Reviews | An Egyptian writer called for Islamic reform. The answer reveals an authoritarian dilemma.

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In February, Egypt’s attorney general decided to investigate writer and talk show host Ibrahim Eissa for his interrogation of Salafist accounts of Islam. The move was in stark contrast to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s repeated calls for reform of Islamic discourse. This contrast highlights the dilemma faced by Arab authoritarian leaders: after decimating secularism and discrediting liberalism, they have nothing left to fight Salafist thought and end up conceding more.

Since taking power, Sisi has adopted the aura of an Islamic reformer. He restored churches attacked by extremists and legalized hundreds more, took the unusual step of regularly attending Christmas Mass and, last month, appointed a Christian judge for the first time ever. head of the highest court in Egypt. Additionally, Sisi criticized mainstream Islamic thought, saying it pitted Muslims against each other and against the rest of the world. He also chastised the Egyptians for fearing religious reform instead of seeking it. For all of this, Sisi has earned praise, especially outside of Egypt.

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But it seems his own regime never got the memo.

While Sisi voiced these views, the security services locked up Coptic activists and violated the religious rights of other minorities. Fatma Naoot, a secular poet, was sentenced in January 2016 to three years in prison for mocking the slaughter of sacrificial animals for Eid al-Adha. A month later, another court sentenced four Coptic teenagers to up to five years in prison for also “insulting Islam”. Ramy Kamel, a Coptic rights defender, was arrested in November 2019, allegedly tortured and imprisoned in “pretrial detention” for more than two years.

Meanwhile, Baha’is and other religious communities who lack the protections that the constitution theoretically affords “recognized religions” are consistently denied the right to freely worship and exercise their personal rights related to marriage, inheritance and burial. When they claim these rights, the security services use blasphemy laws to silence them.

More tellingly, the security services also persecuted those who advocated the very Islamic reform demanded by the president. In 2015, young writer and TV presenter Islam Behery responded to Sisi’s call to take a critical look at religious interpretations, to rid Islam of ideas used by extremists to justify violence. His show was suspended, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, reduced to one, for “contempt of religion”.

Eissa is the boldest and most determined Egyptian writer to have fought against Salafi Islam in recent years. An established journalist, novelist, screenwriter and talk show host, he maintained a prominent public profile for around three decades. Among the first to offer a liberal platform to moderate Islamists, he first got into trouble for opposing Hosni Mubarak. When the Tahrir uprising began, he stood by his icon, Mohamed ElBaradei, as security forces doused them with water, then became ElBaradei’s closest adviser.

It was during Egypt’s democratic experiment that Eissa’s problems with Salafi Islam deepened. He published a novel portraying Salafists as ignorant and hypocritical. His disillusionment with Islamists and his contempt for incompetent secularists pushed him to side with Sisi. Falling out of favor with the Egyptian dictator, he continued to question the grip of Salafist thought on Islam. In her seminal novel “The Blood Journey”, Eissa traces the origin of violence and Salafism in the years following the Prophet’s death, describing the struggle of the Prophet’s wives and companions against power, greed, lust and pride. In other words, he portrays them as mortals.

Eissa returned to this theme in February, with comments that desanctified the Prophet’s companions and other authorities of Salafist thought. Egyptian religious institutions were quick to condemn his remarks as “a questioning of Islamic pillars”. A scholar of Azhar went further by accusing him of “apostasy”, punishable by death in Salafist language. Sisi’s regime has joined him: his spokespersons have attacked Eissa and his parliamentary human rights commission has called for sanctioning his “deviant” and “questioning” opinions. A parliamentary committee then approved a bill prohibiting the expression of opinions contrary to “true religion and its accepted principles” and imposing prison sentences on those who publicly discuss religion without “permission” from religious authorities. You can’t invent such things!

And therein lies the predicament facing Sisi. He is probably genuine in his desire for religious reform, but his authoritarianism holds him back. In his quest for absolute power, Sisi decimated the nascent power of the liberals, the only group truly pursuing religious reform. And while he acknowledges that Salafist thought is at the root of religiously motivated violence, he himself has fomented a paranoid and militaristic nationalism that fuels it. When Sisi insists that Egypt is the target of outside conspiracies aimed at destroying its culture and its people, the Islamists simply add more religious flavor to its “culture”.

With no one to oppose Salafism and no speech to fight it, Sisi cannot afford religious reform. Instead, he has no choice but to show respect for his support base’s version of Islam, which is steeped in the Salafism and xenophobic nationalism he has nurtured them.

Like many dictators before him, Sissi is a prisoner of the monster he helped create.