Egyptian President Al-Sisi is a Dictator, Not a Reformer of Islam

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.


  •' GregAbdul says:

    salaam alaikum to the Muslims and peace to everyone else. American white conservatives obviously believe peace is only for some people and not others. Blacks, Muslims, gays and women are groups that America’s white racist misogynists whites have fought against for decades. In America, (France is showing as well), they show they really don’t like it when anyone outside of a white Western man enjoys the freedom they lie and claim they want for the entire world. Every time the GOP wins an election these days, it’s a victory for racism. Jindal is the latest to show he really does not like the idea of free Muslims receiving equal treatment anywhere in the world, not even in countries where Muslims are the majority. They are enemies of MLK who lie on him and his legacy as they maintain the system and the ideas that King died fighting. But “We Shall Overcome Someday.”

  •' songswift says:

    While the author of this article brings deeply important issues concerning Egyptian freedom of speech and democratic processes to light, overall, this is an opinion fluff piece tilted towards exonerating the Muslim Brotherhood of all ties to extremist Islam and its own authoritarian flavour of bad governance. The piece glosses blithely over the fact that Morsi suspended the judiciary in order to ramrod through an extremely conservative Constitution, thereby granting himself Pharaonic powers that completely abandoned due process. As well, there was a virtual war against freedom of the press vis a vis a literal, physical blockade of media offices that endangered the lives of prominent Egyptian media figures. Egypt was well on its way to becoming another failed African state. This “coup” of which the author speaks was in fact mandated by an overwhelming majority of Egyptians who took to the streets in what was arguably the world’s largest ever mass protest. While Sisi demonstrates an arguably authoritarian flair, Egypt is far better off now than it was during Morsi’s tenure. It’s 101 common opinion here that America was actively propping up the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremist version of Shariah in order to divide and conquer Egypt, much the same way as that has happened in Iraq and Syria. The only reason that plan was thwarted was due to the Egyptian people themselves having demanded that Sisi step in and wrestle control away from this insidious neo-conservative imperative and return sovereignty of Egypt to Egyptians. Egypt thus remains one of the few sovereign states in the Middle East not under the thumb of extremist Islam which is in turn under the thumb of Western colonialism.

  • This piece amounts to thinly veiled pro-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda. Muslim Brotherhood – the proto-Al Queda and burner of Coptic Christian churches – ‘a moderate Islamist group’? Really?

    Fact is that whatever shortcomings there may be in Al-Sisi’s rule, they’re ultimately attributable to MB and the horrific manner in which Morsi governed in his (mercifully short) term.

    In fact, I’d say the problems in Egypt are ultimately attributable to Obama for his insane policy of agitation. The problems in all of the Middle East, really, Obama’s foreign policy has been that recklessly bad.

  • I think America and France have demonstrated that ‘white Western men’ don’t really like it when people come into their communities and proceed to treat them with contempt, hostility and violence.

    ‘Racism’ really has nothing to do with it, despite how fond certain elements are of throwing that card on the table over any and every issue.

  •' Hans says:

    This article is pure MB propaganda. Sisi spoke clearly and truthfully. He is actually a great friend to Islam for speaking this way, when almost no one else dares. Do you really believe he can create an open society when he must confront radical Islam day in and day out? PLEEAASE!

  •' Lance Sjogren says:

    Yes life is complicated. The elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt condoned barbaric behavior by Muslim extremists, while the dictatorship of Al Sisi preaches tolerance.

  •' Lance Sjogren says:

    Yeah, those white supremacists are imposing their decadent values by saying it’s not OK to kill people because of their religion or political views, it’s not OK to rape women in the name of Allah, and it is not OK to throw gay people off of buildings to their death.

    How dare they seek to impose those honkey values on others!

  • Yeah, including gays in that little pro-MB diatribe was a bit much.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    racism has everything to do with it. Today racism usually hides behind white denial. blacks are mistreated in America and the same whites who have held on to mistreating blacks and killing MLK, coincidentally think Muslims need some bad treatment too. It’s SPREADING racism. There is no religious aw that I know of that condones violence against innocent people, so your statement is a straw man. Blacks today still live worse and separate lives than white Americans. You are here cheering a dictator who has slaughtered thousands…..I guess it’s just more white American exceptionalist democracy at work.

  • Accusations of ‘straw men’ are rich coming from someone who uses boilerplate, scatter-gun accusations of racism to distract from the fact that 1) Muslim Brotherhood is a violent and extremist organization with a long history of anti-Christian violence and 2) Al-Sisi took power to prevent MB from politically and economically ruining Egypt.

    What Morisi’s regime did in their short time in power was indefensible, end of story.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    I sort of need to apologize. Call it bottled up frustration at being off line for a white. My rage is understandable but my faith orders me to rise above it. I make three simple points.

    There are actually groups of trolls and even major news sources that say Muslims are an evil group and that we deserve massive stereotyping and deprivation of our basic civil rights. A Jew or a white Christian man who commits a crime (and they do regularly) are lone individuals or a societal failing (we didn’t help fast enough), but a Muslim who happens to go bad is definitive proof that Islam teaches all Muslims to be evil. This is said with deadly straight and serious faces. All Jews are evil? All blacks are evil? Hell. All whites are evil? No one for one second would take such racist talk. But here we are in long conversations that are supposed to decide whether all Muslims are evil. The racist double standard here, that denies my individual humanity, solely based on my prayers…is staggering.

