As the Egyptian state ramps up its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood thugs and terrorists, the man expected to become Egypt’s next president has deployed a new weapon in the battle with the Islamists: his own vision of Islam (a reformed one).
Chicago Tribune (h/t Mike F) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who deposed the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and is expected to be elected president later this month, has cast himself as a defender of religion (all religions) and taken aim at the doctrinal foundations of Islamist groups the state is seeking to crush.
Striking a pious tone that sets him apart from former president Hosni Mubarak, Sisi also appears to be taking on the mantle of a religious reformer. He has blamed outdated “religious discourse” for holding back Egypt.
“I see that the religious discourse in the entire Islamic world has cost Islam its humanity,” Sisi said in an interview televised on May 5. “This requires us, and for that matter all leaders, to review their positions.”
With references to God and morality, Sisi may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic was founded in 1953. This does not mean he will inject more Islam into the government of a state whose laws and culture have long been shaped by religion. Sisi has said there is no such thing as a “religious state” – challenging a central Islamist concept.
As the authorities try to curb Islamist influence by tightening control over mosques, Sisi’s presidency could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes.
“He is trying to replace the Islamists and counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s argument that he is anti-Islam,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamic movements based at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Sisi has been compared with Anwar Sadat, the head of state known for his piety who was assassinated by Islamists in 1981.
Sisi’s reputation for piety encouraged the Brotherhood to believe he could be a reliable ally, one of the reasons Morsi appointed him army chief in August, 2012. But Sisi revealed strongly anti-Brotherhood views after deposing Morsi following mass protests against Morsi’s rule less than a year later.
Sisi accused the group of having an ideology which claimed to hold the “exclusive truth” and of seeking to advance the cause of an Islamic empire rather than of Egypt. In the interview screened on May 5, Sisi said violent groups were a front for the Brotherhood, vowing that the movement would not exist once he was in power.
The movement, most of whose leaders are in jail, has yet to respond to his most recent accusations, though it has previously denied such claims and says it has long rejected violence. The group sees Sisi as the mastermind of a bloody military coup.
Islamist groups seeking to infuse government with their vision of Islam have been a thorn in the state’s side for decades. Some of the world’s most radical militants are Egyptian, including al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Since Morsi was removed from power, the state has faced the worst wave of militant violence since the 1990s.