America Counts on Egypt, But Is It So Stable?

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the opening ceremony marking and $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal in 2015.. (Photo: David Degner/Getty Images).
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the opening ceremony marking the $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal in 2015. (Photo: David Degner/Getty Images).

America counts on Egypt as a solid ally in the volatile Middle East. Egypt is a country, along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, that buttresses the U.S. coalition against Iran and a stalwart in Africa.

But is the government of Egypt as stable as it seems?

If you believe the picture painted by Egypt’s state media, the answer is “yes.” State media portrays a stable Egypt, safe for tourists to flock to its many archaeological sites and beach resorts, an Egypt that is ripe for foreign investment and growth.

Indeed, on the surface, it appears that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government does have a firm handle on things.  They have thrown thousands of radical Muslim Brotherhood members and their sympathizers in jail.  On the economic front, the el-Sisi government has invested heavily into infrastructure—including building entire new cities.  And, in the past several years, the country has claimed an annual economic growth rate of a Chinese-esque 5-8 percent.

Yet, under the surface, there is potential for a large amount of trouble.  When el-Sisi first came to power, he was rather vocal in calling for a reformation in Islam.  The term he used was islah, which is somewhat stronger than our word “reformation.”  Islah means something more like “restructuring” or “repair.”

After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, el-Sisi went so far as to call for the de-sanctification of the hadiths and the sunna, as well as doing away with the books on Islamic jurisprudence (all of which were written in the 9th and 10th centuries).

El-Sisi’s call for islah received some notable support among Egypt’s Westernized intellectuals as well as among a handful of the editorialists for Egypt’s state-run al-Ahram newspaper and a popular TV talk show host named  al-Beheri.

But from the clergy?  A deafening silence.  From Egypt’s allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, etc.?  A deafening silence.

Worse, when el-Sisi asked Ahmad at-Tayyib, the top sheikh at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University (the equivalent of the Vatican to the Sunni Muslim world), to condemn ISIS, he received a verbal slap in the face.  Since then, el-Sisi has been virtually silent on the subject of islah for Islam.  He talks about islah for the economic sphere, but no more for the religious sphere.

In fact, at a recent speech at Cairo University (a traditional hotbed of fundamentalism), el-Sisi only’s words for those training to become teachers were to teach that Islam is a religion of peace and toleration.

This, of course, totally ignores the problem and takes the whole idea of an islah in Islam off the table and puts it firmly under the rug.

It is clear that el-Sisi has come to realize that if he pushes too hard on the issue, or tries to force it down the throats of the Al-Azhar sheikhs, he will lose in a bloody revolution.

Unfortunately, such a revolution may happen anyway, even without el-Sisi getting tough with Al-Azhar. Caught in his clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood and their mass arrests have been thousands of secular protesters.

This heavy-handed approach to security has angered much of the population.  The government tries to keep the lid on things by continually pushing the narrative of Egypt’s gains.

But it gets worse.

Reports out of Egypt claim that Al-Azhar itself is dominated by secret Muslim Brotherhood members and their (not so secret) sympathizers.

In other words, Al-Azhar, the bastion of “moderate” Islam in the Sunni world, essentially adheres to the same “interpretation” of Islam as does al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and the Saudi Wahhabis.

Last month, an Egyptian expert on extremist groups appeared on Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab TV outlet. He talked about a new group called Al-Murabitoun (those who live in the garrisons), which he claimed is spreading throughout the Egyptian army.  The expert said that there are dozens ofAl-Murabitoun cells throughout the army—and they are being led by “extremist” officers.

This is perhaps the most frightening bit of news around.  The population of Egypt is 100 million and growing.  The country has the largest, most powerful army in the Middle East.  The army is also the one institution that all Egyptians — Muslims, Christians, secularists and socialists — all look up to, respect and consider to be “Egypt itself.”

To see extremism spread throughout the officer corps, as well as the rank and file, bodes ill not only for Egypt, but for the entire Middle East (and beyond).

The online version of Al Arabiya published a similar article claiming there are currently four terror organizations operating in Egypt today: Al-Murabitoun, ISIS in the Sinai, Hasim, and Jund al-Khelaafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate).

I love Egypt.  I spent a year of my life there in the mid-‘70s learning Arabic, and I would like nothing better than to see Egypt lead the Arabs, and the entire Islamic world, into a true islah of the Islamic religion—returning it back to its pre-Medina roots — its Jewish, Christian and Ebionite roots.

In other words, to de-sanctify all the passages in the hadiths, the sunna, Qur’an 33:21 and the like that sanction Jew-hating, beheading, slavery, rape, wife beating and militant jihad against all non-believers.

I have a vision of the current el-Sisi government feasting in safety behind the fortified walls of their castle, imagining that the barbarians at their gates have no chance of breaking in.

But when I look closer at that castle, I see that it sits on top of a sea of Middle Eastern sand. And when the wind blows, and that sand shifts …



Egypt’s President El-Sisi Calls for Islamic Reformation

Egyptian Gov’t Says ISIS Came from Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt’s El-Sisi Enlists Islamic Scholars to Discredit Islamists


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Barry Webb

Barry Webb worked for 25 years as an analyst and Arabic translator for the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies where he held top secret clearances. Along with two colleagues, he compiled the nation’s first terrorism data base. He is the author of "Confessions of an (Ex) NSA Spy: Why America and its allies are losing the war on terror." His soon to-be-published book is titled "Clash of Civilizations 2.0: The Arab/Islamic View."