By Magdi Khalil –
Coptic Solidarity Executive Committee Member
In January 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi gave a speech in front of Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University, where he talked about the need to revolutionize Islam. Many in the Western World responded to this surprising speech with optimistic approval. However, it became obvious later on that the Egyptian President was mainly sending a message to the outside world, aiming to bolster his image as a legitimate moderate leader who replaced an extremist president. But the rhetoric he uses domestically does not quite match this image. The conservative religious approach he has adopted, along with the push for an Islamized society is designed to send his compatriots a different message: he is no less devout as a Muslim than the Muslim Brothers that he has removed from power.
The Islamic Awakening, which began in the sixties of last century, as a product of an alliance between the Saudi King Faisal and the Muslim Brotherhood, has produced three types of Islam: radical terroristic Islam; political Islam that seeks power; and a brand of conservative Islam that embraces the practices and concepts of the first century of Islam, and President al-Sisi belongs to that third type. In an interview given before the presidency, he talked about being influenced in his growing years by the ideology of the late Islamic scholar Sheikh al-Shaarawy, who is recognized as the most prominent symbol of extremism during the Islamic awakening era in Egypt. It is not surprising then, that the language and tone in most of al-Sisi’s speeches and interviews borrows heavily from the Islamic religious discourse.
Excerpts from past speeches suggest that he has taken on the task of reinforcing the role of religion in the State rather than the opposite: “We advocate for a State that recognizes True Religion, seeks to safeguard its morals and values system, maintains the authentic image of our Islamic religion, and works to shape the mind and conscience of Muslims”. The State advocated here is clearly a guardian of Islam. Quotes from other speeches and interviews reveal more about his mindset: “The State and its leader play a role in protecting religion, values and principles in the society”; “What we did on the 3rd of July* was to save Islam and Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood”; “My duty is to protect both Religion and State”; “We are a God-fearing people, and anyone who thinks that he can defeat those who fear God is deluded”. There is a recurrent theme in these excerpts where al-Sisi’s draws on conservative religion to strengthen his position, instead of pursuing reform as he had claimed.
In terms of tangible changes, al-Sisi’s reformist discourse has failed to produce positive results, quite the opposite in fact. The range of religious and general freedoms has shrunk in comparison to the Mubarak era. In 2015, the same year where al-Sisi talked about religious reform, 12 individuals were sentenced to prison for contempt of Islam-related charges, and 14 others have cases pending before the courts, making it one of the worst years in regards to this type of cases. Five young Christians were put in prison as a result a 26 seconds clip making fun of ISIS, and prison sentences were also handed down to writers and to an Islamic reformer called Islam al-Buheiry. Furthermore, a number of Islamist extremists have been released from prison, including Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri. There were other troubling signs such as the initiation of a reconciliation dialogue with Hamas, and the court ruling which granted rights to the Islamic parties that call for the application of Sharia law to be part of the political landscape in Egypt.
Oddly, in the speech where he called for religious reform, al-Sisi asked Al-Azhar institution to assume this task, despite the fact that Al-Azhar is clearly part of the problem and can hardly be part of the solution. When he decided to give his support to a publication that would spread enlightenment, he chose to back up Noor, a nascent children’s magazine issued by Al-Azhar that is more intent on whitewashing the image of Islam, than promoting reform. The same could also be said about al-Sisi himself, since he seems more concerned about improving Islam’s image abroad than about authentic reforms.
Yet, what may be most troubling about al-Sisi is his devotion to a mix of militarism and Islamism. He is equally proud of his conservative religious values and his military ideals, adding to this volatile mix some potentially dangerous Islamic delusions. During a leaked exchange with the editor in chief of the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm, he recalled a dream where he was holding a sword bearing a red inscription of the Islamic creed “There is no god but Allah”. This may have serious implications, since it speaks of an inner conviction that he is the protector of Islam, who wields a sword and may shed blood to that end, similar to the famous Muslim military commander Khalid bin Walid in the early Islamic era.
To conclude, I think it is fair to say that al-Sisi has neither the ability nor the vision to be a reformer of Islam. The real question here is whether he will turn into an Islamist president like al-Bashir in Sudan and Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan. Given Al-Sisi’s military inclination, which is combined with delusions of grandeur and Islamic visions, things could take a really dangerous turn. There is a troubling precedent in Pakistan, when late President Zia ul-Haq woke up one day in 1988, claiming that he saw the Prophet of Islam in a dream where he asked him to apply Sharia law, and the outcome was disastrous for Pakistan. Al-Sisi may take a leaf out of his book, going from dreaming about a sword with a red inscription of the Islamic shehada to the bigger dream of Islamic rule, which would certainly be catastrophic for Egypt and for the entire region.