For the second time, Egyptian President El-Sisi attended a Coptic Christmas mass — a strong symbolic move that he was the first head of state to make. This year, he asked the Christians to "please accept our apologies" for their persecution and the length of time it has taken to rebuild churches attacked by Islamists. He pledged to have every single one fixed within one year.
"God [Allah] has created us different … in religion, manner, color, language, habit, tradition … and no one can make us the all same," he said to an applause.
In the days before the Christmas mass, El-Sisi used the holiday of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday to criticize Islamic religious authorities, challenging them to send Christmas wishes to Christians and to preach that no one should be harmed for their choice of religion. It was a direct shot at the Islamist teachings that Muslims who leave the faith should be executed for apostasy.
"In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the other? We neither teach or practice it," he said.
The Egyptian Streets website quoted him as saying:
"Can I impose upon someone pressure, physically or morally, to change their religion? Would God accept this?”
“What are we afraid of? Are we custodians of people’s minds or choices? No we are not. In religion specifically, no. Each of us will be judged independently … and [people] will have to answer [for their choices and what they choose to believe]."
El-Sisi became the first Egyptian President to attend a Christmas mass last year, where he appealed to the country's strong nationalism to undercut anti-Christian sentiment. He proclaimed in his televised remarks, "Let no one say, ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’… It is not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians.’ We must only be Egyptians!”
"We will love each other for real, so that people may see," he said as he stood next to Coptic leaders and fought back tears in his eyes on national television.
After the Islamic State (ISIS/ ISIL) executed a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians, El-Sisi emphasized that their deaths were just as heinous as if they had executed Muslims. Amazingly, some Muslims responded by donating money to build a Coptic church.
El-Sisi is most known for his epic declaration last year that Egypt must lead a modernist reformation in Islamic interpretations, placing the blame for Islamic terrorism and human rights abuses squarely on teachings rooted in Islamism (political Islam). He is direct in saying that Egypt must not be an Islamic state, but a civil one.
He has also confronted sexual violence towards women and the "honor" culture that permeates it, as explained in Clarion Project’s film Honor Diaries, documentary that has been shown in several Muslim countries, including Egypt. Last year, El-Sisi met with a woman who was raped in Tahrir Square to personally apologize to her and all victimized women.
El-Sisi said that "our honor is being violated in the streets," a statement whose powerful wording was missed by most media outlets. This statement carried two messages: First, that the abuse of women in the name of "honor" is itself a violation of honor. Secondly, any sexual assault on a woman is an attack on the honor of both the women and men of Egypt. He was redefining the concept of "honor" in a non-misogynistic way.
The current Egyptian government is a topic that divides human rights advocates and Muslim foes of Islamism.
El-Sisi's critics argue that he is nothing but a new Hosni Mubarak, a military dictator whose claims of transiting to democratic governance is nothing but a crafty façade. His government is frequently criticized by human rights organizations, charges that it predictably disputes. Egypt blames the Western media for unfair coverage influenced by Muslim Brotherhood propaganda. There are also some that question the sincerity of his commitment to fighting Islamism.
His supporters believe that El-Sisi's strongman tactics are necessary for a successful phased transition to democracy that must accomplish security, economic growth, dismantlement of the Islamist infrastructure of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and a reformation of Islamic teachings. El-Sisi says the West must be mindful that progress must be measured in increments, conceding, "I am not ashamed to admit that there is a civilizational gap between us and you."
Islamist extremism and persecution of Christians and women cannot be effectively challenged without powerful voices using loud megaphones. Whether you support El-Sisi or oppose him or find yourself somewhere in between, having the president of the largest Arab country attend the Coptic Christmas mass and making these bold statements is an extremely positive and potentially decisive change.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.