As the world continues to grapple with a new wave of Islamic extremism, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has emerged as an unlikely Middle East leader willing to confront terrorism both militarily and ideologically.
In a Jan 1. speech at Egypt’s historic Al-Azhar University, El-Sisi declared an ambitious plan for a “revolution” in Islam, in order to reform those extremist strains of the faith he believes have made the Muslim world a source of “destruction” that is “making enemies of the whole world.”
El-Sisi’s vision includes purging Islam of extremist intolerance and violence, elements that terror groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State use as recruitment tools.
“El-Sisi’s remarks have to be commended,” Oren Kessler, deputy director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told JNS. “He went right into the belly of the beast and spoke to the clerics and sheikhs.”
The Egyptian president reiterated his message at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, saying the world needs to unite against the global threat of terrorism.
When he took office last spring, little was known about El-Sisi’s personal and political beliefs. Coming from rather modest beginnings in a neighborhood in Cairo, he spent most of his adult life in the Egyptian military. But a clue into El-Sisi’s thinking can be seen in an essay he wrote in March 2006 while attending the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. In the essay, he states that democracy in the Middle East must be adapted to Islam and “have its own shape or form coupled with stronger religious ties.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, said he sees El-Sisi as a “cautious Islamist.”
“It’s like holding fascistic or communistic views,” Pipes told JNS.org regarding El-Sisi’s outlook. “That said, there can theoretically be a supremely mild form of it that we can live with.”
Despite his reservations about the Egyptian president, Pipes commended El-Sisi for speaking out against radical Islam and believes he will “do all that he can to crush his violent Islamist enemies.”
FDD’s Kessler does not necessarily view El-Sisi’s religious beliefs as problematic, noting that former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who visited Jerusalem and made peace with Israel, only to be assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood as a result, was also a devout Muslim.
Under El-Sisi’s watch, Egypt has quietly worked closely with Israel on combating Islamic terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (which recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State terror group), in addition to cracking down on Hamas, which draws support from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and uses the Sinai for smuggling weapons and other goods.
El-Sisi has embarked on an ambitious plan to destroy Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. Egypt said it destroyed nearly 95 percent of the Gaza tunnels last year, and more recently has started work on building a Gaza buffer of between 1 and 1.25 miles to prevent cross-border weapons smuggling and terrorism.
While El-Sisi has targeted terror groups in the Sinai, he has also waged an unrelenting crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, his chief adversary. As a military leader, El-Sisi was an instrumental part of the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi. Once elected president, El-Sisi went on an all-out offensive against the Brotherhood, jailing thousands of its top leaders (including Morsi). The Muslim Brotherhood is also now a state-designated terrorist organization in Egypt.
At the same time, El-Sisi also targeted liberals, atheists, and homosexuals in his political crackdown, leading to criticism from human rights groups and a troubled relationship with the United States.