In January 2015, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi raised eyebrows around the world when he gave a speech demanding a “religious revolution” and asserting that Egyptian imams should lead the way.
“The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word, because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands,” Sisi said in a speech celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
It was an extraordinary and seemingly rare self-critical comment from within the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. Yet, at the same time, Egypt was walking a fine line between antagonizing the conservative religious establishment and sowing the kind of religious chaos that has been unleashed through the region which has led to sectarianism and conflict in Syria and elsewhere.
According to former United States undersecretary of state for public diplomacy Richard Stengel, when the State Department asked Cairo for advice on fighting Islamist extremism, it agreed with the Jordanians, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that characterizing terrorism as being driven by radical Islam was counterproductive. “They also told us that they did not consider Islamic State to be Islamic.” The US agreed and described ISIS as a “radical perversion of Islam.”
Yet there is a real attempt being made in Egypt to set a new Islamic tone. It has not gone without controversy. Headlines tell that part of the story. Sisi generated somewhat of a storm in late January by helping to pay for a new church in the administrative capital he hopes to build near Cairo. In early February, Egypt’s High Constitutional Court ruled that Christians, who make up about 10% of its population, should receive the same paid leave to go on pilgrimage as Muslims do for hajj.
Sisi even spoke out about reforming divorce laws on National Police Day in January, suggesting that divorces be formalized on paper and that the practice of oral divorce, or men divorcing their wives without their wives being present, be done away with. Divorce laws are rooted in Shari’a law for Muslims (for Christians, divorce is adjudicated by the church they belong to), and any attempt by secular authorities to interfere is controversial.
However, the Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm reported in February 2016 that at Al-Azhar University, the foremost center of Sunni religious learning in the Muslim world, the Council of Senior Scholars – the highest body of the university’s religious establishment – confirmed the validity of the oral divorce. “The council said this is what Muslims have settled upon since the time of Prophet Muhammad.”
For Sisi it was a case of winning some changes and losing others. His keen understanding of how to navigate the Egyptian system and its various lobbies and pillars, such as the armed forces and the religious establishment, has served him well so far.
When Sisi was appointed commander- in-chief of the Armed Forces, his Muslim piety was highlighted. The Financial Times called him a “pious and observant Muslim, reportedly with family connections to the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” His wife wears a head scarf, in contrast to the wives of Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser. He looked the part of a pious general who would stand by the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in June 2012.
When Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, he was seen by the media as yet another authoritarian general, riding the tiger of populism in Egypt. That all changed in January of 2015 when he gave the New Year’s speech at Al-Azhar calling for a “religious revolution.” At Davos in 2015 he said that “Islam is a religion of tolerance and it should not be judged by the acts of murderers and criminals.” In January 2016, he told Muslims to “purge religious discourse of extremism.” He wants Egypt to be an anchor of stability in the Arab and Islamic world.
But what is Sisi up to? Shahira Amin, at the website Egyptian Streets, argues that he has stepped back from his initial revolutionary comments. Blasphemy convictions are ongoing in Egypt. The president seems to be taking small steps, pushing a public campaign to reduce female genital mutilation, quietly encouraging parliamentarians to consider repealing the blasphemy law and reforming marriage laws. He has made symbolic gestures, visiting a church after a vicious terrorist attack.
In a country that was outwardly secular and nationalist since the time of Nasser in the 1950s, the vast majority not only remains rooted in a deeply conservative religious tradition but has become more religious over time. Customs such as female genital mutilation were carried out by more than 90% of the population until recently, and the majority still supports it.
Sisi understands that the Middle East is not becoming more secular; rather, parties akin to the Brotherhood have come to power in places such as Turkey, and political Islam is on the rise from Indonesia to Morocco. He must chart a course between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both run by religious establishments. When speaking about the divorce law, he didn’t say the reform was for women’s rights, but to cut down on the ease of divorce.
The problem for Sisi is that Al-Azhar is an ancient institution dating to the 10th century, and such an institution cannot change quickly, nor does it want to change. This is why jihadist groups throughout the world have outpaced traditional Sunni bastions in Egypt and even the Wahhabi clergy of Saudi Arabia, with each Sunni Islamist jihadist group competing to be more extreme. ISIS is an expert in using social and online media to recruit.
To combat the problem Al-Azhar has sought to use new media. With some 90,000 students at its university, 400,000 in related educational frameworks, 60,000 imams throughout Egypt and issuing some 2,000 fatwas a day, the institution has unparalleled influence. The European Parliament announced in November 2015 that it would adopt Al-Azhar’s Dar al-Ifta publication as a reference.
Ibrahim Negm, adviser to Egypt’s grand mufti, said he would provide translations of fatwas confronting extremism, but he also said “insults to Islam” were leading to extremism.
Negm preaches a quiet reform as well. In 2011 he pioneered use of new technologies and social media to “cope with the changing times.” He said in 2015, “The true understanding of Islam that can be legitimately attributed to our predecessors is one which interacts with the world with understanding and discernment, accommodating new realities as they emerge,” and during the Charlie Hebdo controversy he urged followers to “ignore it and show kindness.” On February 6 he went further, describing ISIS and its kind as a “cancer spreading in the body of the world.”
An entire generation had to be saved from radicalization online.
Egypt’s government has quietly supported attempts in the US to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization (it was designated as such in Egypt in 2013).
In an August op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Egyptian Ambassador to the US Yasser Reda said Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “the intellectual force behind the Muslim Brotherhood,” should be held to account, as the “global fight against terrorism will remain incomplete as long as the international community fails to mobilize to destroy the intellectual fuel that justifies the evil of terrorism.” He argued that Qaradawi’s views are similar to Nazi propaganda.
But some academics at Al-Azhar, such as Naji Shurrab, have opposed the designation, arguing it could drive Brotherhood members and affiliates into the hands of more extreme groups.
As with the divorce law, Egypt’s leaders must tread lightly. Too much reform can backfire; too little can allow the wild weeds of extremism to grow again.