, Heshmat ran again and lost in 2005, though one of the election monitors has testified that Heshmat was the real winner of that contest as well.

Heshmat’s slogan during his parliamentary campaigns, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, is "Islam is the solution." Opponents argue that this motto gives the Brothers an unfair advantage, allowing them to tap opportunistically into Egyptians’ innate religiosity. But if the slogan has extra resonance, it’s probably not from the mention of Islam. The litany of Egypt’s problems is well-known, and the popular desire for escape is strong. The Muslim Brothers may come bearing Islam, but what Egyptians hear is that they come bearing a solution.

The writer Ibrahim Issa — not known for being friendly to the Brothers’ Islamizing project — explains it best: "The citizen chooses the Muslim Brothers," he wrote, "because they never held power and never used it to humiliate, never strangled the spirit, never imprisoned, never killed, never tortured, never plundered, never squandered, never mired the reputation of their country in the mud, never got beaten on every battlefield, never scored zero in every arena." (Distinctions presumably enjoyed by the ruling party alone.) A man with Gamal Heshmat’s gifts would likely win elections regardless of his party label, but the fact that his Muslim Brothers are considered the antithesis of Egypt’s current regime certainly doesn’t hurt.

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