Last week 30 Egyptian policemen and soldiers were killed in the Sinai by extremist terrorists allied to ISIS. The attack was only the latest manifestation of Egypt’s ongoing war on terrorism that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and policemen. It is a war that has gone largely unreported in the West, and when it does it is often just a footnote in a critical editorial focused on Egypt’s use of scorched earth tactics in the Sinai or the allegedly repressive political environment.
While forgetting the incredible sacrifices borne by Egyptian soldiers and policemen in Egypt’s existential war with terrorists, Western pundits seem to take as mantra that “moderate Muslims” are not speaking out against radical Muslims, and should be doing more. However, when prominent reform-minded voices in the Muslim world speak out against extremism, they are generally ignored (and sometimes even maligned) by the very same Western media that claims such voices do not exist. In particular, few observers are properly appreciating the modernizing political and social change underway in Egypt and the Middle East under President Sisi.
In late December, President Sisi made a revolutionary speech at Al Azhar calling on Azhari clerics to lead a religious revolution within Islam to defeat extremism. Like most good news out of Egypt, this was ignored in the Western media (aside from a few laudatory articles in the fringes of conservative media). Even more remarkable was that President Sisi did not just call for reform – he lived it.
On the evening of January 6 (Coptic Christmas eve), Sisi became the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas mass at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo. He was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the hundreds of worshippers and made a short speech wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and calling on Egyptians to stop defining themselves by their religious identity. A few days later, the Egyptian government condemned the Paris terrorist attacks and sent foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to attend the Paris solidarity march. In a region known for meek leadership, Sisi’s brazen calls for reform — and his willingness to back them up with his actions — are groundbreaking.
We are already seeing Sisi’s call for moderation and reform influence the national discourse in Egypt. Today, on Egyptian TV, religious extremism is being countered vigorously — pundits are going so far as to criticize Al Azhar for being too radical, something that could not have been imagined a few years ago. And the reforms began from the very beginnings of Sisi’s presidency.
On the first day of Sisi’s presidency, sexual harassment in Egypt was criminalized for the very first time, and Sisi took the extraordinary step of visiting a harassment victim in her hospital bed – an early indication of his appetite for the power of actions over words. Though Egypt has criminalized female genital mutilation for years, the ban was rarely enforced, and only under President Sisi, did the government bring charges against – and convict– a practitioner of female genital mutilation for the first time.
Most importantly, the Egyptian military is vigorously fighting – and winning – a war on ISIS-linked terrorists in the Sinai and Libya, and Egypt has successfully deprived the terrorist group Hamas of its military capabilities and political power.
We also should not understate the significance of the positive economic news from Egypt. Egypt’s stock market was the best performing in the world in 2014. Egypt’s GDP is expected to grow by over 4% in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Business optimism in Egypt is the highest it has been in years. Foreign investment and private capital are returning to the country, while major multinationals are expanding their presence. Even the U.S. has just sent its largest trade delegation to Egypt in history. Sisi’s courageous subsidy and tax reforms are also contributing to a reduced budget deficit.
The economic boom currently developing in Egypt will eventually improve the standard of living for most Egyptians, reducing the daily economic hardships and grievances suffered by most Egyptians and therefore restoring stability. A stable Egypt with a growing economy, closer financial integration to the outside world, real economic opportunities, and a higher standard of living will be more conducive to the development of a truly free society. In fact, in recognition of a stabilizing economy and security situation, the Egyptian government has called for parliamentary elections in April to be observed by 68 organizations, including four foreign observers. It is precisely this story of political and social progress in Egypt that may be the most significant impact of Sisi’s presidency.
To those who have been waiting to see a stable Middle Eastern government governed by a visionary president and a parliament with vigorous debates among a variety of non-sectarian political parties– this dream is becoming a reality in Egypt. It is high time the West recognizes and supports the transformational impact President Sisi is having on the entire region.