Islam’s Improbable Reformer
‘We are keen on a strategic relationship with the U.S. above everything else,’ says Egypt’s new president. ‘And we will never turn our backs on you—even if you turn your backs on us.’
Photo: Zina Saunders
March 20, 2015 6:17 p.m. ET
When then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi appointed a little-known general named Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to be his new defense minister in August 2012, rumors swirled that the officer was chosen for his sympathy with the teachings of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. One telltale sign, people said, was the zabiba on the general’s forehead—the darkened patch of skin that is the result of frequent and fervent prayer.
A pious Muslim must surely also be a political Islamist—or so Mr. Morsi apparently assumed. But the general would soon give the world a lesson in the difference between religious devotion and radicalism.
“There are misconceptions and misperceptions about the real Islam,” now-President Sisi tells me during a two-hour interview in his ornate, century-old presidential palace in Heliopolis. “Religion is guarded by its spirit, by its core, not by human beings. Human beings only take the core and deviate it to the right or left.”
Does he mean to say, I ask, that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are bad Muslims? “It’s the ideology, the ideas,” he replies.
“The real Islamic religion grants absolute freedom for the whole people to believe or not believe. Never does Islam dictate to kill others because they do not believe in Islam. Never does it dictate that [Muslims] have the right to dictate [their beliefs] to the whole world. Never does Islam say that only Muslims will go to paradise and others go to hell.”
Jabbing his right finger in the air for emphasis, he adds: “We are not gods on earth, and we do not have this right to act in the name of Allah.”
When Mr. Sisi took power in July 2013, following street protests against Mr. Morsi by an estimated 30 million Egyptians, it wasn’t obvious that he would emerge as perhaps the world’s most significant advocate for Islamic moderation and reform. His personal piety aside, Mr. Sisi seemed to be a typical Egyptian military figure. Unflattering comparisons were made to Hosni Mubarak, a former air force general and Egypt’s president-for-life until his downfall in 2011.
The similarities are misleading. Mr. Mubarak came of age in the ideological anti-colonialist days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, trained in the Soviet Union, and led the air campaign against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat elevated him to the vice presidency in 1975 as a colorless second-fiddle, his very lack of imagination being an asset to Sadat. He became president only due to Sadat’s assassination six years later.
Mr. Sisi, now 60, came of age in a very different era. When he graduated from the Military Academy, in 1977, Egypt was a close American ally on the cusp of making peace with Israel. Rather than being packed off to Russia, he headed for military training in Texas and later the infantry course at Fort Benning, Ga. He returned for another extended stay in the U.S. in 2005 at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Recalling the two visits, he notes the difference. “The U.S. had been a community that had been living in peace and security. Before 9/11, even the military bases were open. There was almost no difference between civilian life and life on a military base. By 2005, I could feel the tightening.”
The remark is intended to underscore to a visiting American journalist his deep sympathy with and admiration for the U.S. He also goes out of his way to stress that he has no intention of altering the pro-American tilt of Egyptian foreign policy, despite suggestions that he is flirting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for potential arms purchases and the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant.
“A country like Egypt will never be mischievous with bilateral relations” with America, he insists. “We will never act foolishly.” When I ask about the delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt—suspended by the U.S. after Mr. Morsi’s overthrow, and now pending a decision by President Obama—he all-but dismisses the matter.
“You can never reduce our relations with the U.S. to matters of weapons systems. We are keen on a strategic relationship with the U.S. above everything else. And we will never turn our backs on you—even if you turn your backs on us.”
There is also a deeper purpose to Mr. Sisi’s pro-American entreaties and his comments on 9/11: He wants to remind his critics of the trade-off every country strikes between security and civil liberties.
It’s a point he returns to when I note the anger and disappointment that so many Egyptian liberals—many of whom had backed him in 2013—now feel. New laws that tightly restrict street protests recall the Mubarak era. Last June several Al Jazeera journalists, including Australian reporter Peter Greste, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on dubious charges of reporting that was “damaging to national security,” though they have since been released. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, Mr. Morsi is in prison and on trial, and Egyptian courts have passed death sentences on hundreds of alleged Islamists, albeit mostly in absentia.
“My message to liberals is that I am very keen to meet their expectations,” Mr. Sisi rejoins. “But the situation in Egypt is overwhelmed.” He laments the Al Jazeera arrests, noting that the incident damaged Egypt’s reputation even as thousands of international correspondents “are working very freely in this country.”
Later, while addressing a question about the Egyptian economy, he offers a franker assessment. “In the last four years our internal debt doubled to $300 billion. Do not separate my answer to the question regarding disappointed liberals. Their country needs to survive. We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud and take all our time discussing issues like that. A country needs security and order for its mere existence. If the world can provide support I will let people demonstrate in the streets day and night.”
