Sometimes it seems the only changes in the world are for the worse. The following is the first in a series of biographical profiles of international leaders whose actions seem destined to leave conditions better than they found them.
THE PRESIDENT OF EGYPT, ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the army general who rose from relative obscurity to being elected president of Egypt three years after the 2011 “Arab spring” ended the 30-year military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Sisi was the choice for defence minister when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power under Mohammed Morsi but, once Morsi began to implement a radical Islamist agenda and new protests erupted, Sisi played an instrumental role in Morsi’s ouster. He himself then won election as president in 2014 on a platform of “saving the revolution”.
Many have dismissed Sisi as just another ambitious general who took advantage of his country’s political turmoil to wrest power away from a democratically elected government. Egypt has had a series of military officers running the country since the Free Officer Movement overthrew the monarchy in 1952. But there are dimensions to the new president which distinguish him from his military forebears.
As expected, Sisi has taken forceful action against the Muslim Brotherhood. Government authorities have arrested hundreds of members, and courts have sentenced almost two hundred to death including Morsi. So far, however, only one person has been executed, found guilty of throwing children from a building in 2013. Sisi has also acted against radical clerics, instructing the Ministry of Religious Endowment to close down as many as 27,000 small mosques preaching militant Islamism. In February, Egyptian war planes struck ISIL targets in Libya after ISIL released video of the mass killing of mostly Egyptian Coptic Christians kidnapped a few weeks earlier.
Sisi, however, is not the secular leader his predecessors tended to be. He himself is reported to be religiously devout and believes Islam has an important place in public life. But he thinks Islam can be compatible with democracy, which he lauds on practical rather than philosophical grounds. By narrowing the divide between rulers and ruled, democracy produces better results than dictatorship. In 2006, while attending the US Army War College, Sisi submitted a term paper on “Democracy in the Middle East”, in which he argued that the Western secular prototype separating mosque and state simply would not work in societies largely populated by devout Muslims. He did think it possible, however, for a society to have democratic institutions which took “Islamic beliefs into consideration when carrying out their duties”. Inevitably, these would have their “own shape and form” and might bear “little resemblance” to Western models. Sisi placed his hope in “more moderate religious elements” being able to make the system work, acknowledging that elected Islamists would likely face “internal governance challenges down the road”.
On January 1, Sisi made his case for new “thinking” directly to Egypt’s religious leadership. Speaking at Cairo’s revered Al-Azhar University on the anniversary of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, Sisi praised the faith of Islam but declared “we are in need of a religious revolution … a revolution of the self, a revolution of conscience and ethics to rebuild the Egyptian person”. His critique, he emphasized, was not of Islam but of the wrong thinking (fikr) which had become so sacrosanct that even religious leaders dared not criticize it. This wrong thinking had caused “the Islamic world (umma) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the whole world”. Muslims had succeeded in “antagonizing the entire world”, he said. Was it conceivable, he asked, that 1.6 million Muslims really wanted “to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims can prosper?”
There was no time to lose, he told the country’s religious establishment. “You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word … because the Islamic world is being torn apart, being destroyed, being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”
Time will tell how influential these words will be, but the president of Egypt has spoken as none before ever has.