David Kirkpatrick on The New York Times front-page brought the news everyone following Egypt already knows: the putschists in Cairo have reneged on their promises of pluralism and religious tolerance, which was part of their sell in bringing off the coup last July. “Prosecutors continue to jail Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims and atheists on charges of contempt of religion,” Kirkpatrick notes and a panel of Muslim scholars has cited authority granted under the new Constitution—written by the military—to regulate offence to religion and to ban the new film ‘Noah’ because it violates an Islamic prohibition against depictions of the prophets. In their judgment they also include the shari’a as a source of authority and designate al-Azhar as the sole source in determining what is Islamic.
Kirkpatrick notes that Abdel Fattah as-Sisi “often appeals to the Muslim majority in a language of shared piety that recalls Anwar el-Sadat”. It is often forgotten now, with the narrative firmly established that Sadat was struck down for having signed the peace treaty with Israel rather than (as is really the case) the holy warriors having seen in the treaty further evidence of a heretic ruling over a Muslim population, that Sadat had sought to short-circuit this criticism, and to blunt the Soviet penetration and subversion of his country, which was the real reason he had turned to Israel at all, by siding with the theocratic Right to crush the secular Left. While Sadat had focussed on the Communists, there is never any precision in repression and trades unionists, democratic socialists, Leftists of a Nasserist and pan-Arabist stripe, as well as all other critics were rounded up by their thousands. Sadat would call himself the “Believing President” and constantly be seen with a Qur’an and in the presence of the ulema. Sadat knew what Sisi does, and what Western commentators who foolishly accepted the word of Tamarod that they were a silent majority are beginning to discover: Egypt has a deeply religious, conservative population, and any dictatorship needs a social and political base—which is never going to be found, for simple demographic reasons, among Egypt’s secularists, let alone liberals.
Religion has been fully instrumentalised by Sisi’s regime:
Sisi has listened attentively as Muslim clerics allied with him have offered religious justifications for violence against his Islamist opponents. A prominent Muslim scholar compared him and his security chief to Moses and Aaron. The new government has tightened its grip on mosques, pushing imams to follow state-approved sermons.
The Egyptian junta took great care to shut down the zealot networks that incited violence against Christians and even Shi’ites, and were given in return enthusiastic support from the officials of the Coptic Church. The Coptic pope, Tawadros II, has found himself manipulated by the State, and now publicly hails Sisi as overwhelmingly popular, “a competent patriot” on “an arduous mission,” and “the one who rescued Egypt.” But,
In some ways … sectarian tensions have worsened: Coptic Christians … have faced violence and scapegoating from Islamists angry about the church’s support for the takeover. Prosecutors and police officers—almost all in their jobs long before Mr. Morsi took office—have done little to protect the Christians or other religious minorities, rights advocates say.
This was easy to predict. The police were always a source of lawless violence and to see the protesters allied with them to give the military and the remnants of the old regime cover to liquidate democratic rule last summer was to realise that unreason had taken hold of the Egyptian populace. The Copts were foully treated in the Mubarak years and then in the year-plus of military rule before the election that brought Mohamed Morsi to office. But they were frightened by the Islamists. The appearance of Coptic support for the coup and the military’s murderous crackdown against those who protested about it has not benefited inter-communal relations. The “culture of sectarianism” is thriving in Egypt, said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Christians and other non-Muslims may “feel better psychologically” because the Islamist government has been demolished, Ibrahim noted. But in practice nothing has changed and there’s a good case to be made that things have declined:
Shiite Muslims—considered heretics by many in Egypt’s Sunni Muslim majority—have also been a target “in the hunting of religious minorities,” said Mr. Ibrahim … One was arrested while trying to visit the landmark Hussein Mosque on a Shiite holy day. Convicted of blasphemy, he was sentenced to five years in prison. The police are now holding two more Shiites in detention in the northern province of Dakahleya, where they are under investigation for similar charges, Mr. Ibrahim said.
Some of us warned that this new military dictatorship is not even secular—that it will not even fulfil that promise in exchange for extinguishing democracy—and have compared it to the situation in Pakistan, where Gen. Zia-ul-Haq mixed Islamism with his militarism. That now seems to be coming to pass. In Pakistan, the Shi’ites have probably their harshest predicament. Even in Saudi Arabia, so long as the Shi’ites of the Eastern Province hold their ceremonies out of sight they are more-or-less left alone. In Pakistan, the Shi’a are subjected to bombings and assassinations simply for being Shi’a—despite having long-ceased to advertise the fact because of legal persecution. Such a situation can now easily be envisioned in Egypt, especially because of the encouragement the putsch gave to the violent insurgency in the Sinai that is now reaching the cities.
The coup did not strike a blow for order but permanently destabilised Egypt. It did not strike for secularism but heightened sectarian tensions and installed a regime more reliant than ever on theocratic legitimacy. It did not damage the Islamist cause but strengthened the worst wing of it: those who argued for “neo-fundamentalism” and dawa (proselytization) as the means of bringing about an Islamic State have been decisively silenced by the blatant evidence that in Egypt, the largest regional State, Islamic rule can only be installed by violence. (Al-Qaeda’s reaction to the Brotherhood’s downfall can be summarized as: “We told you so”.) The coup also covered the West in shame: reducing an already-confused U.S. administration to saying Sisi was “restoring democracy” as he instituted a dictatorship.
This was completely unnecessary: Morsi would surely have lost the next election. The Muslim Brotherhood had been damaged more widely than just its president, and compromises with power had been made that pitted the Egyptian Brotherhood against its Gaza wing in enforcing the peace treaty with Israel, against the activist-Salafists in the Egyptian parliament, and against the jihadist-Salafists in the Sinai insurgency. The coup has now united all these forced behind the goal of toppling the military government and alienated every single faction in Egypt from the West. From a Western interests stand-point—whether counter-terrorism, the “realist” demand for “stability,” or any concern for human rights—this coup d’état has been an utter catastrophe; quite literally the very worst possible outcome for both the West and Egypt.