Unpacking Sisi’s religiosity

Religion has a strong presence in Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s interviews and meetings. He almost always mentions a verse from the Quran or a hadith to support his political stance, or to highlight his views regarding a certain issue, be it women, tourism, or whatever else. But Sisi’s evocation of religion in his speech and quotes is not the only thing worth noting here. What is also worth being attentive to is the faint echoing of a religious “project” (with an ideological tendency) which Sisi might try to apply or impose on society as president.

The upbringing

Sisi’s upbringing is one of the major keys to understanding his religious rhetoric, both in terms of its content and indications. According to the scarce information available on the early years of Sisi’s life, he grew up in the Gamaleya district (al-Barquqiya alley) close to al-Hussain neighborhood, the most prominent religious site in Cairo, which is surrounded by a vast number of mosques and prayer rooms, and where many religious rituals, traditions, and various rites are performed, from Sufism to Shiite beliefs. Apparently, Sisi’s upbringing in this social incubator has molded his notions and religious views somehow. It is also worth noting that he descends from the same family as Abbas al-Sisi, one of the leading figures in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, who played a significant role in the revival of the organization in the 1970s. Some have tried to link both men, after the former was appointed Minister of Defense in August 2012, by ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Abbas al-Sisi’s son has denied any such connection, however.  

Sisi graduated from the military academy in 1977. This was a time when the Islamic movements’  “daawa” (call) was at its peak in Egyptian universities, and the movement had gained supporters and sympathizers in military academies as well. Sisi belongs to the same generation of the Islamist officers who planned the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat, namely Khalid al-Islamboly, Atta Tayel, Hussein Abbas, and others. He also witnessed the Islamic high tide of the 1970s, which saw the emergence of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad groups.

Some have claimed that his religious tendencies started to clearly show in the mid-80s, to an extent that he had considered early retirement from military service, to grow a beard and work in the field of Islamic da’wa. Regardless of the validity of these claims, it is obvious that Sisi was influenced, in a way, by the rise of the Islamist current during Sadat and the early years of Mubarak’s rule.

Sisi’s religiosity could be discerned by revisiting the time he spent in the United States in 2004, to obtain a fellowship in the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. His religious tendencies were revealed not only through his conservatism, pointed out by one of his college professors, but also through the content of his research thesis, titled “Democracy in the Middle East.” In his thesis, Sisi emphasized the importance of culture and religion in public life, and how both influence democracy in the Arab world. Robert Springborg, a professor specializing in civil- military relations in Egypt, has accordingly anticipated that Sisi will try to establish a system that marries “Islamism” and “military dictatorship.”

Deconstructing Sisi’s religious rhetoric

Politicians’ utilization of religious rhetoric could merely be a veneer to gain public sympathy, without representing a certain depth or ideology. But it could also reflect a belief and a conviction that religion must play a prominent role in public life.

A closer look at Sisi’s religious rhetoric unmasks several concerns. First of all, Sisi’s religiosity goes beyond the mainstream religious conservative tendency adopted by a considerable section of Egyptians. One could say that Sisi’s is more of an “organized” form of religiosity. By that I mean to say that Sisi’s religious knowledge is not just a shallow or reductive one, as is the case of the majority of Egyptians, whose popular religious beliefs were superficially influenced by the Salafi tide, which dominated in the last two decades. It is rather a structured knowledge reflecting his religious upbringing in Islamic abodes. There are two possible scenarios: he was either exposed to one of the dormant Islamic organizations, such as the Islamic Law Society (al-Jam’iya al-Shar’iya), or the Society of Sunnah Advocates (Jam’iyet Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiya) during his early childhood, perhaps sometime between elementary and preparatory education. These organizations are widespread in different parts of Cairo. Another possibility is that he was — and maybe still is — part of one of the hundreds of Sufi sects (or influenced by them), which have strong presence in al-Hussain and Sayeda Zeinab areas, and other lower-class districts in Egypt.

Second of all, Sisi’s rhetoric unveils his robust religious view, which transcends appealing public slogans and aspires to imposing a specific lifestyle and values. In a recent statement, Sisi emphasized the importance of the role that the state and its leader have in protecting religion, values and principles in society.

Thirdly, Sisi religious rhetoric is highly politicized. This politicization is first evident in affirming the role of religion in public life, in order to influence the attitudes and behavior of the people. And secondly, he uses this politicized religious rhetoric as a tool in the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, Sisi’s announcement that the coup on July 3 was “to save Islam and Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood” was not peculiar. Ironically, Sisi seems to have stepped into the same dilemma which he condemns the Brotherhood for, using religion in politics.

Fourthly, Sisi’s religious understanding is largely orthodox, with a populist taint that is underscored by a Sufi tendency on one hand (as evident in his discourse on visions, dreams, and omens), and a Salafi influence on the other. He believes in the classical school of thought (Madraset al-’Aql al-’Ihali), rather than progressive interpretation (ta’wil) of Islamic teachings and texts, which indicates that his religious views are more conservative and regressive than some Islamists.

Finally, his religious discourse is surpassingly ultranationalist, whereby he believes that the dissemination of religious awareness is the responsibility of the state and its apparatuses. Sisi points out that the state is responsible for spreading “proper religious awareness’” among citizens, to counter extremism. He is continuously reiterating that religious rhetoric requires reform, and he uses this to invalidate the Islamic groups, most of all the Muslim Brotherhood.

The fallout of the rhetoric: from words to policies

Apparently, Sisi has been using religious rhetoric in a smart and spontaneous way, at least until now. It seems that he knows how and when to adopt it. One important question remains, though: Will these words and rhetoric materialize into actual policies? In other words, is Sisi going to become an “Islamist” president imposing his vision and views on the state, society, and citizens?

It may be too early to judge or anticipate this. However, we can be certain that Sisi will continue to use religion as a tool in his political game, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood. Religion is, after all, a focal point conflict between Sisi and the Brotherhood, not only in the ontological and ideological sense (i.e. the apprehension, the visions, and the insights), but also in terms of what it represents as a social, iconic, and spiritual asset in the socio-political conflict, and attempts to dominate the public sphere. Therefore, Sisi might try to build a social mass as a counterpart to the Brotherhood, through utilizing his religiosity and conservative views on the state, society and his value system.

Additionally, his rhetoric should warn us that personal freedoms might face real threats in Sisi’s Egypt. This is especially true with regards to freedom of religion, belief and expression. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sisi adopted a fanatical rhetoric towards religious minorities, like Shiites and Baha’is, as the defender of the mandates and the immaculacy of mainstream Sunni Islam.

Also, any intensification of his religious rhetoric in the future would definitely create a struggle with extremist Islamist groups. This would add to the ideological and dogmatic conflict with these groups, which will diminish the possibilities of stability in the country.

The attitude of the liberal and secular sectors towards Sisi’s religiosity is most puzzling. Some of them seem to have entered a state of disappointment and shock, due to the conspicuous presence of religion in his rhetoric and speeches. Apparently, their conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood prevented them from adequately expressing this shock, so as not to give the Brotherhood a chance to gloat over it. Many of them have, after all, claimed that their support of the July 3 coup was out of fear that the Brotherhood would turn Egypt into a theocracy, not to mention their condemnation of what they considered a crackdown on personal and religious freedoms during the rule of Morsi.

Sisi might not attempt to turn Egypt into a religious state following the Iranian or Pakistani models, as was the case during the rule of General Mohamed Diaa al-Haqq in the late seventies and eighties, for example, but he is definitely not going to build a free civil state, where individuals enjoy their personal freedoms without the guardianship of the state and the president.

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Khalil al-Anani