Wickham, a political scientist, seeks to extend and fill lacunae in social-movements-theory. She argues in her excellent book that ideas matter, but they serve as mechanisms for political mobilization only when their message is congruent with the "life experiences and beliefs" of potential recruits, when the messengers have integrity, and when there is a consistent "reinforcement through intensive, small-group solidarity at the grass roots level." Her theoretical contribution is to demonstrate that "rational actor models," dominant in studies of political mobilization, cannot be generalized. Based on the insights of microeconomic theory, these models indicate that individuals will become adherents of a given social movement when membership promises improvement in their material or social position. In her study of political mobilization in Egypt during the Mubarak period, Wickham indicates that this may not be the case.
Given the manner in which the Egyptian government has dealt with the Society of Muslim Brethren—oscillating from toleration and accommodation to repression and exclusion—previous theory would predict tremendous difficulty for the Brethren in recruiting new activists as members (because the rational actor model says that is not in the best interests of an individual who is concerned with his overall well-being). Yet this is clearly not the case, as the Brethren maintain a vast reservoir of support from a large and influential group of activists and among Egypt's masses. What is the explanation? Wickham argues that ideas "framed as a ‘moral obligation' demanding self-sacrifice and unflinching commitment to the cause of religious transformation" undermine the assumptions of rational actor models. Those who join the Brethren and become active in the organization place themselves and their families at enormous personal risk. This argument, which suggests that models based on narrow and artificial assumptions about an individual's interests are inadequate, should go a long way toward helping scholars working on social movements to break out of the theoretical box in which they seem to be caught.
Although Wickham has theoretical points to make, her study provides nitty-gritty details usually associated with area studies and history. In a clear and concise style, she charts the changing fortunes of the Muslim Brethren during the Mubarak period via interviews, data from various Egyptian government agencies, and participant observation (not the easiest thing for a Western woman to do in Egypt's prevailing social environment).