A few days ago, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sparked a great controversy in Egypt after a telephone interview with a satellite channel where he talked about the “issue of awareness,” especially religious awareness, stressing that there is a need to “reformulate the understanding of religious belief.”
Al-Sisi said: “We are all born Muslim by card, that is, by heredity. Does anyone know that we are supposed to reformulate our understanding of the belief that we follow? When we were young, we could not do that, but after we grew up, did we think? Or are we afraid of thinking? Are you afraid of thinking about the validity of the belief you are following? Are you ready to go on a research path to reach the truth?” Al-Sisi’s speech seemed very strange and contradictory, as he called on others to think and research the validity of religious beliefs, at a time when his security services are arresting researchers in religion and those with religious convictions different from the prevailing narrative.
The arrest of Qur’an blogger Reda Abdel Rahman
Paradoxically, Sisi’s statements about the necessity of thinking and researching religious beliefs coincided with the first annual anniversary of the arrest of Reda Abdel Rahman, an Azhari teacher, blogger and researcher in Quranic thought. Reda Abdel Rahman has been detained since August 22, 2020, along with another group of relatives of Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, a former teacher at Al-Azhar University, and currently residing in the United States of America, after obtaining political asylum there after his dismissal from the university and his detention on the grounds of his adoption of “Quranic thought,” or what is known as the “Qur’anic doctrine,” which contradicts the prevailing trend in Sunni Islamic thought and is considered by the Al-Azhar University administration as a “departure from Islam.”
The security forces later released all of Dr. Mansour’s relatives except for Reda Abdel Rahman. Relatives of the detainees said that they were interrogated about spreading Quranic thought and communicating with Ahmed Sobhi Mansour before his release. The sources added that his family believed that one of the security men in the village knew Ahmed Sobhi and said that Mansour had given money to some of his relatives in need through Reda Abdul Rahman, and this may be the reason for this detention and investigation.
After 47 days of enforced disappearance Reda Abdel Rahman was presented to the prosecution, which accused him of forming a cell with another person residing in America and his children to carry out terrorist acts and join ISIS. The role of the accused was allegedly to monitor airports, the locations of the armed forces and the police places, and the prosecution decided to detain him pending investigation, and his detention has been renewed since then until now. Abdul Rahman said, in a message from his prison cell, that he was shocked by the accusations levelled against him, as he had written many articles and conducted research through which he proved the contradiction of the thought of religious groups in the world with the legislation of the Qur’an. The last article he wrote was in July 2015, then he stopped writing after security ordered him to stop. He affirmed that his writings were to help the “state confront terrorism peacefully by pen and word, according to the instructions of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, when he demanded the renewal of religious discourse.” However, Abdel Rahman was detained for a year without being released or referred to trial, leaving his family to suffer and appealing to all officials to release him.
Sunni sect: The only one permitted in Egypt
Under the authority of Sisi, who calls for reflection on inherited religious beliefs, the State Security Misdemeanor Court, in June 2020, sentenced Mustafa Al-Ramli and Mahmoud Youssef to one year in prison, on charges of promoting ideas belonging to the Shia sect. The security forces arrested the suspects on May 16, 2019, and forcibly disappeared them in an undisclosed location for more than two months, before presenting them to the prosecution.
The arrest report for the accused stated that the forces found in their homes books about the Shia sect. The national security investigation report attributed the defendants’ participation in founding a group in contravention of the provisions of the law to spread the Shia sect, and the two accused in the investigations denied their founding of any group. Mustafa Al-Ramli told his lawyer that he did not know the second defendant and only met him while he was in custody in this case. Prior to that, and specifically in May 2019, the Cairo Criminal Court punished Alaa Obeid, the Azhari teacher, with 15 years in prison and a fine of EGP 500,000, on charges of communicating with Iran and receiving money from the country, establishing a website and printing books promoting Shiism, including a book he wrote, “The Virtues of Ahl Al-Bayt in the Book and the Sunnah.”
In the reasons for its ruling on Obaid, the court said that he is a “Sufi of the order, an Azharite, a Shia denomination” who loves money, and he found what he seeks in the followers of the Shia sect who pour abundant money on the adherents of their sect or contribute to its dissemination in Sunni countries, especially in Egypt, which is politically, militarily and religiously important in the Arab region and its influence on the surrounding countries. This was the result of some Egyptians thinking about their faith – they were subjected to arrest, enforced disappearance and abuse, and then imprisoned.
Teasing the Sheikh of Al-Azhar
Sisi’s call to think and search behind religious beliefs contrasts with the practices of his security services in persecuting people with different religious orientations from the prevailing currents in Egypt, which leads us to question what is behind these statements. Over the past several years, Sisi has repeatedly tried to control and domesticate the Al-Azhar institution, which was met with fierce resistance from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who wanted Al-Azhar to remain an independent institution.
The direct targeting of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar was difficult due to his great popularity, so Sisi knocked on another door through which he targeted him, which is the door of religious reform and the need for the Islamic religion to develop. No one knows what development Sisi seeks, but he has been calling for religious renewal, holding Al-Azhar (and thus its sheikh) responsible for this, which Dr. Al-Tayeb met with much reservation, so the regime’s media outlets attacked him.
From time to time, Sisi continues to wear the dress of a religious reformer who is trying to reformulate religious beliefs in line with the times, in an interview with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, who is portrayed as a refusal of reform and development and a symbol of stagnation. Sisi’s recent comments about religion seem to come in this context, as his speech can be considered a new insult to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, but no one knows the extent of its impact so far.