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"Let's Try for a Better Ending this Time"

Extract from Middle East Forum by Raymond Stock, June 8, 2014

In August 2012, Morsi appointed then-General al-El-Sissi as defense minister, based on his seemingly pro-Muslim Brotherhood views - and was no doubt shocked when his protege turned on him for behaving like a president from the MB.

However, though born into a conservative, not militant, religious family in the Gamaliyah district in the heart of the Islamic Cairo, the native district of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, El-Sissi, like Mahfouz, was also raised as a fervent nationalist. When Morsi freed and even elevated terrorists who had made war on the Egyptian state, worked covertly with terrorists killing Egyptian troops in Sinai, offered to possibly hand over Egyptian land along the border with Sudan to the Islamist regime in Khartoum, and seemed poised to declare jihad against the Assad regime in Damascus, El-Sissi undoubtedly viewed him as betraying Egypt's most basic national interests.

Since then, he has vowed to completely destroy the MB and its fellow proponents of political Islam, has spoken in praise of Egypt's persecuted Christians, and - most intriguingly of all - called in late January for a comprehensive modernization of Islam as a whole.

In a daring speech, quoted here by U.S. Marine Lt. Col. (ret.) James Zumwalt of UPI on January 28, he challenged the Muslim world to give up centuries of dogmatic thinking and for the Islamists to abandon the call to war: "Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam - rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years."

As Zumwalt noted, this means that El-Sissi believes Islam has been intellectually--and even spiritually -- frozen since 1258. That was the year the Mongols sacked Baghdad, ending Islam's Golden Age, and was roughly the time when religious scholars had agreed that "the science is settled," and there would be no more great debate on what the faith is, a process that began centuries before.

By making this bold statement -and by waging his own holy struggle against the forces of evil - he is putting his own life on the line as well.

We should indeed watch him closely now that he grasps the reins of power directly, for the first time, to see if he follows these bold words, as well as what they mean in reality, and if he rules oppressively in person. But for the time being, he is fighting our enemies -- who are also Egypt's own -- and has even increased cooperation with our friends, the Israelis. Some now say that's just where we were under Mubarak - - whom Obama deliberately helped push from pharaoh's palace in Heliopolis in 2011. But Mubarak, now 86, was an aging oligarch who became president only when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was shot dead by Islamists while standing next to him in 1981, and who had no itch for change.

El-Sissi may yet go the way of his hero Sadat, who he has said came to him in a dream that seemed to prophesy he would one day be president of Egypt. Like El-Sissi, Sadat--"the believing president"--started out close to the Muslim Brotherhood, but soon had to combat them -- and wound up murdered by one of their offshoots as a result. And like Sadat, especially given who might follow him, we may very much miss El-Sissi when he is gone. Let's try for a better ending this time.

Raymond Stock, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a former Assistant Professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Drew University, spent twenty years in Egypt, and was deported by the Mubarak regime in 2010. He is writing a biography of 1988 Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is a prolific translator of his works.

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