One of the great misconceptions about Egypt today is that the army is a bulwark against the intrusions of religion in politics, a defender of state-mosque separation. (You can’t defend something that doesn’t exist.) This fable is widely believed in the West, and has been vigorously promoted by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s liberal supporters. But as David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh report in today’s New York Times, in their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi and his colleagues are invoking Islam as shamelessly as the movement they’ve driven underground.
Sisi’s version of political Islam revolves around obedience to the army and the police against Egypt’s enemies, from Muslim Brothers to young revolutionaries to liberals of questionable loyalty, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, now cooling his heels in Europe. Loyalist clerics, many of them Mubarak appointees, have justified the killing of more than a thousand people – most of them unarmed civilians – as the performance of a sacred duty. The military’s Department of Moral Affairs has made a video portraying the Brothers as sowers of fitna (division) who got what they deserved; it has been shown to soldiers and riot police throughout the country. As one cleric featured in the video explains, ‘when somebody comes who tries to divide you, then kill them, whoever they are.’
Kirkpatrick and El Sheikh characterise the army’s religious appeals as ‘a new measure of the depth of the military’s determination to break down the main pillar of Mr Morsi’s support, the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood’. But the military regime’s brandishing of the Quran isn’t exactly new. Throughout the 1970s, Sadat, the ‘believer president’, leaned on appeals to religion – and coddled the radical Islamists who ultimately murdered him – in his war against the student left. Under Mubarak, extreme Salafi clerics were given free rein to proselytise on state television so long as they kept out of politics: the strength of the Salafi movement today is a tribute to Mubarak’s indulgence.
That Sisi, the believer general, is now covering himself in Islam, should hardly come as a surprise. Other than devotion to the army, he has no vision for the country, so the Quran will have to do. As Robert Springborg has argued, he may try to create ‘a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism’ along the lines of Zia al-Haq’s Pakistan. The conflict between the army and the Brothers is not over the presence of religion in political life, but over who gets to speak in its name. Only one form of political Islam has been driven underground in Egypt.