Egypt’s President Sisi is an autocrat who appears to perceive himself as a forward-thinking revolutionary leader of the Egyptian nation.
In light of the Islamist attacks in Paris earlier this month it is understandable that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s speech in Al-Azhar University in Cairo – which, as you know, is the center of Sunni Islamic learning and has been for a thousand years now – earlier this month didn’t get as much attention as it otherwise might have had. His pronouncements were quite noteworthy. He declared that the Muslims of the world are in need of what he dubs “a religious revolution”. The most striking of his statements in my view was the following one,
“You imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”
In a more recent visit to the United Arab Emirates Mr. Sisi reiterated these sentiments. Regarding the threat of Islamist terror he insisted that, “The fight must not only be restricted to security and military aspects… but should include a reformed religious discourse from which false ideologies that could lure some into adopting violence to impose their ideas have been removed.”
It’s made more noteworthy when one considers Sisi rose to his position as president from the July 2013 military coup which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi whose party was, as you know, subsequently banned and driven underground by the army and state security forces–a process which killed hundreds. Sisi, in his former capacity as army chief, claimed he was acting on behalf of the people who were on the verge of another revolution just two years after the one against President Hosni Mubarak. This one, the claim went, was to have been against a corrupt and negligent President Morsi who was after dictatorial powers for himself. Since taking power himself his government deems who is allowed to demonstrate and what they are allowed demonstrate about, or against. This is being justified as a measure to, in Sisi’s own words, “achieve stability and security for the Egyptian people.” In essence the rudimentary components of an authoritarian police state are once again in place in Egypt and Sisi, it appears, is an autocrat in all but name.
It’s understandable, not to mention logical, that Sisi seeks to promulgate a form of Islam which is incompatible with the outlook and goals of the Brotherhood, and other Islamist groups, so ordinary Egyptian Muslims will subscribe to it instead of them – which would in turn serve to undermine their grassroots religious appeal to the ordinary Muslims who make up the majority of Egypt’s population, an appeal which has in the past been utilized by the Brotherhood for its own political ends and helped them garner and win political power before the coup. In short, Sisi seeks to retake Islam from where he sees it trapped, in the grip of the Islamists who obscure its values in order to justify their own aims and actions.
While Sisi presently insists that freedom of speech is sacrosanct he is suspiciously evasive about the fact that many of the thousands of prisoners in his jails are political prisoners. He adamantly insists that, as many autocrats before him have, his jails only have terrorists and common criminals in them. As amply documented by many human rights groups the contrary is the case. Secular liberal activists and Islamist fanatics alike are languishing in Egypt’s jails under Sisi following mass round-ups and arrests carried out as part of the army’s post-coup crackdown.
Sisi appears to genuinely believe in his vision for Egypt. He clearly has ambitions to make the country a more influential and important regional power. But at the same time he is well aware of the instability which still exists in his country in the wake of the revolution and the coup.
Most of the Arab monarchial states of the Persian Gulf are helping to prop up his government up through investments in an Egyptian economy which has seen much better times. They are doing so because they too fear the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and share Sisi’s desire to stop it attaining power once again. But even if Egypt gets plenty of investment and even if the many ambitious projects Sisi has undertaken (projects which include building an additional waterway to the iconic Suez Canal and the construction of one-million apartments) are all gleaming success stories it is doubtful that he can curtail the Egyptian people through economic prosperity at the direct expense of their political freedom, the so-called “China model”. Given past regimes which have tried to do this and have failed it is doubtful this will work in the long long-term in Egypt neither. Even in Saudi Arabia the billions-of-dollars poured into that kingdoms state sectors relatively recently aren’t guaranteeing long-term stability and given the decline in the world price of oil the prospect of political instability there appears to be more-or-less inevitable.
Sadly one cannot help but reach the sombre conclusion that Mr. Sisi has taken the reigns of state power over a politically unstable Egyptian state and has implemented measures which have – regardless of whether or not they are intended to serve a “greater good” – reversed and undone the democratic aspirations of those who took to the streets during the Egyptian Revolution in order to bring an end to years of dictatorial rule. Now they seem destined to have years more of it despite their earnest efforts.