U.S. commentators have hailed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s January 2 call for a “religious revolution” in Islam as potentially Nobel Peace Prize-worthy, asking whether Sisi might be “Islam’s Martin Luther” and noting that he made the remarks at al-Azhar, “the epicenter of scholarly Islam.” Moreover, some of these commentators remarked that Sisi had matched his words with action by making a surprise visit to Christmas mass at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Previous Egyptian presidents had visited the Cathedral on other occasions, but Sisi was the first to appear during mass on a major holiday.
For close observers of Egypt, however, the former field marshal’s gestures fit into a pattern of instrumentalizing religion for political purposes. Sisi’s remarks at al-Azhar were part of a broader effort to control religious discourse, aimed partly at combating armed militants such as the Sinai-based insurgents of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, who recently pledged allegiance to the extremist group known as the Islamic State, but even more so at excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and several other Islamist groups from the public sphere. Since the July 2013 ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Brotherhood, the government has worked to align religious institutions with the military’s goals and narratives. In June 2014, a new law was decreed, restricting delivering Friday sermons to graduates of the state-controlled al-Azhar University, which in turn has expelled dozens of students who protested against the coup. Hundreds of small, unlicensed mosques were immediately shut down and dozens of citations were issued against imams lacking the necessary permits; the Ministry of Religious Endowments also began issuing the topics to be discussed.
Not a Push for Liberal Values
Hopes that Sisi will push al-Azhar to put forth an enlightened religious vision are also likely to be sorely disappointed, judging by recent evidence. Under Sisi, Egyptian authorities have continued to put forward a conservative definition of religion and to persecute those who dissent from it. Though the Egyptian constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute,” al-Azhar, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments launched a national strategy in summer 2014 to combat atheism. In December, an adviser to the grand mufti issued alarmed statements about the rise of atheism in Egypt, presenting statistics that supposedly showed that Egypt harbored the highest number of atheists (866 of them) in the Arab world. A few days later, Egyptian authorities shut down an “atheist café” in downtown Cairo, which they claimed was known for “Satan worship, rituals, and dances.” An Egyptian court sentenced a student to three years in jail for announcing on Facebook that he was an atheist in January 2015, and last month, a civil servant was referred to trial for promoting atheist ideas.
Nor does Sisi espouse a liberal or secular social vision. Since becoming president, Sisi has presided over a crackdown on Egypt’s LGBT community, an old tactic used during the Mubarak era to show the government as the protector of public morals. Egyptian security forces stormed a Cairo bathhouse in December 2014 in a widely publicized raid and arrested dozens of men on charges of “debauchery.” The 26 defendants were recently acquitted, but not after a publically humiliating arrest—including photos of undressed men herded into police vans—and trial. The public prosecutor has appealed the acquittal. More than 150 people have been arrested since June 2013 on the assumption that they were gay or transgender; some face prison sentences of up to twelve years.
Even tolerance for other monotheistic religions is lacking. Anti-Semitism remains rampant in the Egyptian press and media, and an Alexandria court recently ruled to ban the annual Abu Hasira festival—in honor of the Moroccan-born rabbi buried in Egypt—saying that the celebration violated public order and that Jews “did not contribute to the human knowledge of history of the civilization.” Persecution of the few Egyptian Shia Muslims also still occurs, after a peak in anti-Shia rhetoric during the Morsi era.
Sisi as Protector of the Christians
Regarding treatment of the Christian community, Sisi’s gesture of appearing at Christmas mass was a positive one, but on this issue as well there is little evidence that he will address the community’s long-standing grievances. Violence against Christians continues to pass without prosecution or redress, particularly in Upper Egypt, where the majority of Egypt’s Christians are concentrated and sectarian tensions remain high. Sisi has also done nothing to address long-standing Coptic demands to lift legal and administrative restrictions on church building, meaning that churches still cannot be built without a presidential decree. More recently, despite Sisi's promise to rebuild the dozens of churches damaged in rioting after the Rabaa massacre in August 2013, progress remains slow, and no one has been prosecuted for the related killing of eleven Christians. Finally, Christians continue to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy or insulting Islam. Examples include a twenty-three-year-old Christian social studies teacher sentenced to six months in prison for “denigrating Islam” and evangelizing among her students because she taught comparative religions, and a thirty-two-year-old convert to Christianity sentenced to five years for giving “misinformation” to foreign media about discrimination faced by Egyptian Christians.
Sisi might have appeared at the cathedral as a substitute for dealing with an issue that undoubtedly is quite difficult for him: the October 2011 Maspero massacre. Following the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt, a group of predominantly Coptic Christians were attacked by security forces while staging a peaceful sit-in by the Maspero television building in Cairo. Twenty-five protesters were killed—some of them run down and crushed by army vehicles, in ugly scenes captured on video—and more than 300 were injured. Three years later, many Copts, particularly young people, are still demanding accountability.
Coptic Pope Tawadros II has been a strong supporter of Sisi and has taken an ambivalent approach to Maspero. The pope told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in December that “it is not wise to talk about Maspero now,” and “we are seeking the truth, but at the suitable time.” After a backlash from the Coptic community, he reversed course and called for a criminal investigation into the killings, describing the massacre as “a horrifying and undeniable incident that is equally shocking as the 2011 Two Saints Church bombings” (referring to a terrorist bombing in which 21 were killed, another unsolved crime). Then the pope turned around again, claiming that “Maspero was a hoax orchestrated by the Brotherhood to confront the army.
Ceremonial visits to the Coptic pope, public statements about Muslim-Christian unity, exerting control over Muslim imams, diverting the public with salacious cases against atheists and gay people, refusing accountability for violence against Christians or other minority communities—all of these form parts of an old, sad story in Egypt and none are revolutionary. Religious freedom under Sisi’s presidency may not be worse than it was under Mubarak or Morsi, but it is certainly no better.