Egypt's ostensible secular president, al-Sisi, seems to be guilty of the same sin for which he condemns the Muslim Brotherhood: using religion in politics. What will it mean for the people?
Religion comes up frequently in Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s interviews and meetings. He almost always mentions a verse from the Koran or a hadith to support his political stance or to highlight his views on a certain issue. But the fact that al-Sisi often evokes religion is only part of the story. Also worth noting is his ideological tendency and the faint echo of a religious “project,” which al-Sisi could try to apply or impose on Egyptian society as the new president.
Al-Sisi’s upbringing is crucial to understanding his religious rhetoric. According to the scant information available about al-Sisi’s early life, he grew up in Cairo’s Gamaleya district close to the al-Hussain neighborhood, the most prominent religious site in Cairo. It is surrounded by a vast number of mosques and prayer rooms, where many religious rituals, traditions, and various rites are performed, from Sufism to Shia beliefs.
Apparently, al-Sisi’s upbringing in this social incubator has somehow molded his ideas and religious views. He descends from the same family as Abbas al-Sisi, one of the leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood's history who played a significant role in the organization's 1970s revival. Some have tried to link the men, but Abbas al-Sisi’s son has denied any such connection.
Al-Sisi graduated from the military academy in 1977. This was a time when the call of Islamic movements was at its peak in Egyptian universities, and the movement had gained supporters and sympathizers in military academies too. al-Sisi belongs to the same generation of Islamist officers who planned the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat. He also witnessed the Islamic high tide of the 1970s, which saw the emergence of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad groups.
Some have claimed that his religious tendencies started to clearly show in the mid-1980s when he allegedly considered early retirement from military service to grow a beard and work in the field of Islamic dawa. Regardless of whether that's true, it is obvious that al-Sisi was influenced by the rise of Islamism during Sadat's and the early years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
It's helpful to revisit the time he spent in the United States in 2004 for a fellowship in the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. His religious tendencies were revealed not only through his conservatism, one of his college professors points out, but also through the content of his research thesis, titled “Democracy in the Middle East.” In it, al-Sisi emphasized the importance of culture and religion in public life, and how both influence democracy in the Arab world. Robert Springborg, a professor specializing in Egyptian civil-military relations, has accordingly anticipated that al-Sisi will try to establish a system that marries “Islamism” and “military dictatorship.”
Deconstructing his rhetoric
The use of religious rhetoric among politicians is sometimes just a veneer to gain public sympathy, without truly representing a certain depth or ideology. But sometimes it reflects a belief and conviction that religion should play a prominent role in public life.
A closer look at al-Sisi’s religious rhetoric reveals several concerns. First of all, al-Sisi’s religiosity goes beyond the mainstream religious conservative tendency adopted by many Egyptians. It would be fair to says that al-Sisi’s is more of an “organized” form of religiosity. By that I mean that al-Sisi’s religious knowledge is not just shallow or reductive, as is the case with the majority of Egyptians whose popular religious beliefs were superficially influenced by the Salafi tide that dominated in the last two decades. It is rather a structured knowledge reflecting his Islamic upbringing.
He may have been exposed to one of the dormant Islamic organizations, such as the Islamic Law Society or the Society of Sunnah Advocates, during his early childhood. These organizations are widespread in different parts of Cairo. Another possibility is that he is influenced by one of the hundreds of Sufi sects that have a strong presence in certain areas of Egypt.
Al-Sisi’s rhetoric unveils his robust religious view, which transcends sloganeering and aspires to impose specific values. In a recent statement, al-Sisi emphasized the importance of the state and its leader in protecting religion, values and principles in society.
Al-Sisi's religious rhetoric is highly politicized, evident in his affirming the role of religion in public life to influence the attitudes and behavior of the people. He also uses this rhetoric as a tool in the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. So al-Sisi’s announcement that the July 3 coup was “to save Islam and Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood” was not peculiar. Ironically, al-Sisi seems to be guilty of the same sin for which he condemns the Brotherhood — using religion in politics.
Al-Sisi’s religious understanding is largely orthodox, with a populist taint that is underscored by a Sufi tendency on one hand (as evident in his discourse on visions, dreams, and omens), and a Salafi influence on the other. He believes in the classical school of thought, rather than progressive interpretation of Islamic teachings and texts, which indicates that his religious views are more conservative and regressive than some Islamists.
Finally, his religious discourse is very ultranationalist in that he believes the dissemination of religious awareness is the responsibility of the state. He is continuously reiterating that religious rhetoric requires reform, and he uses this to invalidate Islamic groups, most of all the Muslim Brotherhood.
From words to policies
Apparently, al-Sisi has been using religious rhetoric in a smart and spontaneous way, at least until now. It seems that he knows how and when to adopt it. One important question remains, though: Will these words and rhetoric translate into actual policies? In other words, is al-Sisi going to become an “Islamist” president imposing his vision and views on the state, society and citizens?
It may be too early to judge or anticipate this. But we can be certain that al-Sisi will continue to use religion as a tool in his political game, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood. Religion is, after all, a focal point of conflict between al-Sisi and the Brotherhood. Therefore, he might try to build a social mass as a counterpart to the Brotherhood, using his religiosity and conservative views on the state, society and his value system.
His rhetoric should warn us that personal freedoms might face real threat in al-Sisi’s Egypt, especially with regard to religion. It wouldn’t be surprising if al-Sisi, as the defender of Sunni Islam, adopted a fanatical rhetoric towards religious minorities, like Shias and Baha’is.
Also, any intensification of his religious rhetoric in the future would definitely create a struggle with extremist Islamist groups. This would add to the ideological and dogmatic conflict with these groups, diminishing the chance for stability in Egypt.
The attitude of the liberal and secular sectors towards al-Sisi’s religious views is puzzling. Some of them seem to have entered a state of disappointment and shock, due to the conspicuous presence of religion in his speeches. Apparently, their conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood prevented them from adequately expressing this shock, so as not to give the Brotherhood a chance to gloat over it. Many of them have, after all, claimed that their support of the July 3 coup was out of fear that the Brotherhood would turn Egypt into a theocracy, not to mention their condemnation of what they considered a crackdown on personal and religious freedoms during Mohamed Morsi's rule.
Al-Sisi might not attempt to turn Egypt into a religious state following the Iranian or Pakistani models, as was the case during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s, for example. But he definitely isn't going to build a free civil state where individuals enjoy personal freedoms without the guardianship of the state and the president.
* Khalil al-Anani is a leading academic expert on Islamist movements, Egyptian politics and democratization in the Middle East. This piece was translated by Amira Elmasry.