Sensing my skepticism, he adds: “You can’t imagine that as an American. You are speaking the language of a country that is at the top of progress: cultural, financial, political, civilizational—it’s all there in the U.S.” But if American standards were imposed on Egypt, he adds, it would do his country no favors.
“I talk about U.S. values of democracy and freedom. They should be honored. But they need the atmosphere where those values can be nurtured. If we can bring prosperity we can safeguard those values not just in words.”
All of this seems in keeping with Mr. Sisi’s military upbringing and reminds me of Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani general turned president. But the comparison is fundamentally inapt. Under Mr. Musharraf, Pakistan continued to make opportunistic deals with terrorists while giving safe harbor to leaders of the Afghan Taliban.
By contrast, it’s impossible to doubt the seriousness of Mr. Sisi’s opposition to Islamic extremism, or his aversion to exporting instability. In late February he ordered the bombing of Islamic State targets in neighboring Libya after ISIS decapitated 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel has never been closer, and Mr. Sisi has moved aggressively to close the tunnels beneath Egypt’s border with Gaza, through which Hamas has obtained its weapons.
Later this month, Mr. Sisi will host an Arab League summit, the centerpiece of which will be a joint Arab antiterrorism task force. He says he won’t put Egyptian boots on the ground to fight ISIS in Iraq, which he says is a job for Iraqis with U.S. help. And he takes care to avoid mentioning Iran’s regional ambitions or saying anything critical of its nuclear negotiations, which he says he supports while adding that “I understand the concern of the Israelis.”
But he does say the new force is needed “to preserve what is left” of the stable Arab world. In particular, he stresses that “there shouldn’t be any arrangements at the expense of the Gulf states. The security of the Gulf states is indispensable for the security of Egypt.”
He also decries the Western habit of intervening militarily and then failing to take account of the consequences. “Look, NATO had a mission in Libya and its mission was not accomplished,” he says. The U.N. continues to impose an arms embargo on Libya that adversely affects the legitimate, non-Islamist government based in Tobruk while “armed militias obtain an unstoppable flow of arms and munitions.”
“I wasn’t with the Gadhafi regime,” he says, “but there is a difference between taking an action and being aware of what that action will bring about. The risks of extremism and terrorism weren’t clear in the minds of the U.S. and Europe. It is really dangerous if countries lose control because extremists will cause them problems beyond their imagination.” The same lesson, he emphasizes, applies to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But Mr. Sisi is not a dogmatic critic of muscular U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Pondering the prospect of a broad U.S. retreat from the region, Mr. Sisi sounds like the most enthusiastic proponent of Pax Americana.
“The United States has the strength, and with might comes responsibility,” he says. “That is why it is committed and has responsibilities toward the whole world. It is not reasonable or acceptable that with all that might the United States will not be committed and have responsibilities toward the Middle East. The Middle East is passing through the most difficult and critical time and this will only entail more involvement, not less.”
Meantime, Mr. Sisi sees it as his personal mission to save Egypt, even as he insists he has no intention of becoming another president-for-life. When I ask him to name Mr. Mubarak’s biggest mistake, he says simply: “He stayed in power for a long time.”
A day before our interview, I watched him close an investment conference in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he celebrated General Electric’s decision to invest to ease Egypt’s chronic power outages. He describes his economic philosophy as “the need to encourage the business community to come here and invest.” He constantly stresses the imperative of acting swiftly: “The magnitude of the effort needed to secure the needs of 90 million people is huge and beyond any one man’s effort.”
He’s also aware that the most important work will take time. In January Mr. Sisi went before the religious clerics of Cairo’s Al-Azhar university to demand a “revolution” in Islam. The follow-through won’t be easy. “The most difficult thing to do is change a religious rhetoric and bring a shift in how people are used to their religion,” he says. “Don’t imagine the results will be seen in a few months or years. Radical misconceptions [about Islam] were instilled 100 years ago. Now we can see the results.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t think it’s doable. “Popular sympathy with the idea of religion was dominating the whole scene in Egypt for years in the past. This does not exist anymore. This is a change I consider strategic. Because what brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power was Egyptian sympathy with the concept of religion. Egyptians believed that the Muslim Brothers were advocates of the real Islam. The past three years have been a critical test to those people who were promoting religious ideas. Egyptians experienced it totally and said these people do not deserve sympathy and we will not allow it.”
Throughout our interview, Mr. Sisi has been speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. But after delivering this point, he said in colloquial American English, “You got that?”
Mr. Stephens writes the Journal’s “Global View” column.
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