The frontrunner for the Egyptian presidency, General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, said in his first television interview that he will not reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood and advocated a civil state instead of an Islamic state. This follows his earlier call for a modernist reformation in Islamic teachings.
El-Sisi’s comments on an Islamic state came when the interviewer asked him his position of responding to those that refer to Muslims in the “wrong way.” It was an indirect reference to the prohibition of “blasphemy” and other laws that punish free speech towards Muslims.
He suggested that he’d oppose them, saying, “In Islam, there was a civil state, not an Islamic one.” The implications of this statement are massive. El-Sisi, a self-described devout Muslim, seems to be arguing that Islamic theology favors separation of mosque and state.
He said in another part of the interview that “religious discourse in the entire world has deprived Islam from its humanity.” Instead of blaming the Muslim world’s problems on conspiracy theories and Western influence, he is telling Muslims to look inward.
This is a reiteration of his earlier theme in January. A translation of the media coverage of his speech reads:
“Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, and [El-Sisi] pointed to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”
In that same speech, El-Sisi told Muslims to correct the negative image of Islam through example. He didn’t characterize this negativity as part of a war on Islam, but instead attributed it to Islam being “for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam.”
It is questionable how far El-Sisi will go in confronting the Islamist ideology as a whole, though. From a political standpoint, sharia as a form of governance remains very popular among the Egyptian public. The population’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood was based in unhappiness with the group’s rule and not opposition to the entire concept of sharia governance.
El-Sisi’s language is very encouraging, but it is difficult to reconcile this language with El-Sisi’s past support for sharia in the constitution and former reputation as an Islamist sympathizer within the military. In fact, then-President Morsi promoted El-Sisi as part of his campaign to tighten his grip on the military.
El-Sisi’s desire to crush the Brotherhood and Hamas is for certain, however. His track record proves that.
When asked about reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Sisi said the Islamist group would “not exist” under his presidency. He justified the prosecution of a senior Brotherhood official named Khairat El-Shater by recalling a statement on June 23 where he threatened that foreign fighters from Libya, Syria and Afghanistan would come to the Brotherhood’s aid.
The Muslim Brotherhood denies involvement in terrorism, but El-Sisi said that the Brotherhood camouflages itself and commits the violence under different names.
Another important part of El-Sisi’s interview is his story about the harmony he had with Jews and Christians growing up. He remembers hearing the church bells and people walking into the synagogue without fear.
He went out of his way to depict Jews as peaceful people that Muslims can live with. He could have chosen not to address Jews or he could have vilified them to boost his anti-Israel credentials, especially since an Egyptian journalist claimed he is Jewish. He did neither and that is significant.
It is also significant that El-Sisi didn’t make Israel a major issue in the interview. When the topic came up, he did not regurgitate the anti-Israel/anti-Western propaganda that is commonplace.
Instead, he discussed Hamas negatively and said the group cannot be equated with all Palestinians. He expressed support for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and said he’d even visit Israel if it would help the peace process.
When pressed, El-Sisi will still express hostility to Israel but, unlike the Islamists, he is not calling for Israel’s destruction. Considering the state of Arab public opinion, his anti-Israel rhetoric is as minimal as one can reasonably hope for from a major presidential candidate.
Consider El-Sisi’s only major competitor for the presidency, Hamdeen Sabahi. He is a secular democrat; a moderate by Egypt’s standards. He is anti-Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, his language towards Israel and the West differs very little from the Islamist agitators. He even said in 2005 that he supports Al-Qaeda when it murders U.S. soldiers.
Sabahi enthusiastically endorses fighting Israel. In a television interview featuring spokesmen for both candidates, Sabahi’s mouthpiece passionately declared, “We support anyone who points his gun at the Zionist enemy.”
“Our enmity with the Zionist enemy goes to our very existence. It’s either us or them. No peace is possible. That’s what we believe,” he said.
The El-Sisi spokesman expressed solidarity with those fighting Israel (except those that also threaten Egypt), but did not endorse the elimination of Israel. He did not go on and on about an eternal struggle with Zionists.
There’s much to be desired in the answer, but let’s be realistic. No viable presidential candidate in Egypt is going to foreswear the struggle against the “Zionist enemy” right now. By the standards of the Arab world, the El-Sisi spokesman’s response was tame and the language directly from El-Sisi is even tamer. If his tone continues as president, it will do much to improve the political atmosphere of the region.
There are legitimate concerns that El-Sisi’s ascent to the presidency will birth a Mubarak-like military regime. We all hope that El-Sisi will guide Egypt along a democratic transition, but such a transition cannot be successful until the Islamist ideology is marginalized.
If El-Sisi does indeed pursue a civil state instead of an Islamic state and promotes modernization in Islamic religious discourse, then Egypt could lead the region and the Muslim world towards a brighter and more peaceful future.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.