Sisi’s vision for moderate Islam
Egypt’s President vows he will never turn his back on relations with the US
WHEN then Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi appointed a little-known general named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to be his defence minister in August 2012, rumours swirled that the officer was chosen for his sympathy with the teachings of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
One tell-tale sign, people said, was the zabiba on the general’s forehead — the darkened patch of skin that is the result of frequent and fervent prayer.
A pious Muslim must surely also be a political Islamist — or so Mr Morsi apparently assumed.
But the general would soon give the world a lesson in the difference between religious devotion and radicalism.
“There are misconceptions and misperceptions about the real Islam,” Mr Sisi, now the President, said during a two-hour interview in his ornate, century-old presidential palace in Heliopolis.
“Religion is guarded by its spirit, by its core, not by human beings. Human beings only take the core and deviate it to the Right or Left.”
Does he mean to say that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are bad Muslims? “It’s the ideology, the ideas,” he replied.
“The real Islamic religion grants absolute freedom for the whole people to believe or not believe. Never does Islam dictate to kill others because they do not believe in Islam. Never does it dictate that (Muslims) have the right to dictate (their beliefs) to the whole world. Never does Islam say that only Muslims will go to paradise and others go to hell.”
Jabbing his right finger in the air for emphasis, he added: “We are not gods on earth, and we do not have this right to act in the name of Allah.”
When Mr Sisi took power in July 2013, after protests against Mr Morsi by an estimated 30 million Egyptians, it wasn’t obvious that he would emerge as perhaps the world’s most significant advocate for Islamic moderation and reform. His personal piety aside, Mr Sisi seemed to be a typical Egyptian military figure. Unflattering comparisons were made to Hosni Mubarak, a former airforce general and Egypt’s president-for-life until his downfall in 2011.
The similarities are misleading. Mr Mubarak came of age in the ideological anti-colonialist days of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, trained in the Soviet Union, and led the air campaign against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat elevated him to the vice-presidency in 1975 as a colourless second-fiddle, his very lack of imagination being an asset to Sadat. He became president only due to Sadat’s assassination six years later.
Mr Sisi, 60, came of age in a very different era. When he graduated from the Military Academy, in 1977, Egypt was a close US ally on the cusp of making peace with Israel. Rather than being packed off to Russia, he headed for military training in Texas and later the infantry course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He returned for another extended stay in the US in 2005 at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Recalling the two visits, he notes the difference. “The US had been a community that had been living in peace and security. Before 9/11, even the military bases were open. There was almost no difference between civilian life and life on a military base. By 2005, I could feel the tightening.”
The remark is intended to underscore to a visiting American journalist his deep sympathy with and admiration for the US. He goes out of his way to stress he has no intention of altering the proUS tilt of Egyptian foreign policy, despite suggestions that he is flirting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for potential arms purchases and the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant.
“A country like Egypt will never be mischievous with bilateral relations” with the US, he insists. “We will never act foolishly.”
Asked about the delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt — suspended by the US after Mr Morsi’s overthrow — he all but dismisses the matter. “You can never reduce our relations with the US to matters of weapons systems. We are keen on a strategic relationship with the US above everything else. And we will never turn our backs on you — even if you turn your backs on us.”
There is also a deeper purpose to Mr Sisi’s pro-American entreaties and his comments on 9/11: He wants to remind his critics of the trade-off every country strikes between security and civil liberties.
It’s a point he returns to when discussing the anger and disappointment many Egyptian liberals — many of whom had backed him in 2013 — now feel.
New laws that tightly restrict street protests recall the Mubarak era. Last June, several Al Jazeera journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on dubious charges of reporting that was “damaging to national security”, though they have since been released. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, Mr Morsi is in prison and on trial, and Egyptian courts have passed death sentences on hundreds of alleged Islamists, albeit mostly in absentia.
“My message to liberals is that I am very keen to meet their expectations,” Mr Sisi said. “But the situation in Egypt is overwhelmed.”
He lamented the Al Jazeera arrests, noting that the incident damaged Egypt’s reputation even as thousands of international correspondents “are working very freely in this country”.
Later, while addressing a question about the Egyptian economy, he offered a franker assessment. “In the last four years our internal debt doubled to $US300 billion ($389bn). Do not separate my answer to the question regarding disappointed liberals. Their country needs to survive. We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud and take all our time discussing issues like that. A country needs security and order for its mere existence. If the world can provide support, I will let people demonstrate in the streets day and night.”
