(January 26, 2015 / JNS) As the world continues to grapple with a new wave of Islamic extremism, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has emerged as an unlikely Middle East leader willing to confront terrorism both militarily and ideologically.
In a Jan 1. speech at Egypt’s historic Al-Azhar University, El-Sisi declared an ambitious plan for a “revolution” in Islam, in order to reform the faith that he believes has made the Muslim world a source of “destruction” that is “making enemies of the whole world.”
“So 1.6 billion people [in the Muslim world] will kill the entire world of 7 billion? That’s impossible… We need a religious revolution,” he said.
El-Sisi’s vision includes purging Islam of extremist intolerance and violence, elements that terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State use as recruitment tools.
“El-Sisi’s remarks have to be commended. He delivered them at the center of Egypt’s religious establishment,” Oren Kessler, deputy director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told JNS.org. “He went right into the belly of the beast and spoke to the clerics and sheikhs.”
The Egyptian president reiterated his message at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, saying the world needs to unite against the global threat of terrorism.
Upon taking office last spring, very little was known about El-Sisi’s personal and political beliefs. Coming from rather modest beginnings in a neighborhood in Cairo, he spent most of his adult life in the Egyptian military. But a clue into El-Sisi’s thinking can be seen in an essay he wrote in March 2006 while attending the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. In the essay, he states that democracy in the Middle East must be adapted to Islam and “have its own shape or form coupled with stronger religious ties.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, said he sees El-Sisi as a “cautious Islamist.”
“It’s like holding fascistic or communistic views,” Pipes told JNS.org regarding El-Sisi’s outlook. “That said, there can theoretically be a supremely mild form of it that we can live with.”
Despite his reservations about the Egyptian president, Pipes commended El-Sisi for speaking out against radical Islam and believes that he will “do all that he can to crush his violent Islamist enemies.”
FDD’s Kessler does not necessarily view El-Sisi’s religious beliefs as problematic, noting that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat—who visited Jerusalem and made peace with Israel, only to be assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood as a result—was also a devout Muslim.
“He is representative of the Egyptian people as a whole,” Kessler said. “The Egyptian people are very devout, both Muslims and Christians.”
“From the Israeli point of view, his military and intelligence services have cooperated with Israel at unprecedented levels. …I think, his private beliefs aside, he is a committed opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension of Hamas and other Islamic extremists,” added Kessler.
Under El-Sisi’s watch, Egypt has quietly worked closely with Israel on combating Islamic terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (which recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State terror group), in addition to cracking down on Hamas, which draws support from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and uses the Sinai for smuggling weapons and other goods.
El-Sisi has embarked on an ambitious plan to destroy Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. Egypt said it destroyed nearly 95 percent of the Gaza tunnels last year, and more recently has started work on building a Gaza buffer of between 1 and 1.25 miles to prevent cross-border weapons smuggling and terrorism.
While El-Sisi has targeted terror groups in the Sinai, he has also waged an unrelenting crackdown on his top adversary—the Muslim Brotherhood. As a military leader, El-Sisi was an instrumental part of the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi. Once elected president, El-Sisi went on an all-out offensive against the Brotherhood, jailing thousands of its top leaders (including Morsi). The Muslim Brotherhood is also now a state-designated terrorist organization in Egypt.
At the same time, El-Sisi also targeted liberals, atheists, and homosexuals in his political crackdown, leading to criticism from human rights groups and a troubled relationship with the United States.
The tumultuous ties with the U.S. can be traced to the February 2011 revolution that led to the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The U.S. abandoned Mubarak’s regime against the wishes of other regional allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, in favor of pro-democracy protesters. After elections in Egypt were held, the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, and the U.S. supported the Brotherhood as part of an attempt to foster democracy in the Middle East amid the so-called “Arab Spring.”
But the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule was short, as the Egyptian people quickly soured on Morsi over his authoritarian stances and his push for an Islamist constitution. El-Sisi, who served as defense minister under Morsi, led the popular coup that overthrew the president.
“The Obama administration has not gotten over the way he dispatched the so-called democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood,”Middle East Forum’s Pipes said.
Indeed, shortly after El-Sisi started his term as president, the U.S. suspended its $1 billion in annual military and economic aid to Egypt due to the coup.
But while larger problems brew in the Middle East, particularly the emergence of Islamic State, the U.S. has changed its tone on Egypt and has signaled that it will restore foreign aid to the country. Kessler said the Egypt approach of the Obama administration and Congress has now “become more pragmatic” and boils down to the past priorities of “stability, protecting the Suez Canal, [the] peace treaty with Israel, and fighting Islamists.”
“El-Sisi provides all these things,” said Kessler.
At the same time, El-Sisi has taken steps to protect Egypt’s beleaguered Christian minority at a time when Christians throughout the Middle East have been driven from their ancient homelands and faced genocide at the hands of Islamic State.
On Jan. 6, El-Sisi made history by becoming the first Egyptian president to ever attend a Christmas mass. He was present at the Christmas mass at Cairo’s Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, where he visited with Coptic Pope Tawadros II and gave a brief speech.
For the most part, Egypt’s sizable Christian minority—making up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people—has strongly backed El-Sisi. Egyptian Christians have faced unrelenting attacks by Islamic extremists for years, including a massive wave of Muslim Brotherhood violence in August 2013.
“[El-Sisi’s] visit to the Coptic Cathedral during the Christmas Liturgy was a very nice touch. I greatly appreciate it,” Halim Meawad—co-founder of Coptic Solidarity, a U.S.-based international Coptic Christian human rights organization—told JNS.org.
Yet even with El-Sisi’s gestures, Egypt’s Christians still live under constant threat. Meawad said more needs to be done to restore dozens of Christian churches, buildings, and homes that were destroyed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups.
“President El-Sisi promised that every single [destroyed Christian structure] will be reconstructed by the army at the government’s cost,”Meawad said. “The army actually started, reconstructed 10 buildings, and stopped. The congregations are holding their worship meetings in the middle of the ruins and nobody knows whether the army will ever resume the construction work.”
Meawad acknowledged, however, that the Egyptian government has promised to reform laws in a way that makes it easier for Christians to construct new churches or repair existing ones.
“I realize the huge responsibilities this man (El-Sisi) shoulders and appreciate his courage, and that he risked his own life to save his country from a dark and dangerous future,” he said.
El-Sisi has also taken steps to improve Egypt’s economy, which has been in free-fall since Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.
“Economically, he has touched some sacred cows in Egypt, including reforming subsides, which for years observers said was a political death sentence,” Kessler told JNS.org.
One of these reforms is a new “smart card” system to help distribute government-subsidized bread to millions of Egyptians, enabling them to no longer wait in lines while also saving the government hundreds of millions of dollars in waste.
The political stability brought on by El-Sisi has also boosted foreign investors’ and tourists’ confidence in Egypt. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Egyptian economy will grow 3.5 percent this year.
“We have already seen a number of surprises with El-Sisi,” Kessler said. “The speech at Al-Azhar University, the visit to the Coptic Christian cathedral on Christmas Eve, and of course his complete and utter commitment to defeating jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula and firm hand against the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. … On economics, on combating terrorism and extremism, he has certainly been surprising, and I bet my money on more surprises to come,” Kessler said.