Egypt’s Leader Battles Islamic Extremists
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat traveled to Jerusalem in 1977, he shattered decades of isolation and war with Israel to search for peace. No single act in the former general’s remarkable career showed more courage. In 1981, Muslim Brotherhood assassins made Sadat pay with his life for standing against the pan-Arabist conventional wisdom of his era.
This New Year’s Day, Egypt’s current president (also a former general), Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, followed directly in Sadat’s footsteps. At Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, he spoke forcefully against today’s Western conventional wisdom regarding Islam and terrorism.
Just days later, on Jan. 6, Christmas Eve for Coptic Christians, Al-Sisi spoke at Egypt’s principal Coptic church, an unprecedented appearance by an Egyptian president.
Whether the Muslim Brotherhood or other radicals will make Al-Sisi pay the same price as Sadat remains to be seen. But Al-Sisi’s gestures, for audacity and surprise, are historic. And they demand the West’s recognition and support.
They also present us with a stark contrast. In 2009, Al-Azhar, a noted center of Islamic teachings, co-hosted President Obama’s famous speech to the Muslim world. There, and in countless other speeches, Obama demonstrated an unwillingness to frontally criticize Islamicist terror — and connect it to a significant thread of radical religions faith — perhaps for fear of being seen as attacking Islam itself.
Egypt’s president has destroyed this debilitating misconception, demonstrating that clear-thinking Muslims fully understand how radical Islamicists and the all-too-common religious ideology they espouse constitute a mortal danger to Muslims themselves.
Most dramatically, Al-Sisi asserted: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution.” He stressed that “it’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Muslims worldwide] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.”
Joining Tawadros II, the Coptic Pope, at Cairo’s main cathedral, Al-Sisi stressed to the worshipers: “It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost.”
And he said, “it was necessary for me to come here to wish you a Merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers.” Even former President Hosni Mubarak had never dared to make such an appearance.
Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s long history of murderous attacks on Coptics (who constitute 10% of Egypt’s population), the signal was unmistakable.
Al-Sisi has challenged his faith’s leaders to do what many non-Muslim Westerners have also asked: namely, that Muslims themselves move decisively to prevent radical ideologues from hijacking their religious beliefs.
The Egyptian president is not planning to conduct that theological exercise himself, but he is telling imams and mullahs unambiguously that, should they brace for a fight, he will provide them political cover in Egypt and the Arab world generally.
Here’s hoping the message resonates as Sadat’s did. Sadat’s trip to Israel followed his decision to expel Moscow’s military advisers and move Egypt decisively away from the USSR, toward the West, after the 1973 war with Israel.
By breaking the pan-Arabist prohibitions against acknowledging Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, he made possible enormous changes throughout the Middle East. How much more he might have accomplished had he not been cut down will remain forever unknown.
Although that wave of post-colonial Pan-Arabism is now just a historical memory, the wave of radical Islam still sweeping the Middle East and beyond is of comparable or perhaps even greater strength.
As Arab governments — notably Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — have dissolved after the Arab Spring, Al-Sisi’s initiative is both daring and dangerous. While he is no Jeffersonian democrat, neither does he compare to the barbarism of the Islamic radicals.
As we have witnessed recently in Egypt and across the region, Western-style democracy has not yet proven durable. But that is not the test. Democracy, we should note, has also faltered in Russia, demonstrating that nurturing constitutionally limited, representative government is not uniquely a Middle Eastern problem.
The president of the Arab world’s most populous nation has taken bold and provocative steps. He needs U.S. and broader Western support. Let’s see which American political leaders figure this out.
Bolton, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush. This article was originally published by The New York Daily News.