Faith In Sisi: How Islam Shapes Egypt's New Leader

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?

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praying at a Cairo mosque in October 2013.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praying at a Cairo mosque in October 2013.
Khalil al-Anani*

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.

Academic life

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!