An Egyptian writer called for Islamic reformation. The response reveals an authoritarian dilemma.

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General Sissi demonstrating the troubles with dictatorship and organized religions

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By Ezzedine C. Fishere

Source: Washington Post

In February, Egypt’s attorney general decided to investigate the writer and talk show host Ibrahim Eissa over his questioning of Salafi narratives of Islam. The move was a glaring contradiction to President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s repeated calls for the reformation of Islamic discourse. That contrast highlights the dilemma faced by Arab authoritarian rulers: Having decimated secularists and discredited liberalism, they have nothing left to fight Salafi thought with, and end up conceding further.

Since he seized power, Sissi has adopted the aura of an Islamic reformer. He restored churches attacked by extremists and legalized hundreds more, took the unusual step of attending Christmas Mass regularly and, last month, nominated a Christian judge to head Egypt’s highest court for the first time ever. Moreover, Sissi criticized the dominant Islamic thought, saying it set Muslims against one another and the rest of the world. He also chastised Egyptians for fearing religious reformation instead of seeking it. For all this, Sissi earned praise, especially outside Egypt.

While Sissi was expressing those views, security services were locking up Coptic activists and violating the religious rights of other minorities. Fatma Naoot, a secular poet, was sentenced in January 2016 to three years in jail 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 jailed in “pretrial detention” for over two years.

Meanwhile, the Bahais and other religious communities that don’t enjoy the protections the constitution theoretically grants to “recognized religions” are constantly denied the right to freely worship and practice personal rights related to marriage, inheritance and burial. When they demand those rights, security services use blasphemy laws to silence them.

More tellingly, security services also persecuted those who advocated for the very Islamic reformation the president has called for. In 2015, young writer and television anchor Islam Behery heeded Sissi’s call to take a critical look at religious interpretations, to rid Islam of the ideas used by extremists to justify violence. His show was suspended, and he was sentenced to five years in jail, reduced to one, for “contempt of religion.”

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