Analysis |

Sissi Is Selling His Vision of Religion and State, but Egyptians Aren't Buying

The president's attempts to 'revive the religious discourse' is unwelcome in Egypt, a country that once brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.Credit: Vasily Fedosenko/Pool Photo via AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi sparked a firestorm in February when he instructed that verses from the Koran and sayings from the Hadith be struck from textbooks.

Sissi, who for some years now has been promoting the idea of the “revival of religious discourse” in Egypt, explained that these verses might be interpreted by teachers in an undesirable way and promote extremist ideas. He has demanded that the Koran and the Hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Mohammed, be taught in religion classes and not in history, language or geography lessons.

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Muslim experts on religious law and the leaders of the renowned al-Azhar University, who have been appointed to vet curricula, culture and media relating to religion and their compatibility with Muslim religious law, vehemently oppose the president’s directives, and are fighting against what has been dubbed the “Sissi agenda” for changing the status of religion.

According to these figures, Sissi wants to undermine the status quo between the regime and religion that held sway during the Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak governments, and sees religious studies as a source of terror and a national security threat. Sissi is a believer, but with regard to the fight against religious extremism, especially what he considers to be representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, he does not intend to compromise. If need be, he will also reprove and attack the heads of Al-Azhar, considered one of the most prestigious academies of Sunni Islam in the world, and its institutions for not following his orders.

The Egyptian parliament's National Security Council held a special meeting in February about these new directives. During the discussion, Deputy Education Minister Reda Hegazi said that beginning next year, a new textbook will be added to the curriculum that will show the liberal side of religion, will emphasize religions' common denominators and will teach tolerance. The discussion roused public criticism – both because it took place in the National Security Council rather than the Education Committee, which deals with curriculum content, and because of the directives themselves.

“The goal here is to empty the textbooks of religious content,” Dr. Mahmoud Attia, a former member of the Education Committee. “After all, the connection between the content and the language of the Koran creates one unity.” That is, those who study Arabic cannot separate it from the verses of the Koran.

Salama Abdul-Qawy, the former director-general of Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) went even further in his criticism. In an interview with the website Arabi21, he warned: “We must beware of the agenda of changing Egyptian identity, which is the Islamic identity. It is clear that he [Sissi] is against Islam since he began talking about the so-called religious development discourse and enlisting all of his media outlets to attack al-Azhar, its head and the Islamic religion.”

The “cleansing” of textbooks is not a new demand. In 2015, Sissi ordered the removal of expressions, chapters and even entire books from the curriculum after they were characterized as encouraging violence or religious extremism. In Egypt, people still remember the 2015 incident in which Buthaina Khashak, the former head of the Education Ministry's Giza district, burned books published by the Muslim Brotherhood and declared that it was “my honor” to do so. Khashak was dismissed from her post, but the plan to cleanse the books did not disappear.

The idea of reviving religious discourse has been a part of Egypt for generations. The Egyptian spiritual giant Taha Hussein wrote in 1938 that the country must supervise curricula in Al-Azhar's elementary and high school institutions.

In his “the Future of Education in Egypt” he wrote: “This is a conservative environment that represents an ancient time and an earlier way of thinking rather than reflecting the modern period and the new way of thinking…Another matter that must be considered and repaired is the ancient Azharite way of thinking that could make it difficult for the current graduates of al-Azhar to assimilate the nationalism and love of homeland in its new European form.” Hussein, who was nominated 14 times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and served as Egypt’s education minister, also clashed with al-Azhar. His degree from that institution was withdrawn because of his sharp criticism of the school, its teaching methods and study materials.

Sissi is not an atheist, nor is he a follower of the enlightened and liberal nationalism that zealously separates religion and state. His political battle against religious organizations, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, has been just as uncompromising as his struggle against his secular critics – journalists and artists who dare mock him or expose his lies. At the same time, he recognizes the power of religion among the people of Egypt, the same public that brought the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement to power in 2011.

He is trying to distinguish between religion and faith in general and the movements of political Islam. But he has managed, to a degree far greater than his predecessors, to paint religion as terror, to the point that geography and language books are suspected of bearing secret messages in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is defined as a terror group.

Now Sissi is worried that the current occupant of the White House was vice president under U.S. President Barack Obama, who encouraged the Arab Spring revolution and is perceived in Egypt as encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood, viewing their victory as proof of the revival of democracy. Worse still, as far as Sissi is concerned, Obama hesitated for a long time before recognizing Sissi as Egypt’s legitimate ruler after he took power in July 2013, deposing the brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi.

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