    This is going on as we spent this past weekend remembering Martin Luther King. The man how said, people should be judged INDIVIDUALLY, by “the content of their character”….well unless you are a Muslim. The French are engaged in a huge lie and double standard that says it’s okay to abuse Muslims and have special rights that reduce them to lesser citizens…and as the facts came out, the whole world cheered and called it free speech. But the ACLU has taught us over the years that free speech is not when a third party insults someone you don’t like on the sly. True free speech and defense of freedom is when the Klan marched in Stokie. It’s when you defend speech YOU find offensive…not when the speech happens coincidentally to offend someone you have a secret dislike for.

    So we see religious freedom turning into a boss’ right to force his religion on his employees and a government condoning the marginalization of its immigrant community in the name of free speech.

    God help us.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Could those accusing this writer of producing propaganda answer the assertion that this man is responsible for “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.” In addition, could you do it objectively? Or maybe the voices we have heard are already too partisan to be objective. Can anyone address this? I’m behind and it would be appreciated. I’m frankly really bored and irritated (the two emotions do go hand-in-hand) by all the pointless yelling. I’m done with it.

  •' Craptacular says:

    I notice you left the atheists out of your diatribe. Do they have rights? How do you feel about Saudi Arabia incarcerating/punishing atheists as terrorists?

  •' GregAbdul says:

    your question contains an assumption that really has nothing to do with either of us. How do I feel about people like Bill Mahr and the new intolerant atheists? A bigot is a bigot. The old bigots were name only Christians. The new intolerant atheists claim they are about not believing, but really they are about hating people who believe, especially Muslims. Are you an intolerant atheists? That’s called GERMANE.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “How do I feel about people like Bill Mahr and the new intolerant atheists?” – GregAbdul

    That wasn’t even close to my question. I was responding to your paragraphs that mentioned how people of faith should be judged according to their individual actions, and I was just wondering if you agreed with according atheists this same treatment. As an atheist who is not Bill Mahr, I find it interesting that you immediately jumped to the “intolerant atheist” meme, which pretty much tells me what I wanted to know.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    ho hum…..(sigh) I am not patient these days. I get tired of having to duck the stupid things people do everyday. I mentioned serveral categories and said that ALL people should be treated as individuals. I certainly did not attack any particular group or make an argument that there is a certain group that should not receive fair treatment as individuals. In fact, my argument was the OPPOSITE…so for you to then pull out of my first post, that somehow I was sending a secret message to hate atheist (I didn’t mention chinese, so I that means I hate chinese…) you are pulling something out of of thin air, or better yet, you are pulling out poop from where the sun don’t shine. You last comment was to ask me about specific Egyptian law. I am NOT an Egyptian. NEITHER ARE YOU. and neither of us live there. I asked a more relevant question AFTER I told you your questions were irrelevant. There is no hate campaign against atheist in America that i know of, while there is an open campaign against Muslims in the West and all too often atheists are right there jumping in and helping out. Your replies did not tell me what I wanted to know. They told me, but what I wanted you to tell me is that you stand with MLK and Thomas Jefferson….instead you showed me you have a slight problem with logical progression and comprehension and you assume a whole lot when you read by what you don’t see written right in front you.

  •' Craptacular says:

    Look, you seem the nice sort, I was actually asking a sincere question regarding how you feel about atheists. In my experience with the religious, even some of the best sort who tout “freedom of religion” and “judge others according to their actions” have told me to my face that it doesn’t apply to atheists, due to their depraved nature. So I did drag a bit of my baggage into this thread, but looking back at my question, “Do they have rights?” and following it up by requesting your input on an example of a law that is obviously biased was not an attack on you or your beliefs, but an honest query. A simple, “yes, atheists have the same rights as the religious” would have sufficed. It seems pretty clear that I hit one of your triggers just as you hit one of mine :).

  •' GregAbdul says:

    If you are an old school atheist, who simply wishes to exercise your freedom not to worship and you are not a new school atheist, the ones who are full of intolerance and who join with Hate Inc., then I have no problem with you as an old school atheists. Islam forbids me from forcing anyone to pray to anything. God has given you the freedom to pray or not to pray in any way you see fit. I only seek the same freedom for me and those in my care. Marijuana laws are biased (black boys are the ones who end up locked up). Laws always have bias. Traffic laws are biased against people who like fast cars. The real issue is, does the bias serve a purpose? In Egypt, Egyptian (dictators usually) make the law. If it were up to me I would get rid of the dictator. Now lets reverse it. How would you feel if ANY country had the balls to think they could tell Americans what laws we should and should not have? Could Russia judge us and try to coerce us into to the laws they think Americans should have? Netanyahu just came to the US in a very wrong way, doing an end run on the State Department. As Americans, we should be offended and tell him NO WAY….He is openly trying to run American policy by going around the President. Hate Obama or love him, I will NEVER let the leader of Israel tell me what American law should be. That’s why we have elections and NOT a dictator and we elected the President to speak for us on foreign affairs. We Americans don’t respect democracy sometimes and that is my issue with you….I condemn Sisi because I know he is a dictator who slaughters his own people. I don’t have the time or inclination to pick apart Egyptian law….their law is a joke because they are not a democracy.

  •' whaaaaaaaaaat says:

    I know an Egyptian and he says Sisi regime is complete shit. They were probably better off with Mubarek.

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