Sisi’s vi­sion for mod­er­ate Is­lam

Egypt’s Pres­i­dent vows he will never turn his back on re­la­tions with the US

The Australian - - WORLD - BRET STEPHENS CAIRO

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’

AP

Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi at an eco­nomic con­fer­ence in Sharm el-Sheikh to boost aid and in­vest­ment for Egypt

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