As Egypt continues to imprison and sentence to death scores of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, and as the country ramps up efforts to counter the Islamic State in the region, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called for a revolution in Islam and a pivot away from "misconceptions" about the religion that have been shaped by radical groups.
In an interview with the _Wall Street Journal _published in the weekend edition of the paper, the 60-year-old Sisi said, "There are misconceptions and misperceptions about the real Islam," fostered by the actions and ideology of groups such as the Brotherhood — a political movement brought to power under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2012. The Brotherhood was declared a terror organization after Morsi was overthrown in 2013.
"The real Islamic religion grants absolute freedom for the whole people to believe or not believe," Sisi said at his presidential Palace in northeast Cairo. "Never does Islam dictate to kill others because they do not believe in Islam. Never does it dictate that [Muslims] have the right to dictate [their beliefs] to the whole world. Never does Islam say that only Muslims will go to paradise and others go to hell.
"We are not gods on earth, and we do not have this right to act in the name of Allah," he added.
Sisi, a former military general under the government that replaced Morsi, rose to the leadership after resigning from his post and winning the presidential election last summer. Though he is considered a surprising and persuasive proponent of moderate Islam and religious reform, Sisi's calls for moderation have been undercut by prosecutions of Muslim Brotherhood members, journalists, and political opponents in mass trials that have been widely condemned by international rights activists.
In his interview with the Journal, Sisi regretted the damage to Egypt's reputation caused by cases like that of the three Al Jazeera journalists jailed for 400 days for reporting on protests following Morsi's ouster in July 2013. Sisi had previously indicated that the ongoing trials of the three reporters, who were first imprisoned before he came to office, was a legacy dilemma he would have handled differently.
Although the journalists were recently released, Sisi has defended Egypt's independent judiciary and made no moves to halt the trials of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters allegedly involved in inciting the deadly violence that broke out in 2013. Meanwhile, government authorities involved in the killing of some 1,000 protesters — mostly Islamists —have largely gone unpunished.
Morsi himself remains in prison, facing trial for espionage, killing protesters during the demonstrations leading up to the 2013 coup, conspiring with international actors to destabilize the country, and involvement in assaults on police stations during a previous uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Sisi said in the interview that "radical misconceptions" about Islam arose a century ago — possibly a reference to the formation of the Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 as a pan-Islamic religious and social movement. He urged a"change [in] religious rhetoric," and "a shift in how people are used to their religion," but acknowledged the hurdles and hardship of attaining that feat in the coming years.
The buds of that change, however, began to bloom during the revolution that deposed Morsi, when "popular sympathy" for his Brotherhood organization soured, Sisi said.
"What brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power was Egyptian sympathy with the concept of religion," he said, referring to the 2011 popular revolution. "Egyptians believed that the Muslim Brothers were advocates of the real Islam. The past three years have been a critical test to those people who were promoting religious ideas. Egyptians experienced it totally and said these people do not deserve sympathy and we will not allow it."
The Egyptian president has also censured the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Sisi has been a key member of the US-led coalition against the insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and swiftly ordered airstrikes against IS targets in Libya after militants purportedly beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians there.
The fact that the IS insurgency reached Libya in the first place was an issue Sisi took up in the interview, saying that an unfinished Western mission in that country ultimately led to the failure of the state that is currently mired in a bloody civil war.
"NATO had a mission in Libya and its mission was not accomplished," he said, adding that the UN's arms embargo in Libya is hindering the ability of the recognized non-Islamist government in Tobruk to fight warring rebel and terror groups and the opposing coalition of largely Islamist factions.
Meanwhile, Sisi said, "armed militias obtain an unstoppable flow of arms and munitions," from states like Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan, which actively support regional Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields