It’s ironic that a number of (mostly right wing) commentators have been invoking the ideals of freedom of speech and expression while praising an authoritarian leader who has cracked down on these freedoms more than any of his nation’s authoritarian predecessors. American and European analysts on the right have called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi an Islamic “reformer” and an ally in the quest to deliver the message of Western freedom to Muslims.
The praise for Al-Sisi comes in the aftermath of his January 1, 2015 speech at Al-Azhar University, during which he called for an Islamic “religious revolution” to combat extremist thought in the Muslim-majority world. Analyses (which accelerated after the Charlie Hebdo attacks) have suggested that American leaders need to let Al-Sisi lead the charge against Islamist extremism and the Christian Post‘s Richard Land even compared his talk to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s troubling that Westerners claiming to be lovers of human rights would overlook, or downplay, Al-Sisi’s policy record—which features a military coup against a democratically elected president, large-scale massacres of civilian protesters, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of people (including many journalists), the shutting down of all oppositional media outlets, and the banning and effective elimination of key political competition, among other gross human rights violations.
Many Western writers have demonstrated a near-complete lack of contextual awareness. Read through the lens of Egypt’s political context, Al-Sisi’s talk of a “religious revolution” is about political domination, not religious reform. The 2013 military coup was not a confrontation against extremism: it was an attempt by Egypt’s “deep state” to reverse the nation’s democratic gains and to once again assume complete control over its political economic system.
It’s important to note that Egypt’s military coup was carried out against the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group that had dominated Egypt’s first-ever election season in 2011 and 2012. In all, the Brotherhood won five consecutive elections, and only one of the five votes was closely contested. With no indication that the Brotherhood could be defeated at the polls in the immediate future, procedural democracy became the enemy of Egypt’s corrupt state institutions—the army, police and judiciary. Bypassing elections and political competition was seen as necessary for the survival of Egypt’s ancien régime.
To justify and maintain support for the coup, Al-Sisi and his obsequious media apparatus described the Brotherhood as terrorists no different than Al-Qaeda and ISIS. A deeply entrenched hatred of conservative Muslims by some Egyptians—especially those sympathetic to the old regime—allowed Al-Sisi to successfully play the “terrorism” card and paint all Islamists with a broad brush.
Never mind that Al-Sisi’s portrayal belies reality and ignores the Brotherhood’s longstanding rivalry with Al-Qaeda, the group’s rejection of Al-Qaeda’s violence doctrine, and their argument that Islam is compatible with most elements of Western-style democracy.
The Muslim Brotherhood—while politically incompetent and arrogant—are not the extremists that Al-Sisi has sought to portray them as. The Brotherhood rejected violence more than 50 years ago, there is no evidence linking the Brotherhood to acts of terrorism inside or outside of Egypt, and the group regularly denounces acts of extremism committed in the name of Islam. Al-Sisi’s gripe with the Brotherhood—and with political Islam in general—is about his regime’s own political survival, not combatting extremism.
If Al-Sisi were sincerely interested in confronting extreme interpretations of Islam, he would start by rebuking Saudi Arabian extremism, which represents the ideological home for most Muslim extremists. On the contrary, Al-Sisi has embraced Saudi Arabia which, significantly, has helped finance Egypt’s return to authoritarianism. Even more damaging for recent attempts to paint him as a reformer is the fact that, in 2013, Al-Sisi allied himself with Egypt’s most hardline Islamist party, the Salafi Nour Party; and embraced Al-Azhar scholars who called for and supported state-sponsored violence against civilians.
Democracy, by engaging its citizens and providing avenues for expression and political involvement, greatly reduces the threat of extremism. Authoritarianism, most will agree, has a tendency to breed extremism and violent crime. If Western nations want to end or reduce the threat of Muslim-perpetrated terrorism, they should examine terrorism’s root causes, which include state-sponsored violence and repression.
Iraq was largely terrorism-free prior to the 2003 American invasion, but has become a hotbed of terrorist activity in its aftermath. Similarly, prior to a military coup and unprecedented state-sponsored repression in Egypt, there was no terrorism in Egypt’s major cities. Recently, however, Cairo, Alexandria and other major Egyptian cities have been the sites of terrorist violence. Sadly, Egypt’s state-sponsored massacres, current torture programs, mass arrests, mass death sentences, and political exclusionism have made the nation a popular recruiting ground for Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Rather than engage in fantastical discussions about Al-Sisi’s ability to lead an Islamic religious reformation, Western analysts might seek to promote true democratic reformation in Muslim nations and denounce the repression that creates the conditions under which extremists thrive—even if that democratic reformation comes with an Islamic flavor.