In his TV interviews last week, Egypt’s presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi outlined the aspects of his vision and the challenges and problems facing Egypt and how to rise to those challenges. The aspects that are singled out most is the Muslim Brotherhood, political Islam and Al-Sisi’s understanding of the role of religion in society.
Al-Sisi’s vision embraces two points of view. The first is how to understand Islam while the second is his rejection of political Islam and the interference of religion in politics.
Piety, for Al-Sisi, is a special relationship between man and God. No one has the right to assess this relationship or pass judgement on it as right or wrong. His understanding includes renouncing extremism and religious guardianship while criticising people who try to control others under the pretence of being the only real Muslims while others are not, and that those “others” need guidance to the right path.
Al-Sisi rejects religious extremism because it is alien to Egyptians and their well-known tolerant nature and their religiousness practised ages ago. Their pattern is non-doctrinal, non-sectarian and knows no fanaticism. It is part and parcel of Egyptians’ daily life and reconciles with the self and with others who follow a different religion.
He pointed out that his vision of religion had developed while living in Gamaleya district in Cairo, which is one of the oldest popular neighbourhoods. It is characterised by piety as it is in proximity to Al-Hussein Mosque and lies in the heart of Fatimid Cairo. Al-Sisi’s opinion of religion was also formed through cherishing religious traditions that influenced him, and through the richness of the belief that tolerant coexistence between Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews is possible without allowing this difference of belief to affect their behaviour or their lives.
Al-Sisi’s understanding of religion falls within the dominant culture in Egypt, especially the religious aspect of it. Most Egyptians follow a specific religious pattern which is deeply rooted inside themselves and distinguishes them from other people. This pattern is characterised by its moderation and non-sectarianism. Egyptian history clarifies perfectly this point. For example, Egypt was under Fatimid Shiite rule for 200 years but when it ended, Egyptians followed the Sunnah in the era of the Ayyubid without suffering doctrinal tensions.
Al-Sisi rejects the existence of the Muslim Brotherhood in his future presidential term because the group combines religion with politics. His opinion is based on Egypt’s experience with the group which almost dragged the country into civil war. Moreover, the constitution which was voted in by a majority of votes endorses this view and bans forming parties on a religious basis.
Using political analysis, we can say that the view of Al-Sisi on religion puts it in its proper place — in the private domains of life, and not in public where intervention of religion in political affairs ruins religion and politics together, because the nature of religion is different from politics. Religion generally comprises morals and divinities with all their impartial and absolute meaning, while politics is made by Man. So it is a relative matter of right or wrong, or can be subject to assessment or accountability. On the contrary, the generalisations of religion, which is absolute, cannot be assessed except by God, such as resurrection, good deeds and settling accounts on Judgement Day.
Al-Sisi’s view on religion is based on the fact that religion aims at achieving the welfare of people, and that it should not be an obstacle in the way of progress or hindrance to solving people’s problems. It should not brush off science and its applications that facilitate human life. That is why the nation that aspires to progress and renaissance can never bring religion into advancement of cultural, intellectual and social particularities of society.
Al-Sisi excluded those concepts that made religion a barrier in the face of progress and those notions that made religion a synonym for deterioration, decline and vandalism. This is the path political Islam is leading us to, according to Al-Sisi.
The Field Marshal dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood’s concepts of political Islam as backward, noting that they are four centuries behind modern times, a significant indication of the stagnation and doctrinal conflicts that were prevalent in those centuries.
In other words, Al-Sisi favours a modern view that conforms with the needs of the Egyptians at the present time and not a view that dates four centuries ago. It is a vision that overcomes obstacles and solves problems within the framework of religion and modernness of Islam and civilisation. A vision that preserves the core values of religion and boosts freedom of belief while rejecting religious guardianship whether imposed by the state or by some groups.
Abdel-Alim Mohamed is a counsellor at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.