As the live airwaves of Egypt’s state TV deliver the Al Ahzar lectures cautioning against apostasy and Atheism to all those carrying state-issued I.D. cards indicating Egypt’s official religion, Egypt’s newly installed president, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, foregoes public prayers and mosque attendance as the first modern leader ever to skip over this tradition within his initial days of office.
Since the uprising of January 2011 against former President Mubarak—propelled by a platform of human rights, equal rights, secularism and religious freedom which in turn brought down Mubarak’s successor, Mohammed Morsi—more and more Egyptians have fled Islam by quietly claiming Atheism and enduring the harassment that comes with it.
Likewise, those converting to Christianity proclaim Atheism in order to avoid death threats. Now however, unlike earlier times, Muslims are apt to keep their Islamic birth names rather than switch to Christian ones like David or Maria. Rejecting the practice of matching one’s name to one’s religion is seen as bold and dangerous—introducing Christianity into personal circles. But it is consistent with the outcome of the recent presidential election hoped and seen by some as a potentially fierce challenge to the theocratic state. Generally, the name-religion change means that the very personal matter of spiritual belief and departure from Islam and the mosque must remain on the sly to avoid the treachery embodied in religious juridical law.
President Al-Sisi was installed this month on June 8 in a swearing-in ceremony before Egypt’s Constitutional Court surrounded by representatives from many nations—heads of state and high-ranked envoys—including a member of the U.S. State Department. Almost three years from Egypt’s first uprising, a president enters office knowing that the 23 million votes cast for him (more than double cast for Morsi) were cast for a better future and not, as in the past, for provisions of rice and oil. Egypt’s electorate, mindful of turmoil in Libya and Syria, chose Mr. Al-Sisi, a man with backbone; now Iraq’s ISIS (a terror faction working alongside Al Qaida) threatens Egypt and Al-Sisi, and Egyptians count on their former field marshal and backer of the freedom movement to defend Egypt’s borders and continue to extinguish internal terrorism.
Egyptians also expect the new president to waste no time in addressing the issue of religious doctrine which Al-Sisi prioritized in his pre-election promise to begin his term by “renewing the Islamic religious discourse.” He spoke this in a speech about revising the practice of religious hate. But Al-Sisi has already missed an easy opportunity to exercise this conviction. He could have discreetly disallowed the Quran readings during his installation ceremony (a tradition started by Sadat) without question, appearing innocent in the watchful eyes of Al Ahzar. Overlooking an important moment to demonstrate a principle of his campaign, Al-Sisi is seen by some as a bit mysterious regarding his resolve to take on the ultimate challenge to the Islamic establishment. Egyptians watch and wonder about the man they elected and his claims toward a modern state.
Moreover, Al Ahzar Institute has anticipated the threat of Al-Sisi by sending clear territorial signals. For instance, in the April issue of the monthly magazine, Islamic Research Academy, Al Ahzar religious scholar and chief editor, Mohammed Omarah, denounced the critical thinking of two Egyptian Islamic scholars, Judge Mohammed Al Eshmawy and Dr. Hamed Abu Zeed, who both wrote on the issue of renewing Egypt’s religious discourse based upon the concept of the Quran as a historical document. The two separate authors stated that Qur’anic verses were not to be applied to every time and every place but were meant only for the Arab Peninsula during the 7th century. This theory strictly limits the Quran’s relevance and interpretation to that particular age. The views of Judge Al Eshmawy and Dr. Zeed were considered sacrilegious upon issuance and targeted again by Al Ahzar just two months ago, one month before Al-Sisi was elected. Furthermore, the deaths of both thinkers have been viewed with suspicion—Zeed in 2010 and Eshmawy in 2013. Al Ahzar chooses this moment to revisit this topic.
Meanwhile, the new president has illustrated some inspired contradictions to the Islamic state opening up a dialogue across the country. Sending shockwaves through the public sensibility giving hope to modern Egyptians, Al-Sisi’s actions on two occasions within three days’ time serve to enlighten Egyptians on how far he will go to prove his commitment to the people. After addressing citizens for the first time as president, Al-Sisi bicycled through the Heliopolis section of Cairo. Sporting white sneakers, tennis shirt and no helmet, Al-Sisi led a pack of more than three thousand students (military and police academy) through the city’s neighborhoods. Soft-spoken and even-toned, more priestly than charismatic, Al-Sisi thanked all participants for accompanying him.
The spectacle of a marathon-style bike ride—where the president was open and vulnerable—only endeared him more to his admirers. The oddity and simplicity of the event was anything but gimmicky. His genuineness, the closeness, his courage and oneness with the people projected a plain and genuinely humble man. He was believable when he said, “I am one like you. I am not above you. Any identity that tries to damage this country I will not let come close to you to harm you. I will never allow that to happen.”
Some say that Al-Sisi’s call for 6 a.m. aerobics bonded him to Egypt’s young men suggesting that in doing so Al-Sisi gave the notion that a less than industrious male workforce should now rise early and do its part to turn the country around under his leadership. Many speculate that Al-Sisi’s message is one of discipline for a new era. This makes sense in light of the president’s attention to a second issue.
Two days before biking through city streets, Al-Sisi visited the hospital bed of a rape victim. The president personally apologized for her tragedy and handed her a bouquet of red roses. What does Al-Sisii’s visit mean in a country where rape is seen as a woman’s fault and where lax laws or punitive laws substantiate this cultural understanding? President Al-Sisi indicates that Egypt’s epidemic of sexual assaults on women in the protest squares and elsewhere is unacceptable and laws must change to act as deterrent to this crime. According to reports, Al-Sisi attended the victim’s bedside and expressed to the woman and her mother who had been forced to watch her daughter’s gang-rape and now stood by her side, “I am personally apologizing to you for what happened, and I apologize to all Egyptian women. They [the government, the police and the courts] will do everything to prevent such things from happening again.”
Taken at face value, such modern, civilizing chords struck by Al-Sisi in a style like no other holds great promise for ordinary Egyptians, including Copts. As the former Interim Government’s Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mahalab, begins to form a new government at Al-Sisi’s request, the president deepens his connection with the people who have faith in his capacity to remember why he is there. The majority of Egyptians understand that the challenge is larger than any one man. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm that brought Al-Sisi to head the country will be sustained by the very actions we see him doing. This is a good thing for a country looking for radical change beginning with safety and the rule of law.