He added: “You can’t imagine that as an American. You are speaking the language of a country that is at the top of progress: cultural, financial, political, civilisational — it’s all there in the US”.
But if American standards were imposed on Egypt, he added, it would do his country no favours.
“I talk about US values of democracy and freedom. They should be honoured. But they need the atmosphere where those values can be nurtured. If we can bring prosperity, we can safeguard those values not just in words.”
It’s impossible to doubt the seriousness of Mr Sisi’s opposition to Islamic extremism, or his aver- sion to exporting instability. In late February, he ordered the bombing of Islamic State targets in neighbouring Libya after Islamic State decapitated 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
Egypt’s security co-operation with Israel has never been closer, and Mr Sisi has moved aggressively to close the tunnels beneath Egypt’s border with Gaza, through which Hamas has obtained its weapons.
Later this month, Mr Sisi will host an Arab League summit, the centrepiece of which will be a joint Arab anti-terrorism taskforce. He refused to put Egyptian boots on the ground to fight Islamic State in Iraq, which he says is a job for Iraqis with US help. And he took care to avoid mentioning Iran’s regional ambitions or saying anything critical of its nuclear negotiations, which he said he supported, while adding: “I understand the concern of the Israelis.”
But he said the new force was needed “to preserve what is left” of the stable Arab world. He stressed that “there shouldn’t be any arrangements at the expense of the Gulf states. The security of the Gulf states is indispensable for the security of Egypt.”
He decried the Western habit of intervening militarily and then failing to take account of the consequences. “Look, NATO had a mission in Libya and its mission was not accomplished,” he said.
The UN continues to impose an arms embargo on Libya that adversely affects the legitimate, non-Islamist government based in Tobruk while “armed militias obtain an unstoppable flow of arms and munitions.”
“I wasn’t with the Gaddafi regime,” he said, “but there is a difference between taking an action and being aware of what that action will bring about. The risks of extremism and terrorism weren’t clear in the minds of the US and Europe. It is really dangerous if countries lose control because extremists will cause them problems beyond their imagination.” The same lesson, he emphasised, applies to the US invasion of Iraq.
But Mr Sisi is not a dogmatic critic of muscular US involvement in the Middle East. Pondering the prospect of a broad US retreat from the region, Mr Sisi sounds like the most enthusiastic proponent of Pax Americana.
“The United States has the strength, and with might comes responsibility,” he said. “That is why it is committed and has responsibilities toward the whole world. It is not reasonable or acceptable that with all that might the United States will not be committed and have responsibilities toward the Middle East. The Middle East is passing through the most difficult and critical time and this will only entail more involvement, not less.”
Meantime, he sees it as his personal mission to save Egypt, even as he insists he has no intention of becoming another president-forlife. Asked to name Mr Mubarak’s biggest mistake, he said: “He stayed in power for a long time.”
A day before the interview, he closed an investment conference in the resort town of Sharm elSheikh, where he celebrated General Electric’s decision to invest to ease Egypt’s chronic power outages. He described his economic philosophy as “the need to encourage the business community to come here and invest”.
He stressed the imperative of acting swiftly: “The magnitude of the effort needed to secure the needs of 90 million people is huge and beyond any one man’s effort.”
He’s also aware that the most important work will take time. In January, Mr Sisi went before the religious clerics of Cairo’s al- Azhar university to demand a “revolution” in Islam. The followthrough won’t be easy.
“The most difficult thing to do is change a religious rhetoric and bring a shift in how people are used to their religion,” he said. “Don’t imagine the results will be seen in a few months or years. Radical misconceptions (about Islam) were instilled 100 years ago. Now we can see the results.”
That’s not to say he does not think it’s doable. “Popular sympathy with the idea of religion was dominating the whole scene in Egypt for years in the past. This does not exist anymore. This is a change I consider strategic.
“Because what brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power was Egyptian sympathy with the concept of religion. Egyptians believed that the Muslim Brothers were advocates of the real Islam.
“The past three years have been a critical test to those people who were promoting religious ideas. Egyptians experienced it totally and said ‘these people do not deserve sympathy and we will not allow it’.”
Throughout the interview, Mr Sisi spoke in Arabic through an interpreter. But after delivering this point, he said in colloquial American English: “You got that?”
‘Never does Islam dictate to kill others because they do not believe in Islam’
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at an economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh to boost aid and investment for Egypt