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Egypt's Sisi: Impersonating a Democrat

In the wake of the Paris murders of cartoonists, police, and Jews by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise and suggestions he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On January 2nd, a few days before the attacks, Sisi called on Muslim scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” saying it was “inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.”

It’s entirely possible, of course, for Sisi to have a point and still not be an appropriate figure for deference on matters linked to tolerance, pluralism, and civil liberties. Indeed, there is a broader context for his remarks that his admirers should not ignore.

Sisi, a former military officer, took off his uniform to assume the presidency last summer in a deeply flawed election held a year after Egypt’s military staged a coup against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s turbulent and violent tenure was nothing to celebrate—except for one important fact: His was the first democratic presidential election in Egypt. “He made some catastrophic mistakes, that must be said,” Mohamed Adel Ismail, a 26-year-old social worker, told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “But my understanding of democracy is you allow him to rule and fail and then vote him out.” 

Indeed, before Morsi was overthrown, he faced the prospect of losing upcoming parliamentary elections. Egyptian politics could have turned a corner in toward a democracy. The military would also have lost significant justification for the coup.

There is no reason to believe Sisi will create the atmosphere in which the religious reform he calls for could take place. Sisi is overseeing a crackdown on the press and civil society, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups. 

Rather than accept Sisi’s remarks at face value, Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, see them as part of an agenda to “align religious institutions with the military’s goals and narratives.” Far from seeking a liberal, or secular society, Sisi and his government persecute those who stand outside certain religious boundaries. Dunne and Bentivoglio also note that although under strict government control, anti-Semitism in the media remains pervasive.

There are Egyptians who see the connection between Sisi’s authoritarianism and Islamist terror and oppose both. There are also those who believe democracy and piety can exist in the same political system. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a critic of both military rule and Islamist extremism, heads the Strong Egypt political party, which wishes to contest upcoming parliamentary elections. Fotouh told Thanassis Cambanis, writing from Cairo for the Atlantic, that the government is obstructing their efforts, for example, by canceling 27 reservations of hotel meeting rooms. The prospects for a free election are so remote that the EU has decided not to send a full observer team.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the Paris attacks, criticizing some Egyptian media that justified them on religious grounds. Further, CIHRS questioned the “backing of world powers, who believe that authoritarian regimes can promote stability and counter terrorism. This much sought-after stability, however, will be, like in the past, short-lived. Rather, the support of authoritarian regimes is a long-term investment in encouraging the growth of terrorism.”

Sisi’s remarks at Al Azhar are perhaps best understood as something autocrats do—present themselves as the only alternative to chaos, to Western imperialism, to terrorism, to communism, and so on. The situation is more complicated than that. It is in the world’s interest, if not Sisi’s, to see that those seeking a democratic Egypt as the antidote to religious extremism have the chance to make their views reality.

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