Back in January, Raymond Ibrahim, an American-Egyptian scholar of Islam, reported that Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had called for an Islamic reformation, saying that the “corpus of [Islamic] texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries” are “antagonizing the entire world”, and that there needed to be a "religious revolution" to drag Islam into modernity.
Months later, this has been seized upon again and again by commentators who express the hope that Sisi is the long-awaited reformer the Islamic world needs to rid itself of the violence and intolerance that has plagued the world in its name for the last fourteen hundred years.
The problem is that the facts have not borne out such an eventuality, as is underlined by this report today from the International Business Times, where we learn that on Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced Muslim scholar Islam El-Beheiry to five years in prison on charges of contempt of religion, after he was accused of blasphemy by the state-backed religious institution al-Azhar, the most prominent Sunni religious authority in the Muslim world. El-Beheiry made a name for himself on Egyptian airwaves for questioning the teachings of hardline preachers and encouraging a more critical approach to foundational Islamic texts.
This assuredly non-reformist decision is not the first such abuse under Sisi's leadership. There have also been recent government campaigns, under his tenure, designed to punish blasphemy against Islam and “confront” the spread of atheism, leading to widespread arrests, jail sentences and harrassment.
Furthermore, Ramy Aziz, an Egyptian journalist based in Europe, has chronicled other abuses by Sisi's security forces, particularly against Christians. Aziz's conclusion is uncompromising:
Sisi may frequently pay homage to religious moderation and combating extremism, but his rhetoric is empty. He is simply trying to cozy up to the West as it search for partners to confront radical Islamist groups, and in doing so, legitimize his regime, which is still viewed with suspicion by the international community. Sisi’s comments might make for a good soundbite in the Western media, but do not mistake him for the Middle East’s long-awaited reformer.
Sisi is either a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing "moderate Muslim", in reality only "moderate" when compared to the most murderous of his jihadist co-religionists, or he is simply an outright incompetent reformer. An analysis of his 2006 US Army War College thesis, which champions the very sharia law and caliphate system championed by the likes of ISIS, and condemns secularism, would strongly suggest the former.
Neither option seems to offer much reason for optimism.