The Long Wait for "Enlightenment" in Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi answers questions during an interview, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in New York. Sisi di
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi answers questions during an interview, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in New York. Sisi discussed various issues including Egypt's role in the Middle East, his country's work on an expansion project to the Suez Canal, and relations with the United States. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The euphoria of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in 2013 was partially about anticipating a cultural "liberation" for Egypt from Islamism, from "the Middle Ages' mentality" and traditions that are "centuries behind." So a segment of Egypt's intelligentsia welcomed the subsequent rise of former army chief Abdel Fatta Al-Sisi to the presidency as marking the "restoration of the Egypt we know," the Egypt of a "liberal golden era" that is thought to have prevailed before the rise of Islamism, an era we are now nostalgic about.

In today's reality, more than two years after Morsi's ouster, Egypt has seen a poet handed down a prison sentence for "contempt of Islam", a researcher and TV presenter already serving a jail sentence for the same charge plus "defaming Islam", a novelist sentenced to prison over "sexually explicit" writing, and youth convicted and jailed over "atheism." There are also Coptic Orthodox Christian teens who were sentenced for appearing in a video mocking the Muslim prayers.

These examples and others serve as a reminder that Egypt's Sisi is no moderniser or reformer. Nor is the military establishment that he hails from. His core trait when it comes to ideology and thought is his being opposed to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, and that could be largely related to power struggle more than it is to ideology.

He can't have overseen the imprisonment of scores of youth (including Islam Beheiry, the TV presenter, and Ahmed Nagi, the novelist) for the sake of modernity and an Islamism-free Egypt. In cases like those of Nagi, the "atheist" youth and the Coptic teens, the defendants were arrested, prosecuted and convicted while Sisi was president. Some may argue that this has taken place through the judiciary, not the president, and based on laws that have been in place for many years. But let's not forget that when he wanted to, the president exercised legislative powers in the absence of a parliament (parliamentary elections were eventually held in late 2015), issuing and amending controversial pieces of legislation such as the counterterrorism law, described by Amnesty International as "draconian", and others. Laws guaranteeing more freedoms, including freedom of creativity and art and freedom of expression, were not on his legislative to-do list.

In fact it is under Sisi that the Ministry of Youth, in cooperation with the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Al-Azhar, announced a governmental plan to combat atheism among youth.

Sisi's Alliance With Salafis

One straightforward proof that Sisi's and the military's moves in the past years have been guided by power politics rather than a desire to "modernise" Egypt or preserve its "civic identity", is the state's temporary alliance with the Salafi Al-Nour Party, which was founded by the "Da'wa Salafiya School". Daw'a Salafiya is a loose group bound together by thought rather than organization. In their memoirs, several Da'wa Salafiya scholars take pride in their school of Salafi thought being deeply rooted in Saudi Arabia's Wahabism.

When then-Defense Minister Sisi gave a historic televised speech announcing Morsi's ouster on July 3, the 15 or so pubic figures who were flanking him included army officers, Azhar's Grand Imam, the Coptic Orthodox Church's Pope and - of all leaders of political parties - the secretary general of Al-Nour Party, which was founded by Da'wa Salafiya.

Those who still see the military as the only saviour from Islamism and the only force able to protect Egypt's identity might think that the alliance between the post-Morsi state and Salafis has been only tactical, aimed at counterbalancing the Muslim Brotherhood's powerbase on the streets. This is based on the assumption that the army is a neutral entity that keeps an equal distance from all political and ideological forces. The problem with this assumption is that it does not take account of the Egyptian military's economic and political interests, which it is likely to be keen to preserve before preserving the civic identity of Egypt, whatever this may mean.

Economically, the military has its own companies, factories and projects. It constructs roads, housing units, airports and even swimming pools. In effect, it is a competitor with the private sector's contractors, except that it is a privileged contractor that happen to enjoy coercive powers that private sector rivals do not have. Politically, the army is a key stakeholder in Egypt's foreign policy, with the $1.3 billion it receives in annual aid from the United States being the key pillar in US-Egyptian relations.

Egypt's military can neither be characterised as secularist or Islamist. Military establishments are conservative by nature - and more so in the Egyptian army's case. If the so-called Islamic revival of the 70s is believed to have influenced Egyptian society, pushing it toward more conservatism, then the personnel of Egypt's Armed Forces are no exception. Societal and cultural dynamics are too complicated. Both the army and Islamist groups, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, have affected each other and fed each other's cultures, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Those who sanction the unprecedented human rights violations committed against the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of protecting Egypt's "civic identity", those waiting for the army to enable enlightenment and modernity to take root in Egypt, had better realize that their wait will never bear fruit.

Moreover, they need to get rid of a war fought by secularists against Islamists' "Islamic revival" in the 1970s, because Egypt is no longer in the 70s. Egyptians do not have to make a choice between an old-fashioned secularism that condescends to religion and rejects its presence in the public sphere, on the one hand, and Islamism, which has never succeeded in crystallizing a clear vision of the alternative it claims to offer, on the other hand. Both camps need to pursue new paradigms that value freedom, liberty and multiculturalism; cherish diversity; and encourage tolerance.